The ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ – Active participants versus passive spectators in culture learning

Monthly Archives: May 2014

The ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ – Active participants versus passive spectators in culture learning

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Why do we do what we do?
Back in 2005 as a faculty member I traveled with a group of Wharton MBA students to China on a global immersion program aimed at giving students an opportunity to see ‘business in China’ first-hand. The program format consisted of several lectures that were given by prominent faculty about their particular functional areas of expertise. Once in-country we had the opportunity to visit both national and international companies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. It was an action packed four weeks to be able to engage with local and foreign leaders in business, government, and education in a variety of industries and contexts.

Later, I wrote about their experience from the pedagogical viewpoint of explicit versus implicit instruction regarding culture learning. This experience got me thinking about the nature of business education in that the focus – of course – is on business; however, only focusing on ‘doing business’ at the expense of ‘doing culture study’ was a disservice both to our students and to the profession as well. In essence, students learned the exciting ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the organizational structure within the semi-conductor industry in Taiwan; the challenge of currency devaluation and inflation in Hong Kong; the Chinese government’s relationship with the state-run media system in Beijing; and the decreasing rural population in favor of the urbanization of the cities in Shanghai.

Brilliant programming with top-notch experts sharing their valuable time and expertise.  An opportunity of a lifetime! But, at the end of the day, I was left wondering why our students took a seat in the audience as passive spectators, rather than have the opportunity to become active participants by going backstage to peek behind the curtain to see things happened the way they did in China. This experience revolutionized my teaching and aims for learning outcomes.

The theatrical metaphor of ‘front-stage/back-stage’ culture[i] is helpful in explaining this phenomenon. When we view a theatrical production, we are merely passive spectators observing the illusion of real events as portrayed by the actors on stage. While this can be enjoyable and entertaining, we miss out on all of the action going on behind the curtain. Perhaps we have read up on the playwright beforehand or know something of the play’s theme and meaning.This understanding will surely help with the overall enjoyment of what is happening. But this is not the full view. If we have any curiosity about theatrical workings, we might choose to go backstage after the curtain call and steal a glimpse of all of the props and mechanical devices that go unnoticed throughout the production. Or, we might have the opportunity to become stage hands ourselves and learn all of the inner workings of how the production is fabricated – in essence, we are able to understand not only whatis happening, but why it is happening because of our insider’s view and understanding of what is going on behind the scene. By going backstage we have become active participants who take control of learning. For example, front-stage culture learning would be equivalent to talking about the importance of relationships within Chinese business by mentioning the concept of guan-xi.would simply be explained as networking and in essence, the concept would be taken

at surface value – its denotative meaning. However, if you wanted someone to truly understand what guan-xi means it would be necessary to include a discussion about why this is important and get into its deeper connotative meaning. How is guan-xi experienced with the Chinese – what does it mean in terms of its web of obligation concerning its depth and duration and scope? Who starts it? How is it maintained? What are the historical underpinnings of why it is such a deep sociological factor within human relationships in China? Probing deeper into the rich traditions of the Chinese history, philosophy, and language would make the purpose of discussing guan-xi much more meaningful.

In good teaching and learning it is essential to introduce such concepts, but it doesn’t stop there since direct, explicit instruction (such as using cases, lectures, and class discussions) are necessary to ground all of us regarding the “why” behind the “what” of doing business in China – or anywhere. The theatrical metaphor of “front-stage/backstage” culture learning is a useful way of differentiating between the “why” behind the “what”. Front-stage culture (the “what”) includes the familiar things we readily recognize, such as food, customs, and holidays. Backstage culture (the “why”) is what needs to be learned in order to understand the “what.”

We’ve talked about the concept of mindfulness in a previous blog posting (see Components of cultural intelligence, Sept. 1, 2013). If one truly wants to move from mere awareness to a better understanding of culture, then it is not enough just to understand that people from one culture do “this or that.” Rather, whether we are students or professionals in any industry, if we can understand the cultural, historical, political, and philosophical foundation for why people do what they do, then we have a better way of making sense of what “goes on behind the scenes”…and this informs us of what actually happens “on stage.”
The next time you are tempted to take things at surface value when faced with an intercultural challenge, take a moment to visualize going backstage in order to observe and analyze why things might be the way that they appear. Then find someone who is from that culture (or who has at least lived there) with whom you can discuss your thoughts – it’s a great strategy for developing cultural competence.


Iris Varner (2001). Teaching intercultural management communication: Where are we? Where do we go? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 99-111.

Tuleja, E. A. (2008). Aspects of Intercultural awareness through an MBA study abroad program: Going “backstage”. Business Communication Quarterly, 71, 3, 314-337.