The Cultural Sense-Making Model

Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Cultural Sense-Making Model

cultural sensemaking model

Have you ever been in an ambiguous business situation where you wished you had done something differently?  You were not quite able to ‘read’ what was going on – perhaps because of cultural differences.  You leave the meeting, reception, or dinner thinking, “If only I had realized ….” Or, “Why didn’t I say such and such?”  “Or, why did I do that?!”   You fill in the blank.  Often we wish that we could take back what we said, or perhaps we should have reacted one way instead of another.  Maybe we had a missed opportunity to express our interest or appreciation through our behaviors and actions – whether verbal or nonverbal.

The concept of Cultural-Sense-Making Model, developed by Joyce Osland & Alan Bird (1), can help us to figure out what is going on in uncertain, ambiguous, or simply confusing situations.

Cultural sense-making involves reframing and changing one’s ‘script’, which includes our behaviors or reactions. It is about changing perspective and opening up to new opportunities and ways of looking at the world.  There are three steps to this process: framing, making attributions and selecting a script.

  • The first step, framing, involves the expectations we have about a situation. Before, during or after a situation, we think about what we know – we observe and scan for cues that might confirm our hunches. Based upon that, we create a frame for the situation.
  • In the second step, making attributions, we analyze those cues and try to match them to schema, or mental patterns that we create. These schemas are cognitive frameworks that help us to interpret unfamiliar information and experiences – and cognitive psychologists will assure us that it is a natural way of learning about the world (2) by making attributions that are affected by our background and experiences, our beliefs and our attitudes.
  • The third step is selecting a script, which we make based upon the frame we create and the mental patterns (schema) that we have created – this script becomes our road map to navigate the unfamiliar situation. Our script is often influenced by our previous experiences and we then draw similarities or differences between what we know and what we don’t know.

For example, let’s say you are going to a Chinese banquet where you know that there are certain foods that you do not care to eat. In framing the situation, you set the stage, so you might think about how you have handled situations like this before – you don’t want to insult your host, but you also don’t want to eat something that is distasteful to you.  You imagine the scene in your mind – your host offers you a delicious morsel, you refuse; the host offers it again, you refuse.  When you make attributions you analyze the cues of your host – he will probably smile and continue to offer you the food – at the same time, you will be trying to maintain a pleasant look on your face as well as tone while you continue to decline the food. You know that this particular culinary delight does not sit well with you, so you naturally think about how it has affected you in the past.  But you also know how important formality and graciousness is within the Chinese culture – you certainly do not want to offend your host.  Finally, you will select a script, which might be a strategy of saying how delicious such a delicacy is and how you are honored by your host’s selection of such a treat; but you also politely state that you are watching your cholesterol, so for health reasons you must unfortunately decline.

This is the process of cultural sense-making.  Sense-making is a way of ‘enculturating’ a situation – where you are mindful of the situation, the ramifications if you misstep, and how you take other people’s feelings into consideration.  You plan ahead to frame the situation by setting up your expectations, you then analyze the situation based upon any previous experiences or hunches regarding what you should do, and then you create a script for how you want to proceed – you script it out in your mind.

The savvy global business leader will be attuned to her or his perceptions, reactions, and attitudes towards ambiguous or uncertain situations that arise.  By framing the situation, making attributions based upon similar experiences, and then choosing the appropriate script, or action, we are all able to become more culturally competent.


  1. Bird, Alan. & Osland, Joyce S., (Winter 2005-6), “Making Sense of Intercultural Collaboration”, International Studies of Management and Organization35 (4), 115-132.
  2. Piaget, Jean, (2001), in Robert L. Campbell, (ed.): Studies in Reflection Abstraction (Sussex: Psychology Press).