By Edward Appleton

The rules of “expressing your opinion” are very different across the globe – individual opinion can be subservient to group consensus depending on where you are in the world, direct or evaluative comments avoided, hierarchies can play a very strong yet unspoken role, maintaining or saving face extremely important….. Against this backdrop, teasing out feelings and genuine reactions on an individual level can be tricky. And what does genuine actually mean in a given culture?

Using Role-Playing and Projective Techniques

One way to tackle this is by engaging in role playing and creating fantasy worlds– asking participants to enter an imaginary world with its own set of fictional rules, adopting a different persona and mask.

This frees up participants to say things they otherwise might not.

One innovation workshop we executed in Japan was all about skin whitening personal care products.

We created a fantasy world themed on the colour white – the session was called “Snow White into the Future”, tasks were framed as games, white was the visual thread throughout, the famous fairy story acted as a Leitmotif.

New ideas were written on a white washing line with white cards attached with white pegs, white hoola hoop rings were used in a mini-theatre-cum-dance session, participants were even asked to choreograph a dance based on a Snow White theme.

We framed the tasking of an idea generation session, for example, by telling everyone that Snow White (rather than they themselves) needed a perfect new whitener product – and asked them to imagine what that might be. The session worked fantastically, with an impressive stream of ideas being produced freely – likely due to the change of mental focus from the “me” to an “imaginary other”.

Taking the fantasy principle to the role of the moderator further heightens the sense of a fantasy world, leading to a dropping of masks and richer workshop outputs. For a workshop in Japan with participants from multiple markets across Asia (Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, China) our moderators adopted the persona and names “Vanilla” (Claudia) and “Cherry” (Natascha) whilst the client was introduced as “Pearl” (the client).

The guiding principle in all of this: respectfully mimicking local habits.

Story-Telling, the Literal/Lateral Axis and Semiotic Analysis

Story-telling – creating a compelling collective narrative – can be another powerful inter- cultural technique. 

Briefings in China, for example, can be inter-culturally attuned by being sensitive to, appealing (tacitly) to the local voice of ambition – suggesting the project’s goals are your partners’, not just yours.

Setting the stage of importance, clarifying why their role and help is critical to success and goal-achievement, sprinkling the session with praise…..thereby shifting ownership, making the issues and challenges theirs, not yours.

There’s a strong business case for such intercultural sensitivity – it leads to stronger partnerships, which as anyone involved in global research knows, are worth their weight in gold.

The “literal – lateral” axis is a key inter-cultural variable – knowing where a lateral approach will likely work, and where it might not.

If you’re doing a projective exercise in qual. work in Russia, for example, then having a plan that allows for roughly double the time for participants to share their associative thinking than you normally might is sensible. Many Russians love (excuse the stereotype) thinking laterally, and talking expansively. Timing plan? Analysis complexity? Check.

In China, history and culture weigh very differently on response dynamics – the brain muscles used for lateral and abstract thinking haven’t been exercised or even required historically.

So considering a range of projective techniques and softly testing them prior to go-live is useful – magazine rip-throughs? Good for cars, watches….but not for other categories. Your inter-cultural researcher’s notebook becomes a business tool…..Signs, symbols, semiotics is another area where sensitivities vary strongly across culture.

In some cultures, seemingly everything is imbued with symbolic meaning. In China for example: participants often react strongly to signs, colours – good to know if you’re doing packaging research, anticipating how pack cues might be interpreted, and checking likely relevant symbolic references prior to fieldwork.

Gamification – however you define it – also requires adjustment according to cultural factors.

In one dice exercise we executed in extended groups in both Sweden and China, we only used the numbers 1, 2 and 3 to allocate roles and tasks. Chinese participants became visibly annoyed – why weren’t the “winning” numbers 4, 5 and 6 present? In Sweden, nobody even noticed. Once the rules were explained, the game worked fine.

Summing up: massively complex as it is, inter-cultural understanding is critical in project effectiveness (and efficiency); taking a humble approach is a definite help, as is the role of local partnerships.

Edward Appleton, Happy Thinking People