5 Foundational Practice 2: Approach Difference Without Judgement

Once we are grounded in our own cultural identities, realizing that what we may view as “normal” may in fact be rooted deeply in our communities and the formative practices that have shaped us, we have a more solid base from which to explore difference without judgement. Martin and Pirbhai-Illich (2016) write that cultural self-knowledge also develops in the context of relational exploration of difference, in ways that consider the socio-cultural environments and contextual factors that form these differences.

One of the challenges to exploring difference without judgement is the nearly automatic tendency to interpret events and interactions through our own lenses, searching for explanations before exploring alternative possibilities. A practical tool for interrupting this pattern, is the Describe-Analyze-Explain framework (developed by Bennett, Bennett & Stillings (1977), as cited in Berardo & Deardorff, 2012).

The Describe-Analyze-Explain (DAE) framework is a three step process for interpreting an event or interaction. In the describe step, the task is to develop a clear, objective description of what is happening. The description cannot have any interpretive content, and the aim is to create a description that all can agree upon. The analyze step involves generating multiple possible explanations for what is taking place. Analysis in this model involves creating multiple answers to the question of why the event is taking place. Finally, the explain step of the process involves exploring personal thoughts and feelings arising from the analysis, and identifying how both self and others might respond to the situation. In this stage, multiple unique explanations are possible.

Consider how this might be applied to the image below:

Students using cell phones in a classroom.
Image Credit: Peter Griffin (Public Domain)

By jumping immediately to evaluation, the observer might conclude that the students are texting in class. They might also conclude that the students are behaving disrespectfully, and that they are not interested in learning the course content.

What other possibilities might emerge through applying the DAE framework?

Description: Two students are looking at their cellphones. They are currently not participating verbally in the classroom discussion. One student appears to be entering text into an app.

Analysis: What are the possible explanations? (1) The students are texting; (2) The students are using a dictionary to find the meaning of an unknown word; (3) The students are using their cell phones to take notes on an important concept; (4) The students are using the internet to find information related to the class topic.

Evaluation: Our evaluation of the situation — and the actions we might take as a result — are greatly influenced by our perceptions of what is going on. For example, perhaps we discover that the students are not texting, but are in fact using a dictionary on their phones to clarify their understanding of a key term.  With this information, we might decide to allow the students to continue this practice. We might also find ways of modifying the class to make content clearer, perhaps by providing more information visually on PowerPoint slides, or by providing a glossary of key terms.

The DAE framework provides a tool for suspending judgement, and therefore exploring difference more flexibly. It can be especially useful when we experience initial negative or confused reactions to others’ behaviour in a cross-cultural situation, as it provides a method for considering other explanations and re-framing the situation.

The DAE Framework and Value Dimensions

In chapter three, we explored value dimensions including individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, use of time, and communication styles. While these dimensions are problematic when used to label individuals or cultural groups, they can be helpful in the task of generating nonjudgemental analysis of ambiguous situations. When seeking to develop explanations for a behaviour or practice we observe, considering how an individual with a different value framework from our own might interpret the situation can provide new possibilities for exploration.

The DAE Framework and Cultural Humility

Two key components of cultural humility are reflection and awareness of power imbalances (Fisher-Borne et al., 2015). The DAE framework provides a starting point for reflecting on the judgements that tend to arise in intercultural interactions, to consider their source, to address the feelings and emotions that arise, and from that place, to consider alternative possibilities. Interrupting initial judgements can also support our efforts to recognize the power imbalances that can be inherent in relationships with students. Often, responses to our students are based on unconscious evaluations of what their actions might mean, rooted in our own cultural assumptions; the power dynamic in our relationship can then lead to a response that causes harm. The DAE framework is one tool that can assist in mitigating the potential impact of the relational power imbalance by creating space to consider alternative possibilities and alternative responses.

A limitation of the DAE framework is its focus on our own internal interpretations and perceptions. While shifting and interrupting thinking patterns is key, the intercultural encounter is a relational encounter, not only an individual experience (Spitzberg and Changnon, 2009). An important extension of the model is to develop a greater awareness of the values, interpretations, and explanations that our students, as partners in the intercultural dialogue, would also bring to the conversation. From a cultural humility framework, this can involve willingness to put aside the role of expert to approach students as partners in learning, asking questions and exploring perspectives in order to increase understanding (Tervalon & Murray-García, 1998)



Bennett, J. M., Bennett, M. J., & Stillings, K. (1977). Description, interpretation, and evaluation: Facilitators’ guidelines.

Berardo, K., & Deardorff, D. K. (Eds.). (2012). Building cultural competence: innovative activities and models. Stylus.

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J. M., & Martin, S. L. (2015). From mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural competence. Social Work Education, 34(2), 165–181. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2014.977244

Martin, F., & Pirbhai-Illich, F. (2016). Towards decolonising teacher education: Criticality, relationality and intercultural understanding. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 37(4), 355–372. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2016.1190697

Spitzberg, B. H., & Changnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing intercultural competence. In D. K. Deardorff (Ed.), The Sage handbook of intercultural competence (pp. 2–52). Sage Publications.

Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117–125. https://doi.org/10.1353/hpu.2010.0233


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