The University Record, March 18, 1998

Understanding other cultures: You need to know the rules to play the game

Editor's Note: Record Editor Rebecca A. Doyle participated in Barnga, a cross-cultural simulation, at the Women of Color Task Force Career Conference.

By Rebecca A. Doyle

I didn't have a clue.

Even after people began to laugh, after they moved from table to table and began using hand signals, I had no idea what was going on.

We began our session with groups of three or four or five, a handful of playing cards and a set of printed rules for each group. Only the ace through seven cards are used, and occasionally not all players have an equal number of cards.

When session leaders Charlene Schmult or Kay Clifford blew the whistle, we counted up the tricks we had taken and moved up one numbered table (if we'd taken the most) or down one numbered table (if we had taken the fewest). There were a few overall rules for everyone--no talking, no writing of words, and no sign language. Signals were okay, and we could write symbols, use facial expressions or use body language.

I had moved twice--once down and once up, putting me right back where I started--when the leaders signaled the end of the game and we gathered up the cards.

At some point, they even told us there was a trick to it. Figure out what's going on, they said.

I was still trying to figure out what was trump.

While I learned that I am not a quick study, we were all learning something more, Schmult and Clifford told us. We were learning what it was like to move from one culture to another, where the rules are different.

The rules are different! Finally catching on, when it was too late to do anything about it, I at last understood that each table had a different set of rules--different trump suits, ace high in one group, ace low in the next.

Clifford explained that usually groups that try this exercise in culture shock feel frustrated and suspicious, and sometimes become violently angry. At the debriefing that follows card play, everyone takes turns explaining what they felt and what they tried to do. Those who began to catch on early sometimes try to help others understand the new rules. Sometimes they just take all the tricks and move on.

In discussion, participants learn something about themselves and how they would react in a different culture, as well as gain understanding about what it is like to be plunged into a new situation where a few, many or all of the rules are different than those they have lived by. Now used extensively as an exercise in cross-cultural education, Barnga originated, Clifford said, in an African town during a four-day rain when people could not leave their homes.