Interpreting Classroom Behavior: The DAE Model

12 Mar

As you look at this picture, what do you see? 

Take a minute to jot down your first responses.

Reviewing what you have written, what do you observe about your notes?

Do your answers reflect what you actually SEE when you view this picture or what you FEEL about the people in the picture?  Perhaps you wrote words which DESCRIBE the scene, such as “female student is sitting with her legs up on a table,” or maybe the words which describe FEELINGS or INTERPRETATION of the event conveyed in the picture, such as these:  “a female student is rude or misbehaving because she’s not paying attention to the lesson,” or “this is a group of childish students playing pranks on each other during a lesson.”

If you skipped description to move directly to interpretation, or if you think you were “describing” but were actually “evaluating” the situation,  you are not alone.  Often we bypass the “who, what, when & where” and jump immediately to an interpretation or analysis of the whys of the event based on our own attitudes, beliefs, and values.  Gary Weaver describes this as the “Iceberg Analogy of Culture.”  The explicit behaviors, or what we observe, are often the manifestation of what lies beneath—those underlying implicit phenomena that form the major bulk of the larger “iceberg” that lies below the water.

Do you remember the movie The Titanic?  The Titanic sunk because the crew didn’t realize how large the iceberg really was below the water.  In cross-cultural encounters, a similar situation may occur; we risk an iceberg “cultural collision”  if we don’t take the time to examine the whole .  In other words, we risk misinterpreting  others’ intentions if we neglect to go below the surface to identify the underlying attitudes, beliefs, and values.

DAE Model¹

D = describe the event.

A = analyze the event/object/photo several ways.

E = evaluate your results.

Let’s look at an example that may be easier for us to understand, whatever our geographical orientation.  A Korean graduate student had recently come to the US to study at an US University. While here, her parents came to visit her. As she was driving them around during a snowstorm, she accidently drove the wrong way down a one-way street because she couldn’t see the sign.  Soon a police car pulled up behind her with its lights flashing.  She pulled over, and as is the custom in Korea, she politely stepped out of the car to show her respect to the policeman.

You can probably imagine what the US policeman did.  As expected, he immediately pulled out his gun, thinking she was going to do something to him.  Let’s stop the camera a second to reflect on this scenario.  What was going on in both parties’ minds?  Why did the young Korean woman step out of the car? What was her intention and underlying attitudes, beliefs, and values?  Why did the US policeman pull out his gun when he saw her leave her car? What assumptions, beliefs, and values was he operating from?

The DAE model is an effective tool to help us foster self-awareness of our personal and cultural assumptions and promote the importance of frame-shifting when encountering the unfamiliar.

Major pitfalls in trying to understand cross-cultural events

There are often three:

1) jumping to steps 2 or 3 (analysis or evaluation) without first doing the step 1 (description);

2) incorrectly applying step 2 by giving a wrong interpretation or analysis; and

3) providing the wrong evaluation in terms of what the person intended from their own cultural perspective.

In the case of the Korean graduate student and the policeman, each was analyzing and evaluating the scenario based on her or his own cultural background, including value system, beliefs, and attitudes.  The US policeman interpreted the Korean student’s actions as aggressive while the Korean student was just trying to politely show the respect one shows a policeman in Korea.

Describe the event.  The following questions are useful for this step:

  • What happened?
  • What was said?
  • What did you see?

In other words, a careful description of what was observed becomes the focus.  For example, the policeman might say, “She is stepping slowly out of her car.”  He may notice that she’s female and Asian.  The Korean student might say, “The policeman is getting out of his car and showing me his gun.”   He is saying, “Get back in the car now.” And there could be general agreement among observers about the description set out with these factors.

Analyze the event, which involves asking the following questions:

  • Why is it happening?
  • What alternative explanations might be possible?
  • This might mean that……

In other words, the Korean student might think, “I didn’t see any sign that I’m not supposed to drive here, so why is he pulling me over?” She might also think, “Even though he pulled me over when I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m trying to show respect by stepping out of my car.”  Her parents in the back seat might think, “My daughter is trying to show her respect. Why is the policeman yelling at her?”

The policeman’s perspective might be, “Even though snow is covering the sign, she should know it’s a one way street.  Not only did she violate the traffic sign, but she’s further violating the law by stepping out of the safety of her car.”  For this step, it is important to provide several analyses from various different perspectives rather than providing only one analysis which represents only one perspective.

Evaluate, as the final step, requires paying attention to your initial reaction.

  • What positive or negative feelings do I have about this?  (my gut reaction)
  • How do I feel about this object, person, or event?

Going back to our one-way street example, the policeman may evaluate, “She’s crazy! She went the wrong way, and how dare she get out of the car!  What a dangerous lady!”  From her point of view, “He hates me.  I didn’t do anything wrong, but I showed the most respect I possibly could and he’s trying to kill me.  Guns aren’t even allowed in my country.  I have never even seen a gun in my life.”  Nobody has to agree at this stage because each person may have a completely different evaluation.

Now, if we reflect anew on the various perspectives of ANALYSIS, we end up with a different EVALUATION of the same incident.

The DAE model can be used effectively in cross-cultural interactions to help members of each group try to reach a better understanding of the possible intent of the other group based on going “below the surface” of the cultural iceberg metaphor.  As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as THEY are; we see things as WE are.”

Rather than allowing our perception of people and situations to substitute for reality, the DAE approach can help us try to see our students and their classroom behavior from THEIR perspective. For instance, if we observe our students behaving in the way portrayed in the picture at the beginning of the article, we may still not agree to allow this type of behavior in our classroom, but at least we can try to understand what might be underlying the behavior.  Taking the time to follow the DAE exercise before responding can also help to diffuse strong emotional feelings that may end up backfiring if we choose to respond immediately.

The DAE model was designed for cross-cultural encounters, but when reflecting upon the differences that we face in the classroom—from different genders, ethnicities, generations, socio-economic backgrounds, and so on, this model could serve to help us analyze interactions with our US born students as well.  Thus, the DAE model can be used with all students—not only those from a different cultural background.

by Kyoung-Ah Nam, Assistant Professor, American University, and Colleen M. Meyers, Education Specialist, University of Minnesota.  See also the graphic depiction of the DAE Model.


Nam, K. A. & Condon, J. (2010) The D.I.E. is Cast: The Continuing Evolution of Intercultural     Communication’s Favorite Classroom Exercise. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 34 (1), 81-87.

Weaver, G. (2000). Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations. Boston, MA: Pearson Publishing.

Southern Hemisphere Iceberg by Liam Q, CreativeCommon Share&ShareAlike.


  1. This DAE model is an alternative to what may be the most widely used intercultural exercise, the DIE. Originally developed in the 1970s and derived from General Semantics, “DIE” asks people to observe an unusual object or a photograph of an unfamiliar scene, and then first “describe” what they see, then “interpret” possible meanings, and finally to “evaluate” by giving their value judgments.  While the DIE exercise has been a favorite in intercultural communication, the ambiguity between interpretation and evaluation and a very unfortunate acronym ‘die,’ as its name suggests, have been problematic. In 2010, a new acronym DAE was proposed by Nam and Condon (2010), termed the “DAE” Model.The Korean word “DAE (in phonetics [dæ])” has a more felicitous connotation, and by using a non-English word, deeper intercultural perspectives are taken into account.

    The Korean word “DAE (in phonetics [dæ])” carries several meanings that reflect the values of this exercise: “counter to our instincts,” “serious,” and “a foundation.” (Si-Sa Elite Korean-English Dictionary, 1996, p. 394)
    대 [dae] (對 in Chinese): “the opposite; anti; against”
    대 [dae] (大 in Chinese): “great,” “prominent,” “serious”
    대 [dae] (臺 in Chinese): “support; a foundation”

    One meaning of 대 (DAE) is “the opposite; anti; against.” That meaning of “dae,” to go against our habits or instinct, is at the core of DAE exercise. When facing something unfamiliar or that is different from our own cultural and social values, we unconsciously tend to immediately judge and evaluate rather than reflecting on what we see or what actually happened.

    In addition, 대 (DAE) carries meanings of “great,” “important,” and “serious.  The process of first describe and analyze before evaluate is important in order both to understand one’s own cultural biases and to better appreciate different aspects and values of other cultures. It is a mindful perspective when encountering unfamiliar.

    대 (DAE) also means “foundation” in Korean. The ability to be able to describe and objectively analyze before making any judgment or evaluation is part of the foundation in the field of intercultural communication, and underlies many of the capabilities of those who work professionally across cultures.


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