What is it? What is it for?
To simulate the difficulty in understanding elements of culture, such as words, legal or
financial concepts, etiquette, negotiation techniques, etc., when they are taken out of
To encourage participants to question their assumptions when working with individuals
from other cultures
To encourage participants to consider the possibility that others see the world differently
than they do and that this will influence the communication process
Those who need to interact effectively in an unfamiliar culture or with members of another
culture; suitable for 1 to 25 participants
30 minutes
A few numbered objects that are difficult to identify, such as a wooden ravioli maker, a
netsuke, an antimony bottle, a chopstick rest, a sari, part of a crack pipe made from an
auto antenna, a Pakistani bodkin, etc.
Handout 1, “What is it? What is it for?” for each participant, or a flipchart with the same
1. Place the numbered objects on a table within reach of all.
2. Announce that you are going to play a game. Ask the participants to turn to Handout 1
entitled “What is it? What is it for?” and, pen in hand, come up and take a look at the
numbered objects on the table. If they know what the object is and what it’s for, they
should write this down on paper or a flipchart page. If they don’t know what the object is
or what it’s for, they should make up a name and a function, and write these down. Ask
them to work independently; reassure them that they will get to share their ideas later.
3. Invite the participants to investigate the items and make notes.
4. When all participants have returned to their seats, ask them to share their emotions associ-
ated with the experience. Some of the possible emotions mentioned might be
inadequate (because they didn’t know what the objects were).
Relate these emotions back to the experience of what it is like to try to figure out what
concepts are or mean in a new environment—if they don’t know what something is or
what it’s for, they are likely to guess, just as the participants did during the game. Tell the
participants you wanted to see how good they were at guessing.
Tell them you want to hear first from those who were baffled by an object; those who
knew what the object was can speak later.
One-by-one, go through the objects, eliminating the wild guesses first and then explaining
the real name and function of each object.
When you are finished explaining the objects, relate the simulation to intercultural experi-
ences: “When a person first encounters a new culture, he or she is being asked to answer a
question or make a decision about one little piece of a culture, just as you were asked to do
during the game. As you experienced, it can be very difficult to come to accurate conclusions
when one is operating out of context.”
On the basis of this experience, urge participants to provide as much contextual information
as possible when working with people new to the culture and to “describe” a situation fully
before they “ascribe” meaning to the situation. Also, urge participants to be aware that the
assumptions they hold regarding some of the questions in their intercultural encounters—
what “yes” means, what are good business practices, how we define family, etc.—can differ
from the beliefs held by the people of the culture. It is always useful to test those assumptions.
What is it? What is it for?
Instructions: Use the space below to write down what you think each object is and what it is
used for. Take your best guess and do not skip any.

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