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Behaviour change in a multicultural context

people in park

Cultural sensitivity and empathy is the key to influencing behaviour embedded in tradition. 

In a nutshell

  1. Social norms directly influence our behaviour and decision making – and in a multi-cultural society, social norms from a vast array of contexts are in play.
  2. Sometimes groups bring behaviours with them, shaped by a vastly different social context – that may need to be influenced or shifted.
  3. Understanding people's cultural context and starting from a place of respectful education and empathy is key.  

We are herding creatures by nature and constantly look for cues around which behaviours are acceptable, and which aren’t, what is desirable, and what we should avoid. These are social norms, and they directly influence our behaviour and decision making. 

All social norms are shaped by the cultural landscape we live in. This means that they can differ significantly across countries, cultures and backgrounds. 

Consider behaviours around appropriate dress codes, politeness, littering, and food rituals and how varied they can be when you experience different cultures but also how firmly embedded these social norms are. Understanding how social norms work is critical to influencing behaviours – particularly when you want to change them.

What is acceptable in one culture can be totally unacceptable and alien in others. For example, Kiwis’ tendency to wander into beachfront cafes and supermarkets barefoot is completely unacceptable in many other cultures. Tikanga Māori also informs our social norms, for example, not sitting on tables or pillows, avoiding touching peoples’ heads, and removing shoes when inside. And, in societies like New Zealand, where there are people from many cultures, social norms from a vast array of contexts are in play.  

People are influenced by the behaviours they see around them and make adjustments when social norms differ from those with which they are familiar– Kiwis may slip on jandals before entering a supermarket overseas (especially after being on the receiving end of disapproving looks from locals).  

However, sometimes a norm is deeply embedded in cultural traditions and if the behaviour that it leads to is not on public display, there may be neither the social pressure nor the inclination to change behaviour. Plus if a behaviour is an habitual practice, arising from culturally embedded norms, there is no reason why people would assume that there is anything wrong with It. Don't assume people are deliberately non compliant, more likely they are simply ignorant.

So how do you change behaviour when the people who you are trying to influence have a fundamentally different set of normative practices that shape their understanding of the world?

1. Understanding cultural context comes first

Without a deep understanding of the target audience’s context, worldview and their way of life, any behaviour change intervention will be wildly misinformed and ineffective (or even damaging). 

To understand what currently drives the behaviour and what social norms, cultural expectations, traditions and mindsets sit behind a behaviour, we have to see the world through our target audience’s eyes. To gain this understanding, we need to step out of our own worldview and immerse ourselves in a different perspective.

This is particularly important in a multi-cultural country like New Zealand, where people from many different cultural contexts come together.

2. Make the effort to know people

Knowing people, and coming from a place of empathy, is critical. To do this successfully, consider:

Tone: Communicate in a way that drives trust and engagement - adult to adult.

Personal connection: Create an emotional connection to the issue that overrides existing mindsets.

Be respectful: Surface the rational problem around current behaviour in an informative and straightforward way.

Channels: Use relevant channels to effectively reach your audience and make engagement easy. 

3. Don't jump straight into action initiatives

Behaviour change is not as simple as correcting the person just before or after they enact the behaviour. How well did that work on you as a child? 

Instead, for a complex cultural scenario, we need to rewind. Ensure people understand and are engaged with the issue first, then that they have a real motivation to take action, before looking at behaviour change interventions. 

At TRA, we first focus on driving awareness of the problem, then on facilitating understanding and engagement with it. The third step is around driving motivation to take action, before finally looking at action initiatives. 

Context is everything. New Zealand is a place of many peoples, and many contexts. Focus on better knowing people – and start the behaviour change work from a place of empathy and understanding.  

Want to learn more about social norms and behaviour change? 

Watch our Norm Storming Webinar:

Ellie Copeland
Ellie Copeland
Qualitative Research Consultant

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