About Dr. Randal Tonks and Dr. Gira Bhatt

About Dr. Randal Tonks and Dr. Gira Bhatt

International and Cross-Cultural Psychology

When I was eight years old, I moved with my family to Winnipeg. It was a bit of a shock the first time schools were closed because of the cold – I was pretty used to snow days in Ottawa and the thought of having one without any snow was a little odd. But my friends seemed to think this was quite normal and I did agree that being outside at that time was unpleasant enough that I too would prefer not to be in school. But the day in the spring when school was closed – because of mosquitoes – was a lot more stunning. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that my friends were treating this like it was normal. “Oh yeah, let’s hang out in the basement and pretend to play Corey Hart songs in our air band. It's a mosquito day!”

Even a move from a city like Ottawa to a very similar city like Winnipeg can, for some of us, produce a small amount of culture shock. Imagine how different Winnipeg must feel to Rohit Gupta, an elite cricket player from India who moved there to study psychology at the University of Manitoba. Cultural differences, and the psychology that comes along with them, can be vast or minute – and they are all around us.

Dr. Randal Tonks is a psychologist and an instructor at Camosun College in Victoria, BC where he does a lot of research into identity and adjustment. He is the Chair of the International and Cross-Cultural Section of the CPA and says that while there is a lot of overlap, International and Cross-Cultural are really two different areas.

“International psychology is really an umbrella term that describes the fact that a lot of psychologists work internationally on global issues. Cross-cultural psychology examines the similarities and differences of peoples’ psychological abilities and traits and so on as can be seen across different cultures.”

It was an inter-Canadian cultural difference that started Dr. Tonks down the path of cross-cultural psychology, as he too moved across the country to experience a different part of our large nation.

“I grew up in Vancouver and went to UBC as an undergrad, but I always had a passion to go to Montreal, so I moved there after I graduated from UBC. Living in that Quebec culture in the mid-1980s, things were arguably a bit more polarized even than they are today. I suddenly became aware of the role of culture and the issues I was going through. I could pass as a local as long as I didn’t open my mouth. But as soon as I spoke, I was immediately identified as someone from ‘somewhere else’. I came to see all these prejudices and biases and expectations about who I was. From those experiences, when I then decided to apply for graduate school, I came to be very interested in the processes around acculturation when people move from one place to another, and our sense of identity in the way we think of ourselves in cultural terms.”

I once spent a few days in Dalhousie, New Brunswick, where I ended up being part of a softball game against the local city council. There were no bases, but rather beer kegs that appeared to be permanent fixtures of the softball diamond. It seemed to be well-known to everyone there that if you hit a home run, the opposing team had the chance to jump over the fence, chase down the ball, and return it to the infield. If they did so before you were able to drink a beer at every base and then cross home plate, you were out. There was a self-contained limiting factor to the drinking, which was that once you had rounded the beers once there was a marked increase in the chance you would strike out the following time up. I asked what they called this sport, and they looked at me as though that was a very strange question and said ‘baseball’ with a shrug.

Dr. Gira Bhatt teaches psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC. She has spent almost 2 decades involved with the International and Cross-Cultural Section of the CPA. Her research involves culture, identity, acculturation, and prejudice – she is currently doing applied community research with ethic minorities in Canada, exploring the dynamics that pan out around them. She says one of the things cultural and cross-cultural psychologists must keep top of mind is translation. It's one of the reasons that researchers who come from the community where the research is taking place is so important.

“I was involved in one research study where we were comparing individuals from China, India, and Canadians with European backgrounds. One test item was ‘what’s your profession’? A ton of the participants in India wrote ‘service’. My colleague in China said ‘wow, isn’t that humble, that they all say they’re doing service!’ and I said ‘no no no – it doesn’t mean that. It’s just that when you have a paid profession in some companies, they call it service. It’s a distinction between running a business and doing a paid job, and it’s just the expression they use.’ If the local researchers are not involved, it can lead to those kinds of miscommunications, poor translations, and misinterpretations.”

In the past two years, there has been a renewed media focus on cultural differences, especially in terms of the pandemic. What countries are handling it best? What communities are most likely to adhere to public health guidelines? Of course, it isn’t that simple as every country and every community is made up of individuals with their own ideas and their own value systems. Dr. Bhatt says these ideas have led to a huge amount of new cross-cultural research.

“Michele Gelfand has received a lot of media attention for her work on tight culture and loose culture, especially in the context of COVID. People in China seemed very compliant, they shut themselves inside their homes and didn’t leave for three weeks, whereas here we have an anti-vaxx movement, and all these protests happening. This difference has been studied very deeply now, as to how culture shapes us in terms of compliance where social norms are more important in terms of how people adhere to public health measures. Whereas here, we have the mindset of Western individuals that ‘I do exactly what I want to do’. That’s been very relevant for us to understand.”

In something that would be unthinkable in, say, South Korea, the last few weeks have seen protests all over Canada demanding ‘freedom’ from public health measures. Along with those protests has come an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism. These are things that have been on the rise since COVID first became a global pandemic, with anti-Asian hate crimes and other racist incidents happening across the country. Dr. Bhatt and Dr. Tonks were involved with several others in preparing the fact sheet on racism for the CPA, describing the underlying psychological dynamics of prejudice, hate, and discrimination. Dr. Tonks says this is a big topic in cross-cultural psychology.

“I don’t actively research prejudice, although of course in my teaching that’s one of the really big topics I bring up. When teaching cultural or cross-cultural psychology, I bring up issues around prejudice and things like colonialist perspectives in psychology. In some of my courses now I’m working on decolonizing the curriculum to bring in more Indigenous perspectives that show respect to other ways of thinking and forms of knowing. This kind of thing can contribute to change in the greater academy and the large body of psychologists carry out research across different cultures.”

A lot has been made in recent years of the breadth of psychological science, and how the vast bulk of scholarship over the history of the profession has been from a Western lens. Some of the people trying to redress this deficit, and correct for it, are cross-cultural psychologists like Dr. Bhatt.

“For a very long time, psychology was very Euro-centric. Now we understand that different cultural practices pertaining to mental health contain so many variations. So if you want culturally competent counselling, which is now kind of a buzzword, how do you prepare those therapists to be culturally competent? We can’t have a list that says ‘if someone is from X background, this is what they will be like’, because they’re living here! Their adaptation to Canada changes from one individual to the next, and we can’t have one-size-fits-all. The work on this is ongoing in the counselling and clinical fields, and a ton of work has been done – but the potential for growth is enormous.

Sometimes there are accusations that Western psychologists are ‘creating’ a syndrome. You heard this for a long time with attention disorders, and now we know there is some biological basis for these. But you come up with these terms and people from other cultures never heard of it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that it may be labeled differently. And there are syndromes that exist in other parts of the world that Western psychologists don’t know about.”

This might be the crux of cultural psychology. When culture is a variable, it affects the diagnosis, the treatment, and even the onset of psychological syndromes. There are few diseases that affect only one group of people but not others, but this does happen in psychology. Depression has been shown to manifest differently across different cultures. People from more Western, North American, or European cultures complain more about the psychological components of depression – feeling down, low energy, that kind of thing. But depression has often been identified among many of the Asian and some of the Middle Eastern cultures as more of a somatisation [a maladaptive functioning of an organ system, without underlying tissue or organ damage]. It manifests more in terms of bodily complaints, and people don’t so much report their feelings but rather these conditions affecting their bodies. Dr. Tonks provides a few more examples.

“There’s something called TKS, or Taijin Kyofusho Scale, which is a Japanese condition that has to do with a type of anxiety, with maybe a little bit of depression mixed in. It’s a fear that one is offending others with one’s presence. They may develop delusions that, for example, they have a foul body odour and that this is offensive to other people around them. This is a condition that has been well recognized within the Japanese psychological circle, and maybe starting to be recognized a bit in a few other places. This is one of those conditions that doesn’t really show up in other cultures but very clearly exists in Japan.

On the flip side, something like anorexia nervosa might be a Western kind of disease that isn’t really seen across other cultures, and it might be in part due to the socialization and cultural factors that people in North America and Europe tend to live with. In recent years, we’re beginning to see a bit of a rise in this syndrome in some other places where they have become more Westernized, and exposed to more Western media and Western culture.”

I was visiting a farmer’s market in Bangkok many years ago when an elephant sidled up next to me and took a melon. The stall keeper looked up, unperturbed, and the elephant walked away with her melon, equally unperturbed. I figured this was probably quite normal in Thailand, and farmers are likely quite willing to give up some of their produce to the local fauna – it almost certainly beats the alternative of trying to fight them for it. What seemed a little less Thai was the graffiti. The elephant was spray-painted with tags. This seemed like a very American thing to me, something that started in New York subways in the 70s, but it had obviously made its way to Thailand. I’m not sure of the effectiveness, as I understand graffiti tags being a way to mark one’s territory – and an elephant is rather mobile. But there were few elephants wandering the downtown squares unvandalized. Dr. Bhatt says that as Western culture spreads around the world, so too do the good things – and the problems – that come with it.

“The world is coming closer and closer through technology, and because of the pandemic we’re doing Zoom all the time. We’re finding that the various parts of the world which were so far away are now really close. Teenagers in other parts of the world know exactly what American teenagers are doing, and they’re very aware of where trends are going. So a lot of issues are not limited to just one culture, they’re spreading all across the globe and everyone is impacted. We know that body image is changing across time and across cultures. What’s considered attractive keeps changing, and it’s really fascinating.

I’ve learned that women in Middle Eastern countries are now wearing all kinds of expensive Western makeup under their niqabs. There have also been some sad cases where someone in Europe lures a teenager in Canada to take their own life. These are alarming times for us now. Technology has given us lots of good things, but it’s also something to worry about, as the insularity of culture does not exist the way it once did.”

Although its roots and origins can be traced back much further, cross-cultural psychology really got going in Canada in the 60s, when pioneers like Dr. John Berry (one of the founders of the International and Cross-Cultural Section of the CPA) started publishing their research. The push toward multiculturalism in the 60s and 70s led the field to grow and develop. We started to see a lot of studies on identity, and language – in particular French and English as a lot of the issues came from the politics of Canada. Dr. Bhatt and Dr. Tonks, along with Dr. John Berry, wrote a paper tracing this history, but stopped when they got to about 2000. Dr. Tonks says,

“All of a sudden, around that time, it seemed like everyone was talking about culture in one way or another. People who were not traditionally doing cross-cultural research now wanted to look at culture as a variable in their studies. Maybe the biggest change in this discipline is not the growth in the number of cross-cultural psychologists themselves, but that psychologists and other researchers outside the field are looking at facets of the way in which culture comes to play a role in, say, education or childcare or criminal justice.”

Some of those researchers outside the field of cross-cultural psychology are evolutionary psychologists, who are now looking at the role culture plays in human evolution. Others are neuroscientists, who are looking at differences in cognition between one culture and another. There have been countless examples making the news recently – when people were shown an optical illusion with two lines of identical length, African people knew right away that they were the same length, where North American people thought one was longer than the other. Another study showing people an aquarium screen saver showed that Americans saw three big colourful fish first, while Japanese people saw the water and the rocks first. Dr. Tonks says there are even a few brain studies that are starting to yield some results.

“Steve Heine from UBC in his book Cultural Psychology identified that if you do fMRI scans of Americans versus Chinese individuals and you get them to think about themselves, and then to think about their mothers, the Americans have two separate areas of their brain that are lit up – one for themselves and one for their mothers. Whereas for the Chinese participants they have the same areas of the brain lit up. It suggests that neurologically, they’re coding information about their sense of self as being connected to family in a single site, as opposed to North Americans encoding themselves separately within our brains. So some of these properties that we talk about – individualism and collectivism, for example, can arguably be seen in some neuropsychological evidence.”

We may have different brains as a result of our cultures, different syndromes and different experiences and a wide variety of mental health outcomes. But we do have a common goal – that of a collective humanity striving continuously to be better. Dr. Tonks says that cross-cultural psychology promotes “awareness of ourselves, and what our cultural biases are. Learning how other people operate culturally leads to greater sensitivity when interacting and communicating across different cultural lines. The goal a lot of cross-cultural psychologists strive toward is working in a cooperative way to build a better society.”

Preferably, a society with very few mosquitos.