Navigating across a cultural divide
May 31, 2010 12:15 AM   Subscribe

RelationshipFilter: Hints requested on communicating across nuances of different cultures without constantly worrying about hurt feelings, treading on eggshells and overwhelming fears and doubts.

The challenge of communicating across cultural, linguistic, ethnic, social and religious differences means that often in the early days of a relationship there will be miscues and errors and misreadings. Throw in Guess culture to the mix and you have a powder keg waiting to explode. How does one ensure that during the learning phase, while both parties are in transition to better understanding of the other, that these cross cultural communication and signalling challenges do not inadvertently implode the relationship? How can one say or communicate that "hey, shit is gonna happen but its okay" or "this mis-step is a biggie and needs working out"?
posted by The Lady is a designer to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
"hey, shit is gonna happen but its okay" or "this mis-step is a biggie and needs working out"?

Can you say those things?
posted by alight at 12:40 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

start with "If something I say can be interpreted in two different ways, and one of those interpretations makes you angry and/or sad... I meant it the *other* way!"
posted by alchemist at 12:48 AM on May 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

May I ask what Guess culture is, or what the specific backgrounds of the people in the relationship are?

And FWIW, I think these sort of potential misunderstandings are--or should be--expected in 'mixed' relationships. I think that having extra patience with everything and not splitting hairs are key. They need to be handled a little more delicately than other monocultural/lingual relationships.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:51 AM on May 31, 2010

Key point: acknowledge together that such differences in fact exist and that they are negotiable.

To expand on the first half of my sentence, if one would find it virtuous to solve "partnership problems" on a mere personal level, there would be a higher risk of simply using one's prejudices and projections. To truly acknowledge that there could be misunderstandings of a cultural kind makes negotiations actually often easier.

Second half, I mean, it could be that the difference in culture makes that this very thing - being able to talk openly - is impaired. That would be difficult.
posted by Namlit at 1:14 AM on May 31, 2010

May I ask what Guess culture is ... ?

Ask Culture versus Guess Culture from tangerine.
posted by marsha56 at 1:15 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maintain humor. Repeat. Mantra-like.

In the first few months of our relationship I (Australian) called my now-husband (French) perverse. We had an enormous fight. He was insulted, horrified, couldn't believe I could call him such a thing. While I thought I was telling him he was saying yellow was green (or something like that) he thought I was calling him depraved. The argument ended with a dictionary.

We have learnt to take time to explain things, to qualify meanings (perverse in the English sense) and to -- maintain humor.
posted by bwonder2 at 1:18 AM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

at all times think the best of your partner. this will avoid most unpleasantness that results from misunderstandings. if you are determined to view them in their best light, it's harder to take offense.

later when trying to work out a disagreement mentally and emotionally, internally try to win their side, which is to say, try to make yourself wrong. we did this in debate club a lot - you'd prepare for a debate, have all your cards and figures and such and right before the debate, the teacher would tell you to switch, and suddenly you had to find the holes in your own arguments. it helps you understand people and situations better, i think.
posted by nadawi at 2:03 AM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's kind of difficult to answer this question with any degree of helpfulness without more specific information.

This is true precisely because all of those identity differences are so subtly nuanced and vary depending on the specific backgrounds of the individuals in question. For example, cross cultural communication between Muslim and Jew is different than between Muslim and Buddhist, between Pakistani and Arab different than Pakistani and British, between Urdu speaker and English speaker different than between Urdu speaker and Russian speaker.

As a "third culture" person, for lack of a better descriptor, this process is one I go through every day, with most of the people I know/meet. And what is appropriate varies tremendously depending upon the specific person's background. Generic strategies are often extremely unhelpful, because they have different connotations/implications for different people.

Throw Guess culture into the mix, and you really do need a more specific understanding of the culture/ethnicity/language/religion.
posted by bardophile at 3:00 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bardophile, I'm a third culture person too, with an overlay of Guess culture, that is trying to navigate my way through yet another new culture, one that is not only as different as night to day from my 'home' culture but when you add my own lack of "home culture" (only passport country) to the mix, there's only quicksand and lots of buckets of hugs to fall back on. (my passport country for eg is India, the closest I have to a 'home' region is the multiplicity of Malaysia/Singapore and I'm currently living in Helsinki ;p just to give you an idea of the complexity that is comprehension ;p)

What I'm trying to say here is, that while bardophile is right, there are no generic strategies, the advice that many have given in the thread such as nadawi's up above ,

at all times think the best of your partner. this will avoid most unpleasantness that results from misunderstandings. if you are determined to view them in their best light, it's harder to take offense.

and especially bwonder2's mantra,

Maintain humor. Repeat. Mantra-like.

are the best paths that we have, with great dollops of compassion, a sensitivity to our common humanity and with wisdom, of course.
posted by infini at 4:33 AM on May 31, 2010

Assume good faith. It's a rule for Wikipedia editing, and I find it works pretty well in cross-cultural work. At some early point in the relationship, sit down and say, "I will never mean to offend you. At worst, I am poking fun in what I feel is a pleasant way. If you ever think that I am intentionally offending you or that I am being thoughtless, please tell me so." Coming up with a specific nonsense code word might help as well, in case you happen to be doing it in public or to someone else. "TLiad, you're 'marfling.'" "Am I? Oh, sorry. Here's what I meant..."
posted by Etrigan at 6:36 AM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

infini: Fair enough. I guess that works when we're talking in general terms. And holds true for dealing with every other human being, regardless of whether they have an identifiably different background. Just more so when the fact of difference is obvious, I guess. :)
posted by bardophile at 7:11 AM on May 31, 2010

I've been in a cross-cultural relationship for a couple years now. She knows a lot about my culture, and I understand hers. In the beginning, this was still mostly true, but less so. The most important thing is: both of you need to be the right kind of people for the relationship. Some people are simply too sensitive, or too thoughtless, to make a relationship like this work. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them; it means that they aren't wired in the way required for successful cross-cultural relationships. If both you and your partner are fairly laid-back people, and the type to assume good intentions when potential problems arise, then you'll probably be fine. If you're not, then it won't. I'm inclined to believe that people don't change their personalities in the long term, so I think it's just that simple.
posted by smorange at 8:36 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Communicate in person where you can read each other's body language

and kiss each other

you would be surprised how much gets solved with "sorry" AND physical affection. It makes it so much easier to just say "fuck it, who cares" when you're together and have all of those good happy brain/body reactions that make love fun.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:39 AM on May 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

ja ja nothing like a big bucket of oxytocin to soothe the frazzled soul
posted by infini at 12:19 PM on May 31, 2010

And sometimes, no matter what, it can feel like everything went kablooie...
posted by The Lady is a designer at 8:06 AM on June 18, 2010

I just logged in and noted the reminder for an AskMe to come back and see if the situation is resolved so that the question thread can be closed. Or is it just a tag?

I don't know if the situation I describe will get a resolved tag in the sense that its currently framed. Everything is an unknown, even tomorrow morning, and uncertainty is the drain on energy not ambiguity. Its a subtle nuance but its critical. You can have ambiguity and a sense of potential, but makers, creators, doers usually find a way to manage if their individual "eyes" see a reasonably compatible "vision", speaking in design terms. I guess you could call it being on the same page but that's far too two dimensional for the complexity that is daily human life on earth no?

Anyway, so here's my thinking on the update: Its a work in progress with incremental resolutions paving the way but its fun building imaginary worlds
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:51 AM on August 9, 2010

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