Cross-Cultural Connections, Section Two: Dealing with the New and Different

Chapters four through eight comprise section two: “Dealing with the New and Different.”

Culture is everywhere, and it sneaks up on you.

He bought his wife snow tires for their first anniversary because she travelled in dangerous areas and he wanted her to be safe. He quickly judged her response to be snobbish, while she quickly judged his gift insensitive. We all approach life from our frame of reference, often without realizing it. He offers six principles to help peacefully enter another culture:

  1. We are all products of our cultural heritage. Everything we say and do reflects this heritage.
  2. We tend to think that everyone else sees the world the way we do. It is confusing when they do not appreciate our acts of kindness.
  3. Judgement comes quickly (per the snow tires).
  4. When we learn about the other person’s cultural heritage, we are able to understand and accept them more quickly.
  5. One of the best gifts we can give others is to withhold judgement. Stay open-minded in order to accomplish step six.
  6. Asking why the other person said or did something
    1. prompts us to suspend judgement until the facts are in
    2. helps us learn about the other person’s cultural heritage
    3. helps us understand how that person’s behavior fits into their cultural context
    4. allows to change in ways that communicate our true feelings.

Culture Shocks

“Culture Shock is when you experience frustration from not knowing the rules or having the skills for adjusting to a new culture.” (44)

Culture shock is likely to happen to your body. The food, water, and unfamiliar bugs are likely to make you sick. Practical suggestions include staying hydrated and bringing towelettes to stay clean.

Culture shock also is almost bound to happen mentally. A christian might assume that he is failing in his spiritual walk, missed his calling, or lacks the skills to fit in when culture shock hits. However, it is a normal experience.

Language differences make the simplest tasks impossible sometimes. Different social rules make new friendships challenging. Different routines (how to shop and travel, for example) and food can make one feel awkward. Someone may feel she is not getting anything done.

Practical suggestions: keep learning and trying the language, a little at a time. Keep adding to your vocabulary. Laugh at yourself and keep trying. Have pictures of your friends and family from back home around. Venture out. Keep trying to make new friends. Try new things. Eventually, the new routines will feel more normal.

Identifying Expectations

“Every disappointment or frustration you experience is the result of some expectation that has been violated or unfulfilled.” (54)

Our expectations are often subconscious and hidden; we don’t realize we have them. He gives a chart (56) to help identify our expectations. Some examples from the chart are locals’ attitudes toward Americans, the food, one’s expected job, travel methods, concepts of time, worship styles, relaxation, and climate.

It is natural to have negative feelings about the gap that exists between our expectations and the reality of the new surroundings. Suggestions: stop, suspend judgement, ask why. He gives the example of Eunice and the dish. His immediate assumption of Eunice was that she was avoiding responsibility by using passive voice and stative language (“The dish fell from my hand and is dead”). However, she was carrying over language patterns that accurately communicated that she did not intend to break the dish. Elmer needed to slow down and ask why she was communicating how she was communicating in order to realize his initial negative impressions were mistaken.

Square Heads and Round Heads

Like a new game or a dance, a new culture will feel unfamiliar and we won’t immediately understand it. We can either cling to the familiar and be stubborn, or we can be flexible and pick up the new rules and motions. It is like someone from a square head culture moving to a round head culture.

We are always communicating. We are often not aware of the unintended messages we are sending. (“These peope are ignorant,” vs. “This culture is worth my taking my time to change and understand,” for example). We must be careful to discover if we are communicating hurtful or helpful messages to the local people.

Exercise: He asks for six ideas to help lose one’s squareness in fitting in to the round culture. My initial ideas were: eat the food, be in their homes, learn as much of the language as possible, shop in their stores, use their money (gives an idea of what things are worth them), hang out with them instead of just with your friends. His list was similar. He added buying and wearing local articles of clothing. (This is a good suggestion. I found in my semester in Moscow that people immediately noticed my American clothing, no matter how hard I tried to blend in. Only a few people wore local coats, shoes, and such. The clothes were drab and heavier than we were used to – but it sent a positive message to our local friends when some of the guys went to the trouble.)

 Cultural Adjustment Map

He gives a map, outlining two possible approaches to a new culture. It is inevitable that we will experience some frustration, confusion, tension, and embarrassment. This is normal and unavoidable. It does not have to be a poor reflection on us or the people in the new culture.

We can approach each new experience one of two ways. We can start out with an open attitude and then observe, listen, and inquire. Observe the normal behaviors between the locals. They may do things that seem strange but watch them interact with each other. Focus your listening and ask more questions. It shows respect. Show interest and be willing to learn. This leads to learning the new dance and building rapport. It can be a very rewarding experience.

Alternatively, you might start out with fear, suspicion, and inflexibility. You will then respond with criticism and tend to withdraw. This leads to isolation and alienation.

Consider the case where locals keep invading your personal space to talk to you. With the latter response, you will begin pushing them away as you assume they are rude and inconsiderate. This will build barriers between you and them. However, using the first response, you will notice that this culture stands closer to each other than you are used to when they discuss and build friendships. If you are flexible, you will be able to make new friends and build relationships with people instead of isolating yourself and missing out.

Another suggestion: monitor your thoughts. If you keep using the term, “These people” in your mind or conversation, you are almost surely separating yourself from them.

Keep using the map to think through recent experiences and analyze how the experiences turned out and how you might have approached them differently. It is a continual process. Knowing this helps you be realistic. It also leads to learning the dance over time.

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