We think of cultural differences as the things that separate us and view cultural differences as obstacles we must overcome – and indeed, they do often present themselves in the form of a problem that must be solved. However, the problem-solving process also gives us an opportunity to know each other (and ourselves) better.
When I was in high school, my family hosted a high school exchange student from Germany for the summer. My brother (who was about 14 at the time) was shocked nearly speechless when, after being in our home for little more than a week, the exchange student asked my brother for a “rubber”.
My brother, in deep shock at why this young man, still practically a total stranger, was asking him for a condom, and not having one at his disposal in any case, managed the only reply he could muster, “Um. . . er. . . uh. . .w hat do you mean?”
Our exchange student, quite unaware of what he had just requested, responded, “You know – when you are writing and you make a mistake. You use it to correct what you wrote.”
My brother let out his breath and the panic left his face. “Oh! You want an ERASER!”
We all learned that day that the little thing you use to remove the traces of your pencil on the paper can have many names. My brother and I learned not to be shocked if such a request ever came up again, and our exchange student learned why we were shocked in the first place. What could have been a serious misunderstanding became a chance for each of us to grow. In fact, this incident helped me immensely years later when I taught ESL to adult immigrants who would inevitably ask the same question. At the very least, I knew that my students were requesting school supplies and not making inappropriate advances.
I tell this story to illustrate how mishaps turn into learning experiences. The whole scene only lasted about 15 seconds, but it encompassed an entire discovery process. I call it “Stop, Look, and Listen.”
“Stop, Look, and Listen.”
When an incident occurs, you experience an emotional reaction – shock, surprise, anger, resentment, insult, embarrassment – the list of possibilities is endless.
The first step is to stop.
Recognize and name the feeling, then try to separate yourself from it. Describe the incident and your reaction as factually as possible, removing any emotionally loaded description. This might take some effort, but it is absolutely essential.
In my brother’s case, he was still shocked to his foundation, but he had the presence of mind to know that something was off. If you need to, take some time to reflect. You will be much more effective when you get to the next step.
The next step is to look.
Here is where you whip out your inner ‘cultural detective’ – ask questions from the perspective of a neutral observer.
“I noticed that you did X. Why did you do that? Is that common in your country? Why do people in your country do X this way? You might talk with your local coordinator, someone who knows your au pair, or someone else from the same culture for insight.
The final step is to listen.
Compare your story with your au pair’s story. How does s/he perceive what happened? These are the moments where the deep cultural programming (and individual personality) comes out – how you each see time differently, what each considers “polite” and “respectful” and why -whatever facet of culture the incident brings up.
- Have you ever changed a cultural misunderstanding into a learning experience?
- How did you do it?
- Do you feel that the situation strengthened your relationship?
- What tips can you offer for handling the shocks that are bound to happen?
Guest Blogger Shana Medah is the co-founder and Director of Training at Jamana Intercultural. She has over 20 years experience in crossing cultures, and has worked with people from over 50 different countries. Shana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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