Using Cultural Differences to Come Together, Guest Post by Shana Medah

by Shana Medah on September 15, 2010

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

See Also:
Top 5 Tips for Cross-Cultural Success

Erasers from Chapendra
…oops? from jasmeet


PA AP mom September 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm

We had an incident with slang usage.

On Xmas Eve our German au pair asked how she could help with party preparation. I showed her the cutting block and the cheese and also how I wanted it cut and what plate to put it on for the table.

Oldest son came in to the kitchen and said “D, what are you doing?” at which time she said “I’m cutting the cheese”. Myself, hubby and my parents all started laughing, as did 8 year old son. She looked confused so I took her aside, away from others and explained that in US slang “cutting the cheese” means passing gas. She was mortified but said it was nice to know that we weren’t making fun of her.

It can be embarassing when the wrong word or phrase is used.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 15, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Something similar happened to me while living in Ireland. I was a student living with a family, and I was messing around with the kids, and the 12-year-old boy’s trousers slid down, and I said, “I see someone’s fanny!” It turns out boys don’t have fannies in the British Isles. Only females do. He was angry and I was embarrassed.

FormerNOVA Host Mum September 16, 2010 at 10:25 am

LOL…I am from the UK living in the US and I got caught out by the ‘rubber’ one and wondered why everyone looked shocked. Also the ‘fa..y’ word is considered a rude referral to that part of a female and I was shocked as to how open these ‘prudish americans’ were…:)

Deb Schwarz September 17, 2010 at 3:32 am

My husband (from Scotland) got caught out with the same “rubber” request – he was at his first job in the U.S. at Intel, and yelled out from his cublicle the first week of work, “anyone have a rubber?”. You can only imagine all the laughter that erupted from the many cubicles that heard his plea. He still tells the story 25 years later. And everything I mention the word “fanny pack” – my husband laughs.

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