Top 10 Ways to Learn about Another Culture…or Just 1: Ask!

 I started to write a simple “10 Quick Steps to Preparing for Your International Visitor,” as in preparing to meet your mother-in-law from Argentina for the first time or hosting the new team from Korea for a business conference, but I realized it rang of insincerity.  Sure, you can (and should) read works of fiction or watch foreign films for a glimpse into the psyche and sentiment of a culture, or you can (and should) learn at least a few key phrases, such as “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in the foreign language.  Getting a quick overview of views of time, eye contact, personal space and taboos is also helpful.  But these are all only starting points to enter into a relationship.  For long term relationships, be they familial or for business, there’s no escaping the type of learning that comes from real human contact.

What might be a better way to prepare?  How about going to a completely new neighborhood or grocery store in your City, where you are sure to be the only one “like you.”  What if no-one speaks your language?  Do you feel defensive?  Angry?  Do you put off asking for things you need, afraid that you’ll start a conversation you don’t know how to finish, or do you behave more politely, like a guest, waiting for your host to take the lead?  Being the minority or sole representative of your culture can bring out all of these feelings, which are even more exacerbated if there’s a language barrier.  Bottle this feeling so that you can bring an air of empathy to your international guest, who might be feeling this same frustration at being understood and appreciated. 

How about asking questions?   I’m breaking my own rule by possibly perpetuating a stereotype, but there is no way I can or will saying anything even remotely negative about my Brazilian husband’s mother (not that there would be anything to say, honey!), or expect a neutral answer if I do ask.  (Think about it, you’d basically be asking your spouse to choose between you and his/her mom-don’t do it!).   That said, there are a lot of other Brazilians in Chicago (or Boston, where we were living at the time) for whom questions like “what should I wear?  What should I serve? My mother in-law rearranged my cabinets while I was at work, should I be offended?” would be completely neutral.  Ask a stranger, who most likely will be delighted to help and share insight and who can be more objective because they are not emotionally involved. 

Where to find strangers?  Go to a Brazilian restaurant and engage in small talk with your server…”Hey, my mother-in-law is coming to town, any customs I should know about?”  Or, call the local Chinese American Chamber of Commerce to ask what might be an appropriate gift or other meeting protocol that is common in China.  Our Korean guests were delighted to find five sets of new slippers lined up by the door for them to change into upon arrival at our house for a New Year’s Eve party one year.  A call to a friend married to a man from Korea yielded this handy tip that made everyone feel welcomed from the get-go.  You may get funny looks, or even people offended (unlikely) because you present your question with an assumption behind it, but at least you have learned from this “pretend” relationship and are prepared for your critical relationship.

And remember, it’s a lifelong process of constantly challenging yourself to develop and be aware of all of your means of communication, verbal, non-verbal and facilitated, and it’s a lifelong process of being willing to put yourself into the vulnerable position of being the other and of making mistakes. 

If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track.

What other things have you done to prepare to meet someone from another country? What worked?  What didn’t?  What was a big mistake that you have made and learned from?

3 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Learn about Another Culture…or Just 1: Ask!

  1. Good point, Gori Girl–I was raised ‘reformed’ which in simplistic terms is less traditional than conserviative or orthodox Judaism. I have at times felt like a tourist when participating in Jewish traditions, when it gets to details or origins of customs. That’s actually been another nice part of being in an intercultural relationship…I’ve learned more about my own culture by looking at it in relation to another–even if it has meant that I’m looking up the answers myself on the internet!

  2. Excellent post! The easiest way to learn something is to ask, and if you’re showing a true interest and respect for the culture of the people you’re talking with, they’re almost always enthusiastic about answering. It can be uncomfortable, though, as you point out.

    One thing I would cation, though, is that the person you ask may not always know the full or even correct answer, especially if the country they’re from is not homogeneous or if they haven’t lived there recently.

    For example, my husband was recently irritated by a documentary on India produced by the BBC & PBS. There were a fair number of things to criticize about the documentary, but I’m thinking specifically about a part where the host asked people off the street to explain the story & history behind a particular Hindu ritual they were performing. As Aditya said, “being Hindu doesn’t mean that you know everything there is to know about Hinduism.” The guy in the documentary gave a very basic & slightly jumbled explanation that even I recognized as “off”. We both wished they had interviewed scholars who had actually studied the material in depth.

    So it’s important to remember when asking questions of individuals from a particular culture that it’s not fair to either the culture or the individual to expect one person to have a complete & objective understanding of the thing you’re wondering about.

Comments are closed.