Cultural Divide

I recently attended a wedding celebration that was notable not just for the radiance of both bride and groom (he is known for his smiles and was positively overflowing with joy) but also for its uniting of an Hispanic and a Cameroonian, who have known each other for six years already and have (hopefully) ironed out the cultural kinks in their relationship. I was seated with my husband at a table mostly of Cameroonian guests, one of whom brought his Hispanic girlfriend. While my husband talked in pidgin with his country-mates, I did my best to both follow their conversation and chat in English with the only other non-pidgin speaking guest at the table. She, unlike me, understands nothing of pidgin. We made the sort of small talk two strangers can be expected to begin with – where do you live, what is the current focus of your daily life, how do you know the wedding couple, etc.

Then she (I will refer to her as E) asked me how long my husband and I have been married and after I answered “five years” followed up with the question “what is the most difficult part of being in a cross cultural marriage?”

A good question. After a bit of thought, I gave her an answer but I’ not sure now it was the right answer. I told her it is especially easy to miss take how something is said and misinterpret intention when the nonverbal cues between the two cultures differ significantly. Communication between people is a miracle of overcoming different mindsets, background experiences and values. Add in different nonverbal cultures and it is amazing that people manage not to be constantly at war. The wedding dinner experience at our table was a perfect example. I knew that, seated with country-mates, my husband would mostly engage with them and expect me to fend for myself in conversation. I don’t think E expected to be left so much on her own and out of the loop. She may have felt neglected by her boyfriend, whereas I have learned not to interpret my husband’s engagement with his fellows as lack of concern for me. Rather it is a sign of his respect for me, his belief that I am quite able to make my own way in a group of Africans.

I told E that different cross-culture relationships require extra effort to bridge the unspoken communication subtleties, but that knowing this one can succeed, by always stopping to ask “is this what you intended?” before letting an emotional reaction take over. Not always easy to do, and not really any different than what one is advised to do in any relationship. 

As I’ve thought over E’s questions subsequently, I find I have a slightly different answer. The challenges still lie in the nonverbal arena but have less to do with direct communication and more to do with the intangibles of what “feels comfortable” to each partner. The most salient aspect of difference in my home has to do with what I would call noise level, but my husband most probably would just describe as ambient volume (noise having a negative connotation).

A good number of years ago, I offered housing to two new graduates of the United World College located near me, when they were stranded and unable to get home in a timely manner. The girls were friends, one from Senegal and the other from Nigeria. I worked full time while they spent the days in the house. I became accustomed to arriving home from work and, as I pulled into the garage, hearing what had been loud music suddenly shut off. The girls knew that at the end of a hectic work day I craved the country quiet of my home. They explained that the same silence that comforted me frightened them. All their lives they had lived in what I might call boisterous cultures, what I would inevitably experience as much too much noise. 

One need not go outside the U.S. to know this sort of cultural distinction though here we are more inclined to view it as simply a difference of personal preference. Some families are expressive, others restrained, even within the same sub-cultural group. But there is also, within a culture, an underlying, unspoken assumption regarding what is a proper and appropriate level of … I can’t think of a good alternative word for noise, though I would like one that is more value neutral. Oh, I can use sound.

As I have reflected on E’s question, I’ve recalled complaints from some of my prisoner students, when I taught classes in the New Mexico penitentiary, that the black inmates were “always too loud.” I’ve also recalled visiting with my college roommate and her family at their summer home in northern Minnesota. They are Finnish and spoke so quietly that their conversation blended easily into the soft background sounds of fish jumping in the nearby lake. In that environment my normal speaking voice was loud, even to my ears, and I consciously toned it down.

Now, I have begun to wonder to what extent the larger political upheaval we are experiencing in the U.S. is rooted in not just a difference in values, and a fear-based antagonism for what is different, but in a subtle, fundamental and unnamed discomfort with, intolerance for, cultural differences in sound. And not just sound, but other equally subconscious non-verbal behaviors, like social spacing, or the meaning of time.

Our African friends issue two types of invitations – for a party at 8 PM, or for a party at 8 “white man’s time.” The former means arrive whenever it suits you, the latter means get there at most a half hour after the start. There is no expectation that any invitation means to actually get there at the stated start time. What a contrast to my German father’s indoctrination to always allow for the unexpected which might prevent me from being present exactly “on time.” That training is so ingrained that I am usually early, and wait in my car until it is appropriate to show up where I am expected.

Might the tensions expressing themselves in our present national political debates be seen as complex reactions to two fundamentally different concepts of how to deal with underlying cultural differences? One one side is the approach embodied in my response to E, to become aware of these nonverbal differences and be prepared to make allowances for them, to accommodate differences, reach across the barriers they may pose, communicate, learn and share, and thereby both show respect and grow closer. On the other is reaction, mistrust, rejection, withdrawal into separateness and an eventual unbridgeable divide.

My choice of words makes it obvious which approach I practice, and recommend in relationships, and also which I believe we as a nation should be embracing.

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One Response to “Cultural Divide”

  1. Ronald Maltais Says:

    This provocative piece gave me much to think about. The topic of communication reminded me of my limited but valuable experience teaching Theory of Knowledge in an international school (without much training), and the multiple ways we convey information to each other.

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