My parents fought a lot when I was a child. They loved each other, there was no doubt about that, and their lives were intertwined for life but there were a lot of disagreements, usually expressed through shouting on my mother’s side and repressed frustration on my father’s side. Growing up, I just thought that it was their Modus Operandi. They had been married a long time and that was their way of communicating. It wasn’t until I started looking into cross-cultural communication that I realised there was a lot more to it than that. I learned that in order to really understand how to communicate effectively across cultures, you have to:
Be willing to go deeper than the obvious: Middle-Easterners tend to ….., British people tend to … While the surface differences might be true, there are a lot of components that go into a conversation between people from different cultural backgrounds.
Look at the unique combination: who is talking to whom. You might think you are a cultural chameleon, able to blend into any communication style and culture. If you keep hitting a wall in a relationship, it might be worth double-checking if it is a cultural difference in communication that is so subconscious that it wouldn’t occur to either of you this can be resolved through a better understanding of a cultural component. For example, I would get upset when my husband negatively commented on something I had done. I would take it personally and question our relationship. I would think that he really didn’t think much of me if he shot down my work. Lo and behold, as I researched negative feedback and the different ways it is delivered, everything took on another perspective. I understand now that he was not attacking my worth as a person but only giving direct feedback on my work, which is totally acceptable in Switzerland.
Get to know how you operate: the more you know yourself and your cultural influences, the better you will spot the difference in communication and the faster you will bridge the gap. It is just as important to know the way you communicate as to know your personality style, values, and beliefs.
My dad passed away in 2019. A part of my mum went with him. There is sadness of course that he is no longer with us but there is also sadness that although he was aware of cultural differences in communication, my mum and dad were never able to truly understand their differences. My husband and I are working on it and I am so grateful for those who are researching this growing field.
A special thanks to the following authors:
The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, masterfully uncovers the subtleties of culture, how the differences affect business and how awareness of them transforms interactions. A multicultural person will greatly benefit from reading it.
Intercultural Marriages, Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano is a must-read for anyone who doesn’t share a culture with their partner. She sets the scene beautifully in the first few chapters on how we interact with culture, then, as she weaves in personal stories, she addresses frequent challenges for intercultural spouses.
When Cultures Collide, by Richard D. Lewis provides leaders and managers with practical strategies to embrace differences and successfully work across diverse business cultures. Again, it can be applied to individuals and families.
Mixed Blessings, by Rhoda Berlin and Harriet Cannon. Part One has clear educational chapters that demystify the components of culture and confusion that undermine confidence and trust. Part Two, uses empathy and humor in twelve stories, based on real couples’ navigation through complex relationship challenges with each other and with their families. Part Three is a collection of creative exercises that individualise a couple’s path through cultural differences.
Rhoda Bangerter is a coach who has lived abroad with a travelling husband for over 16 years. She helps home based mums and dads live an intentional life and build family togetherness even when their partner is away a lot for work.