A Cross-Cultural Cacophony

Picture of By Aakansha Gupta

By Aakansha Gupta

Have you spent enough time in a foreign country that you’ve changed the basic principles of how you function? It’s the kind of phenomenon where you stop relating to high school friends in your home country. You start noticing little things that you used to do growing up – dealing with conflicts, finding solutions to problems, communicating your needs. Planning things ahead and strategizing to mitigate risks that stressful situations entail. They were all carried out in a certain way that is now changing. While adapting to a new culture, you still know how to do these things as your parents taught you. But what happens when you want to work closely with a person from a different culture that neither understands the culture you are adapting to, nor the one that you are stemming from? Welcome to a cacophony of cross-cultural understanding.

Dealing with conflicts

When dealing with cross–cultural conflicts, the first step is to observe and understand how things work and when others are involved, how they have been raised.

People have boxes they put conflicts within. For example, conflicts with friends lie in a separate box than conflicts with the government, and conflicts with the landlord fall under a different category altogether. Depending on how much control you have over the situation, you decide which role to play in the interaction. The level of stress is independent of how rationally your brain can think about the conflict. When dealing with cross–cultural conflicts, the first step is to observe and understand how things work and when others are involved, how they have been raised.

In the Dutch environment, conflicts are dealt with straightforwardly. Communicating needs and expressing problems is a key element in the directness proper of the Dutch culture. Therefore, if you have lived long enough in The Netherlands you will find yourself facing conflicts that outline a clear distinction between “what is wrong”, “How I feel”, “what I want”, and “what will help achieve what I want”. And the other person is expected to adjust their communication skills similarly.

However, the negotiating style of dealing with conflicts can be perceived as hostile, overwhelming, and even rude to some extent if you are not accustomed to a direct manner of expression. Often noticed in foreign students from collectivistic cultures living in The Netherlands, is a combination of saving face and people-pleasing while dealing with interpersonal and intrapersonal problems. These tools do not come in handy when the other person is unaware of them. Therefore, it is imperative to completely adapt your communication style to the other person in the conversation or clearly indicate the reasons for your behavior and how your own culture plays a fundamental role. 

Know yourself

Self-awareness is hard. It does not only come with time but also along with ample instances of failed communication. What is important to focus on after such failed attempts is self-reflection and understanding the predicament of your situation; because it’s almost never about what you said but rather how you said it. Why did you say what you said? Was it because the situation demanded it or do you usually create an illusory consensus with a certain group to save face? The social identity of an individual is determined in various ways. Saving face is a metaphorical insinuation to communicating in a way that restores your identity. If you come from a collectivistic culture, saving face is all about group dynamics. Therefore, are you thinking what you want to be thinking or is it an outcome of what is acceptable to think in a certain group setting? 

Interacting cultures

While you can answer the above-mentioned questions involving two cultures, what happens when you add a third culture to the melting pot? It becomes hard, confusing, and more or less an existential crisis. After living in a foreign country for a while, you know how to accommodate its culture and how to coexist with customs and traditions. But then a person with a third, monocultural background emerges and the expectations change. Suddenly you find yourself appalled at their way of communicating and it’s all too exhausting to keep changing yourself and your core principles of functioning based on the environment and person.

The number one rule is to avoid generalizing about yourself as well as the other person. As soon as you generalize, you prevent yourself from acting in a certain way simply because it contradicts the previously mentioned generalization. This internal conflict may stem from the different cultures stored within yourself, which you may be unaware of. When you generalize about the other person you assign them to a certain category, distancing yourself from your interlocutor. Secondly, it’s important to find a neutral way of communicating. A style that is unique to this particular relationship and can be decoded in a manner that successfully relays the intentions of the speaker rather than the perception of the listener. Thirdly, and I cannot stress this enough, ask questions! A big part of understanding someone is asking basic questions about them and their emotions.

Intricacy within how to ask questions is also an important thing to keep in mind. The emotional level of the tone must be assessed based on the context of the conversation. Too much pathos can make the question seem rhetoric and too little emotion may be perceived as harsh whereas an emotionless tone with soft body language may result in different perceptions. Finally, give it time. Understanding someone from a different culture when you are stemming from two or more cultures yourself is more complicated than you’d think. Communicate your goals with them and seek cooperation in a manner that indicates that you are willing to be patient and give it more time until you start to recognize their patterns of functioning.


Cover: Aakansha Gupta

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