“The seed of cultural harmony lies not in the culture you are born but in the recognition of the sweetness of other cultures.” (Abhijit Naskar)
I’m a huge proponent of cross- cultural awareness based on my past experience as an English Second Language instructor along with my extensive travels around the world. Thus, I diligently make an effort to study any obvious misunderstandings of cultural bias at home and abroad. Informal word phrase usage involving culturally defined, slang expressions, I realize, can present comprehension challenges for foreign born individuals who rely chiefly on obtaining literal understandings in their 2nd language. In other vocabulary use situations, word part divisions, like eggplant and driveway, can easily confuse the culturally challenged learner. Those who overly depend on the dictionary for looking up such new meanings rather than deciphering their vocabulary understandings from contextual clues in a sentence will most likely suffer more severely from this problem.
Consider for instance the following situation. Observe how the intended meanings of quotation marked word/ phrases below could be culturally misunderstood by one receiving the message.
EXAMPLE 1 – WEATHER FORECAST MISUNDERSTANDINGS
Person #1 – I heard that it will not not rain today.
Person #2 – “Good grief!”Hold your horses”. This is no time to “cut corners” and leave your umbrella home. For a “matter of fact”, let me tell you something “straight from the horse’s mouth.” “Sit tight” if you leave your “doorway” to “get out and about” today. For it will definitely get “pretty ugly” if you drive in the town’s “parkways” today.
A Logical Take: Warnings about a rainy day are clearly given but the reader becomes confused from so many informally and/or contradictory worded and directions.
Another important component of cultural misunderstanding that I’m highly sensitive to involves those who make hasty judgments about real life situations based on limited knowledge of cultural customs and beliefs. In such cases, specific facial expressions, body movement, and tone of voice…. can be interpreted in different ways.
Notice below several cultural awareness challenges that I have faced in my past overseas travels. Imagine putting yourself in each of these situations to self reflect in agreement or disagreement about why/how each of them can be best explained.
EXAMPLE 2 – PRIMITIVE PUZZLEMENT
You’re headed into the vast grasslands of Kenya on a wildfire safari. Along the way, your expedition van turns onto a dusty path leading to a small village of primitive looking huts occupied by the Masai Mara tribe. It seems the entire village populace gathers to meet you then. You expect handshakes or hugs to be exchanged but are surprised that all Masai people present smile broadly and then begin to jump up and down in unison as they come closer to your presence. Some cows are soon brought into the gathering spot accompanied by a leader of the tribe. The chief gives curious attention to your electronic device that you’ve taken from your pocket.
One Logical Take: Playful physical movement in certain cultural settings may indicate one’s willingness to greet another person.
2nd Logical Take: The smiling chief might be serious about bartering with me to exchange something he owns in exchange for his use of my electronic device.
EXAMPLE 3 – CULTURAL CLASSROOM INTRUSION
You’re teaching an English Second Language class of freshman students on designated mornings at a South Florida community college. On the first day of class you notice that one of your pupils, an Iranian of birth, comes to classroom accompanied by his affluent father. During class, the father follows your instructions that college rules prohibit family from sitting in class with the student. So he proceeds to wait outside until the class finishes. When the ninety minute class ends, the father re-enters the class to speak to you about his son. He tells you in a very demanding tone of voice that he functions as an important Arab businessman of great wealth and religious power in his country and thus expects similar high standards of success for his son in this class. He further suggests that if you pay dutiful attention to insure that his son’s grades will be excellent this term, he notes that he will keep his end of this bargain by treating you well at his personal expense.
One Logical Take: Good grades can be bought in some cultural situations; not necessarily earned
EXAMPLE 4 – THE MISCAST LUNCHTIME
You’re taking an organized tour vacation in South India. On one of your day’s proceedings, you’ve been told by the tour guide that you will be eating a casual lunch in native cultural style in this dense, tropical environs. So when you sit down, and take a sip of your glass of water, you are curious why the waiters have gathered together in mass some giant leaves from nearby trees in these lush surroundings. You next notice one leaf has been given to each person sitting along the table. While larger portions of meat, porridge,, raw fruit, and rice are now placed carefully on each leaf, you wonder why there are no eating utensils to be found. The waiters then quietly vacate the area.
One Logical Take: Proper eating etiquette with knife, fork, and spoon can be practically discarded in some cultures. Just use the leaf as a plate or utensil and scoop the food with it using the your hands. Maybe even eat what’s left of the leaf at the end
EXAMPLE 5 – A PATRIOTIC NIGHTMARE
It’s the Fourth of July on your independent tour of Madrid, Spain and you are dressed conspicuously American for your country’s celebration in a noticeable array of red, white, and blue and a U.S. flag stuffed in your pocket. Adventuring around the city on this busy weekday, you work your your way slowly through local crowds and descend into one of the busiest underground stations of the Madrid Metro system. After only a very short wait, a metro car approaches. You then whisk your way through its opening door in mass with many others with little time to spare. A group of young men you don’t see remains near the train car entrance as you get in. They quickly work in tandem to surround you to pickpocket your front pocket for my wallet and time themselves for a quick exit off the train before the doors shut. The train departs on time and you realize you’ve become an innocent victim of this robbery.
One Logical Take: Showing love for your country may be perceived negatively in some urban cultural situations. So if you “stand out” this way in such a crowded situation , you are more likely to become the victim of a “ mugging” crime.
2nd Logical Take: Rushing around in crowded places increases ones chances of becoming a victim of a crime .
EXAMPLE 6 – DIRECTIONAL DISORDER
Today marks the beginning of your 1st time visit to Italy. So you step off your water taxi alone along the Grand Canal in Venice onto a district of poorly marked local streets amid the old city. Being at first excited to find the small pension where you are staying, you soon panic as any maps and GPS guidance you’ve often utilized in finding suitable lodging before seem useless. An old man walking with a child ahead suddenly gain your attention.
One Logical Take: Finding your way around amid an unfamiliar cultural location can be difficult to accomplish on your own. So look around during such times and make good use of your best social options.
So in re-connecting to the world beyond as our travels resume in the post pandemic era, let us think more mindfully of the words we choose and the actions we take in challenging cultural situations. For as our sensitivity to /global diversity thrives, there’s greater potential for attaining unity in this modern era.
Excellent post, Jim!
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Maine for October is looking good for us by the way. Stay well.
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