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Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings

By: Gabrielle R. Wood

Misunderstandings will always happen between people of different cultures, regardless of whether the same language is spoken or not. Our histories, our cultures, our languages, our religious backgrounds, along with many other entities all dictate how we will see and interpret the world, how we interact with people and how we react to behaviors that are different from our constructed ideas of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.

Some cultural differences can definitely be more obvious than others, making it difficult to determine where the line between appropriate and inappropriate lies.

Misunderstandings can be funny on some occasions, while some can cause frustration and prove to be detrimental to cohesive correspondence or relationship building, making both parties feel that the other is being rude or insensitive. They affect correspondences as small as those between a customer and employee and as great as those between foreign diplomats.

Our cultures determine how we perceive people: both those from within and out. It puts people from out, however, at an immediate disadvantage because of the fact that there is not a shared understanding that those from within the same culture have.

Cross cultural interactions are interesting because you may know a lot about another person’s culture, such as the language, the type of foods that are popular, what religions a person within a certain culture will be likely to practice, what a person’s view on women may be, and so on.

There are always certain aspects of a culture that appear to be more obvious than others. It’s nearly impossible, however, to know all the intricacies of a culture without having been raised within it, and especially impossible if you’ve never had any real life exposure to it.

You may know certain aspects about it, but all of the minor details are impossible to learn without actual observation or immersion.  These are oftentimes the details that we never even associate as being distinctive to our own culture. They are the things that we take for granted.

In my experience, I found that these minor details that I had never even considered to be distinctive to my own culture were the most frustrating aspects of cross cultural interactions. I had prepared myself for the more obvious cultural differences, but was not as prepared for other differences, such as ideas towards the proper amount of space a person should have, differing ideas about how money should be spent, how friends should be made and so on.

I wasn’t necessarily so surprised that there were differences as much as I was surprised at how controversial they were, and didn’t understand why they were so important to others.

Oftentimes, these interactions were made much more confusing and frustrating for us because we were all speaking one common language without being native speakers of the language.

This was confusing because we all felt that we should be able to understand each other because of the commonality, but forgot that just because we were speaking the same language did not mean that we were all coming from the same cultural backgrounds. We were all expecting social responses or reactions from the other person that we were not receiving, which left a feeling of dissatisfaction.

As time passed, we realized that our differences were not meant to be taken as slights towards one another or as oddities. We began to understand that although we were not always able to see eye to eye or fully understand each other’s opinions that it was actually really fulfilling to experience each other’s varying cultures, and learn from them.

In my experience, I have found that it is best to realize that there are some things that will just not come across, and that becoming frustrated is much worse than accepting differences, and moving on.

One very important thing to remember is that frustration goes both ways. You may interact with a person who you believe to be rude or odd due to their different mannerisms or ways of living, but they are looking at you and thinking that you are just as weird or rude.

It is destructive to think that the other person is the only one with the weird tendencies. By keeping an open mind, realizing that cross cultural interactions are unavoidable and realizing that your actions may be just as odd to others as theirs are to you, you can avoid contributing to the frustration of misunderstandings, and take actions to become more neutral and understanding.

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