How to Win the Game Called ‘Cross-Cultural Interaction’
While avoiding a stalemate of frustration for all parties.
The playground is the birthplace to some of my earliest memories of a common human experience known as arguments. Maybe yours was too?
You’ve been gathered by friends (or your toddler) to play a familiar game. Like tag, for instance.
No one necessarily recites the rules or pulls out a printed manual. Simply stating, “Let’s play tag,” brings with it a shared understanding.
Or, so one thinks.
If you were like me, half-way up the social ladder of elementary childhood classism, there was a good chance you’d wind up being chosen as “it.” The chances being as high as the number of other socialites who would fall beneath your status.
So, you begin the chase. Climbing playground slides. Reaching for the monkey bars that someone happened to nest atop.
Finally. With sweat on your brow, your hand skirts the t-shirt of one of the chased. And upon doing so, you declare with all the legal authority of the game afforded you, “You’re it!”
“NO!” s/he retorts. “I was standing with one foot on the firetruck. You’re still it.”
Wait, what?! Since when?
“This is tag where you can only be it if you’re touching the ground,” s/he smirks.
Begin first argument ever. Or the first time you let this sliver of an idea invade your child’s mind: I can tell my parent they’re wrong. Either way, the inception of many of arguments.
Cross-cultural interactions are much like those childhood games. You approach a person to communicate. Everyone communicates, right?
Whether with a facial expression or hand gesture or intonation, communication is a common human experience. There’s no written manual or recited policy every time two people come face-to-face.
And there in-lies the challenge. One thinks s/he is playing tag only to be deeply frustrated when the other exclaims it to be grounder or hot lava.
Every human wants to be understood just like every game player wants to win. This is a universal, common ground that we all share — despite all the rhetoric, curation and political siding that tells one otherwise. Humans want to be known, to be loved and to make an impact: to exist with both an internal and external sense of value.
Culture is the established rules for how to get there. The rules of the game.
Factors like environment have a huge impact on this, but that’s for another time. The key thing to realize is two people can approach the same interaction with two very different sets of rules.
I won’t take the time here to unpack all the various clusters of rules out there; that’s not the point of this article. The point here is to bring awareness to some of us who might not even stop to consider that rules are operating like their own galactic patterns just waiting to collide into a supernova of misunderstandings.
Like just recently, when two people walked away from a conversation, both frustrated for opposing reasons. And I sat there eating a blueberry muffin and sipping some drip coffee.
The details of the conversation are just footnotes. The meat of the interaction is that for one person, when the conversation seemed to bring logical clarity, it didn’t need to continue. But for the other, who values emotional clarity, there was a need to continue repeating the points.
Two different rules for engagement. But on top of that, the one found repetition of questions as signals for considering a person to be foolish or simple-minded. It led to a sense of being offended, only further frustrating the one who was attempting to bring a sense of relational closure to the discussion and who never thought repeating the questions was a sign of offense.
When the Logic Seeker closed the discussion, the Equilibrium Seeker then felt like the goal was unrealized. One went away offended, and the other went away relationally out-of-balance.
Now, this example gets at not only cultural differences (rules for a large, collective segment) but also personality (rules for oneself). In both, they leave us with questions on how to approach this when you’re the offender, when you’re the offended, and when you’re the bystander.
When you’ve done the offending, especially unintentionally, it is easy to go into defensive mode. But the key is to refrain from defending and, if possible, listen.
The words the offended might say in the moment of your rules colliding with the other’s may lend insight into some of the governing factors that led to the misunderstanding.
If s/he says that how you conducted yourself was unfair or wrong can serve as a marker that is completely unique from someone who says the interaction has led to being dishonored or offended (or ushering in bad versus good energy/spirits). Preparing a retort will deafen your senses to catching these.
Catching them and restating them back to the offended doesn’t nullify the situation, but it at least acknowledges a desire to truly hear and receive what the other is communicating.
When you’ve been offended, it is easy to vilify the other. How could they? Don’t they have any respect? But for one in this moment, it is vital to seek understanding of intention.
Open-ended questions like “When you said ___, what did you mean?” or “After you did ___, how did you think/feel I would respond?” Try to withhold declarative statements about the other’s intentions. That will further their defensiveness and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This doesn’t mean you can’t express how it made you feel, how it broke your internal monologue of right or wrong or honorable or taboo. Express it, but don’t addendum how it made you feel with statements like “You’re trying to belittle me” or “You’re trying to make me feel unwelcomed.”
Depending on the relationship, they might be. But, especially if there is some former interaction or character validation, attempt to give the person the benefit of the doubt as your initial rule.
When you’re the bystander, there might be a place to serve as both question-asker and clarifier if it seems one or both in the party are having trouble understanding, or one or both are jabbing and stabbing each other with defensive or declarative statements.
The role of the bystander can be mediator, seeking to help remind points of common ground, while also recognizing your own limitations. Even bystanders represent their own rules, so try to bring balance to not only what’s equitable, but also to what’s honorable and what absolves points of “impurity.”
Like when we were children, most of those arguments circled back to the simple joy and laugh of being a child and playing. Cross-cultural interactions serve the same, a chance to be reminded of the many types of games out there but the universal desire to be alive, to love and find joy.
Because, at the end of the day, the only thing worse than losing, is never getting the chance to play in the first place.