Cultural Differences- Warm vs Cold

My husband and I are listening to another audio book on customs and cultures.  It’s Foreign to Familiar, a Guide to Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures.   I really like this one. It’s shorter than Livermore’s, but doesn’t totally overlap.  There are additional details for different countries.

The author tells a sad story about a co-worker of hers who came from Lebanon and worked in the U.S. for 8 years and thought nobody liked her.  In her culture, when you are invited to do something, you say no several times.  It’s rude and forward to accept the first invitation.  So when American co-workers invited her to go eat lunch with them, she said no.  They left for lunch without her.  They invited her a few other times, she thought they were just asking out of politeness so she declined, and they proved they were just asking to be polite by not inviting her three or four more times for that same lunch.  She was lonely.  That is what prompted the author, who had lived in many cultures, to write the book and start teaching about these differences.

I am taking a Korean class for a few weeks- I am the only American.  My three classmates are all from different Asian countries. There was one other American, and he dropped out because he didn’t think it was efficient and focused on grammar enough, which is kind of very American of him.

Last week after class we were talking lightly about cultural differences.  I don’t especially remember the specific example, but it had something to do with relationships vs efficiency, and direct vs indirect communication.  Probably she shared some information on Korean manners related to language, and the others shared how it was similar in their homes, and, they noted it was not like that here.  I asked if they had read much about the cultural differences between east and west, and  talked about how much I had blundered in the Philippines by just getting in a cab and saying where I wanted to go instead of stopping to greet my driver, to ask how he was, to explain that the person with me is my daughter, and I am from America.  I told the story so they were laughing at my blundering, which was my goal.  As almost a throw away comment, I pointed out that it’s different in the southern U.S., that there communication is less direct, less focused on efficiency, and more like many Asian cultures in many ways.   I remembered to mention this because when my husband and I were talking about this he had mentioned he would really have to temper his push for efficiency when he visits his co-workers in Malaysia this autumn.  I agreed and told him I felt like he could temper it here, too, as I do not always appreciate his drive for efficiency, either.  “When she talks about this and time, I don’t feel very American,” I said.  He agreed, but pointed out that my roots are southern.  So I mentioned that the south is more relationship based as well.   My teacher got very animated and said, “OH, this helps so much!  I lived in Texas for a few years and then moved here, and all of a sudden it feels like nobody wants to talk to me anymore, they are all so busy, and… ” She laughed, “nobody compliments me anymore!”

Of course, then I had to tell her Texas isn’t considered the South by people in the south or in Texas.
“Well, then, what is Texas?” asked a classmate from Singapore.

I thought a moment.  “Texas?  It’s just Texas.  All by itself.”


Incidentally, if you are  wanting to give your kids more exposure to multiple cultures and peoples and are interested in diversity at all, for any reason, I strong, strongly suggest that rather than stocking up on poorly written ‘message’ fiction, or on superficial things like having a dinner where you cook tacos and have a Mexican flag on the wall*, please use a resource like Livermore’s Great Courses on cultural Intelligence or From Foreign to Familiar- something that digs deeper and discusses the real differences that hinder effective communication, that make us miss signals we are given or give signals we didn’t mean to, that cause serious cross cultural misunderstandings (I’ll be blogging about one shortly).

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not really sneering at having a countries of the world dinner night.  Its cool, it’s fun, it’s a great way to stretch horizons.  But it is not a good place to stop.  We need to truly understand on a deeper level, and getting into a study of cultural differences and what they mean in regard to behavior is vitally important.

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