On Offending and Mending – The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Living

by Marilyn on April 16, 2015

view of the city

 

Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

The city we love

The reality of living cross culturally is that there are times when, despite our best intentions, we offend.  Sometimes it’s pure ignorance, other times it’s because we are tired, and still other times we are in a cultural conflict and don’t even care that we are offending. If we have never offended, then I would suggest that we have not crossed over those important relationship boundaries and are spending too much time with those who are exactly like us, rather than boldly engaging those who are different.

These moments of offense can be great for a couple of reasons.  One is that we learn from them — they are teachable moments in cross-cultural living and communication.  The other is that once we heal from the discomfort and sometimes painful residual effects, they make for great stories and we can learn to laugh at our mistakes.

I think it’s about offending and mending. We will offend. But one of the things we learn in the process is the culturally appropriate way to mend the offense in order to move forward in relationship.

Mending is often as simple as being willing to admit I am wrong and taking extra care and effort with the relationship in the future.  Other times it’s as complicated and lengthy as paying a visit and sitting in discomfort until the atmosphere thaws and we suddenly feel like all is made right. Still other times mending seems to take forever, or not happen at all.

I believe cross cultural adjustment is analogous to language learning. There are supposedly two types of language learners: those who, despite making mistakes, immediately begin practicing with the little they know, and those who wait until they have the perfect sentence structure and then go and say that perfect sentence, even if it’s just “Look at the big, green carpet!” when there is no green carpet in sight. Supposedly the first group learns far quicker because in their willingness to make mistakes and try, their language skills are sharpened. I would say the same is true in cross-cultural living and communication. There are those who go out and build relationships without knowing everything, who make mistakes and learn in the process; and those who study until they think they have it all correct, determined to make no mistakes.

But here’s the thing – there is no way we will get it right all the time. In fact, culture is so complex that it can take a long time to reflect, let alone understand, the cultures of our adopted countries. But if we don’t engage from the beginning, we will miss out on a lot of relationship building. And engaging with those around us means offending and mending, putting ourselves into postures of cultural humility.

So what does cultural humility mean? 

It means being a student of the community — not an expert.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity.

“Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react. It requires that we recognize our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture. It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.” From Between Worlds

What do you think? What are your stories of offending and mending? This is a great topic to learn from each other, so please share your stories!

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Thank you for sharing this story here, Marilyn. I love how you and your husband were willing to just laugh your mistake off, accept the bad day for what it was, and try again later. I tend to believe the lie that after only one mistake, my witness is blown, and I can’t try again (and this is not just cross culturally). I tend to forget that humility means not only that you CAN try again, but that you NEED to try again. Ouch! This involves awkwardness and confession and repentance. Again, ouch! Not my favorite warm fuzzy activities, but so essential for restoration. The thing is, I “know” these things in my head, but not always my heart or behavior. Thank you for the reminder to persevere in these things.

  • Tece

    Enjoyed the article, although the first part did trouble me somewhat. As a 27 year international missions veteran, I, too have made lots of language and cultural mistakes. But, i think a spirit of humility helps overshadow some of the offense made towards others. We all have to be careful of the words we speak and the way we speak them to all the nationals we are around. We are guests in their country and there to serve.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I agree with this which is the reason I started with that story. As I said in the article – it was completely inappropriate and we have learned more about cultural humility in years since. The whole picture of humility and sitting at the feet of others to learn has been a hard and important lesson for me to learn. Thank you for your thoughts.

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