Intercultural Relationships; Part 1 Navigating Culture

how to navigate cultural differences
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Part  2 of this post is now live, check it out here

If you’re in a relationship with someone from abroad (or even a different region or minority group from your own country), you may feel at times that you come from different planets. Things that aren’t even on your priority list at all can be a big deal for your partner. Similarly, they can carelessly step on your toes as well.

If they’re from a different language background, these problems can become compounded with miscommunications. You know, suddenly they seem offended and you can’t understand why, or they give a mindless ‘yes’ to a question it later turns out they didn’t understand at all. Then there’s the times it feels like they’re having a completely different conversation with a voice in their head rather than actually hearing what you’re saying, and you get stuck in a loop of repeating or explaining and they keep not understanding.

Maybe the primary language in the home is your partner’s and you find it exhausting to try and speak. You may sometimes also feel embarrassed when you make mistakes.

I’ve been there, and I’m here to help if you’re having a similar situation.

This is a two-part series. In the first post, I’ll be dealing with culture. In part 2, I will be dealing with linguistic issues. Here are my tips….

  1. Understand there is a difference between cultural issues and personality
    Culture can be a bit hard to define because the areas influenced by culture depend on which one you’re talking about.Culture includes things like customs (such as taking off your shoes inside), how one dresses, how one grooms themselves (hairstyles, beards etc), food, social expectations (like visiting family or having regular contact, ‘unspoken agreements’ like expectation of returning favors). Culture can vary greatly between religions and ethnic groups in a country, or by geographic location (rural culture vs urban) or socioeconomic status. These variances can be subtle or radical.Now, before proceeding understand that your relationship is with an individual person who may not necessarily fit into every cultural expectation of them. They may engage in some activities which are ‘taboo’ in their culture. A lot of the time, culture is what must be performed for others, whether there is a personal adherence to it or not. It is normal for some customs to be liked and others not, some may also actively and publicly rebel against cultural expectations. All of this is okay, but the most important thing is to know your partner deeply as an individual. Don’t make assumptions based on culture, and get beneath the cultural show before you commit to them (if you haven’t already) or you’ll have potentially huge problems later.
  2. Assess the real problems
    This means stepping away from your anger and irritations and assessing what the real problem is.Consider this example of a common issue;The husband doesn’t see a problem with playing with his phone or watching tv while his wife is still trying to make a dent in the housework at 7pm and the baby just interrupted her with crying again.He is coming from a traditional society where men work and their only involvement with children is providing discipline. Understand that this type of behavior is what has been modeled to him by his own father and was what his own society expected from him. His wife, coming from a ‘western’ country where it is now mostly normal for partners participate (almost) equally in parenting and housework, and for women to also be working (although currently she is not), wants him to care for his children and help when she is overwhelmed, and resents being ignored when he can see she’s struggling. She may usually say something like “can you put that bloody phone away!” but the problem is not actually his phone use, it is the way his ignoring her when she is stressed and overwhelmed is making her feel.

    The role culture is having here, is the man is not seeing his behavior as something inappropriate or that would cause offence, he is just doing what he has always done and no-one ever had a problem with that before. He sees his wife as being capable of dealing with the housework and children at the same time, and assumes everything is under control, because his own mother never asked or expected help from either his father or himself. For his wife however, she sees this behavior as being entitled and insensitive, and it may be a correct interpretation were she married with someone from her own country who grew up in her culture and can understand there is an expectation for him to give assistance.

    The difference here is that the man is not understanding the new rules he is expected to follow, and how his behavior is being interpreted in the new cultural context, it’s not something he is using intentionally to be hurtful. Whether you think the man’s culture is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or if the behavior is ‘wrong’ regardless, is not particularly relevant.

    You don’t have to like it, or agree, and just because it is ‘culture’ doesn’t give him right to behave this way, the main thing to understand is he is just doing what he has been taught by his society. The wife’s desired response is just not something which comes naturally, but he is a human and capable of learning and adapting. If you don’t identify the real problem, he will just be confused (wondering why using his phone has only become a problem just now).

    Don’t make these discussions about morality, or how his culture ‘should’ be, the practices of an entire nation are not your problem – address the issue you have with this specific person at this specific time, and avoid broad generalizations. Have a discussion about how this isn’t appropriate in your own culture, how you are seeing it, how it makes you feel and then ask how you can come to a compromise. An example solution might be that even though he is working he still needs to be active in caring for and parenting his children, particularly when his wife is occupied with housework, other than this he can be free to relax at home.

  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff
    You may not understand why it is soooo important to your partner that you take your shoes off outside the door and not wear them into the home, but if it would only be a temporary annoyance to develop this habit just do it and don’t make an issue of it. If you don’t care much but it’s important for them, just respect their wishes and ask they do the same for you.
  4. Understanding is everything
    Yes, this means you need to learn a lot about your partners culture and the potentially complex and complicated nuances of that like why you always have to visit you mother-in-law even though your partner knows you and your MIL hate each-other with a passion.Some things you may not understand even after they are explained to you (like the above). Others however, you may even like after learning the meaning and significance of them.What understanding will help you with is rather than being angry about a misinterpreted gesture you can come from a place of compassion for the humans you’re dealing with (your partner, his family, etc). This will help you to respond in a much more mature and productive way, which is more likely to get a positive outcome.
  5. Respect their religion
    Whether or not you believe in their religion, you chose this person, and their faith is a part of them. Don’t try to change it or alter it. If they want to attend church every Sunday, let them. If they want to perform the 5 daily prayers (islam), let them. If they want to celebrate religious holidays you’re not accustomed to, respect that too. Religion is not to be infringed upon, and doing so will likely damage your relationship deeply, so leave it alone. Be aware that religion can influence many areas of life, including ones that may not seem like they’re linked. Culture will also influence and add its own flavor to religion, so don’t think that just because you’ve dated someone practicing x religion before, it will be the same for someone practicing the same religion in a different country.I will mention here that many people do wrongly use religion to infringe upon your rights, or misrepresent it to justify their bad behavior, or their opinion. This is not something that should be tolerated. Give respect to those who truly believe in their God, not those who only remember religion when it can be used to their advantage, and forget it the rest of the time.
  6. Understand what the cultural expectations are and the consequences of not meeting them
    I am adding this one in because, when you’re not performing your expected role, it can cause a lot of stress. Some cultures do put a greater emphasis on performing certain roles while others may be very flexible. Culture tends to exist because of a social pressure and enforcement of the rules. If you move too far out of the expectations, this can have serious consequences, like being mocked or humiliated, ostracized, or even having your family disown you.Consider a man whose culture dictates that he should be the primary provider in the family, but after moving abroad with his wife, and struggling to find good employment in the new country because of the language barrier, his wife is now earning more than him. This can have various effects like causing depression or feelings of low self worth, or he may feel a need to correct the situation by demanding his wife quit her job and stay home, and live off his lower income just so he won’t feel inferior. He may feel that he will be humiliated if he is honest with his friends or relatives back home about his situation.They key to solving these kinds of issues again is about coming from a place of empathy and understanding. Get everything out in the open and discuss a solution. That might mean lying to his people back home, but it’s a small price to pay to keep your career if that’s what you want. It may mean supporting him to get more education or making greater effort to improve his language skills to increase his chances of finding better employment.
  7. Accept what you cannot change, or move on
    Some things are going  to be non-negotiable. The case may be that neither of you are willing to negotiate on a certain issue and this leads to a breakdown of the relationship. The sooner these kinds of issues are put out in the open, the easier it will be for everyone. It’s better to discuss them in the first year of your relationship (and especially before marriage or a big commitment) rather than discovering them after 5+ years of conflict and having children together. You’ll never get back the time you lost and the sooner you stop wasting time trying to change something that cannot be changed, the sooner you can enjoy the time you have left and find someone more compatible with you.

Do you have any other tips? What was your experience marrying into another culture?

Dont forget to check out part 2 here 

1 Comment

  1. Jimmie
    April 25, 2019

    Hi there! Such a great article, thank you!


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