When Cultures Collide — Drawing Parallels Between the Personal and the National

Imagine a person who comes from the U.K. to the U.S., walks outside of the airport, turns to the first person they see, and asks for a fag. Depending on who they ask, they’ll get a different response. Someone who is British, has travelled to the U.K., or is otherwise familiar with British English will either give them a cigarette or say, “Sorry, I don’t have one.” An American male homosexual unfamiliar with British English might either try to pick them up if they’re cute and male or give them a dirty look and walk off if he thinks they’re being insulting. A homophobe unfamiliar with British English might be so overwhelmed with emotion they freeze and can’t respond, or so angry they lash out.

The other day I wrote about how I find it annoying when people ‘should’ on me, and on Facebook I got a couple of responses that were along the lines of, “Well, can’t you look at the loving intention behind the words, rather than get hung up on the words themselves?”

The truth is, I can, and mostly do. I am like the American in the airport who understands that ‘fag’ means cigarette to a Brit, even though it commonly means homosexual in the U.S. and can be either derogatory or affectionate depending on who is saying it to whom, and in what tone of voice. I will respond to the Brit as if they had asked me for a smoke, which in their language they did. It’s also a courtesy to let the Brit know, “Hey, in our country, that word doesn’t mean cigarette, it actually has a history of being used as a derogatory word for a gay man, so unless you happen to be gay yourself, it’s best for you not to use it anymore.”

If that Brit continuously forgot, and kept on using the word ‘fag’ throughout their travels, from rural Texas to Capitol Hill in Seattle, and never caught their mistake and explained or apologized, eventually it would probably get them in some kind of trouble. Even if they had good intentions, their lack of ability to conform to local culture would probably cause problems sooner or later. It would be even more silly if the Brit kept on using the word ‘fag’ on purpose, justifying it by thinking, “Well, these people need to understand what I mean by the word ‘fag’; I don’t intend it to be insulting, why should I change?”

In this case, I would argue that it’s the Brit’s responsibility to learn the local culture and adjust their language accordingly. A circumstance in which an American happens to understand what they’re trying to say is a happy coincidence, rather than something to be counted on.

The U.S. and the U.K. have different cultures, with different meanings for words that look and sound the same on the outside. Similarly, every human being has their own unique culture. Words that mean one thing to me may mean something different to you. ‘Bread’ may evoke images of my mom’s homemade wheat bread in my mind while you are imagining the white sliced Wonder bread your babysitter used to make PB & Js. ‘Cheese’ may make me think of Parmesan while you are thinking of Brie. ‘Parmesan’ to me is a chunk of salty hard cheese, whereas to many people it’s a plastic bottle full of white powder.

These examples are pretty innocuous; what about words like ‘God’, ‘committed relationship’, or ‘respect’? People are pretty aware that there are lots of different kinds of cheeses and breads, and if they forget and make an assumption, usually it’s not a big deal. It’s easier to forget that there are many different ideas of God, or of what commitment entails, or of how to show respect, and yet the consequences of forgetting those differences can be much more serious.

Since every human has their own culture, just as countries have their own culture, if I want to communicate with someone, it’s in my best interest to learn their unique culture if I want to succeed in communicating with them. The more I interact with someone, the more about their culture I learn. If I offer my opinion to someone, and they are offended by it, I know not to offer my opinion anymore. If I think I’m doing someone a favor by killing the daisies in their lawn, and they are outraged that I killed their flowers, I know not to touch their landscape without asking again. If a woman in a romantic relationship with another woman and a man tells me she doesn’t like the word ‘sister-wife’, then I’ll stop using that word in conversations with her. It’s to be expected that I’ll make mistakes — I can’t predict all the ways that my personal culture is different from another person’s personal culture, so I’m bound to have assumptions of which I’m not even aware. Once the differences are brought to my attention, though, it’s on me to either be respectful of the other person’s culture or to stop interacting with them if their culture is unacceptable to me, just as a person traveling to a foreign country best either learn the local culture well enough not to be offensive or leave the country.

Back to the original question — isn’t it best to make allowances for people, to respond to their good intentions rather than to their triggering behaviors? Overall, I would agree. I would argue, though, that if repeated attempts to educate someone about their triggering behaviors fails, and they never apologize, then they aren’t showing good faith in learning my personal culture. At that point, I get to choose whether they get to keep visiting my country or not, and whether I want to visit theirs. People, like countries, are usually a mix of things I love with things that are less than ideal. In most cases, the things I love more than make up for the things I don’t like so well. In some cases, though, the negative outweighs the positive, and in those cases I neither visit their country nor allow them full access to mine.

One nice thing about countries is that the culture is based on physical location. The local culture has sway — an American wearing a bikini in Egypt is offensive, and an Egyptian would have every right to be offended and expect different behavior. If an Egyptian is offended by all the bikinis on an American beach, on the other hand, it would be up to the Egyptian to either accept the local culture or to go elsewhere. When the cultures of two people collide, though, it’s not so clear-cut where the burden of change is. In my experience, when I am relating to another, we find where our cultures intersect and hang out there. I do my best not to be offensive or be offended, the other person does the same, and we can connect. If I am triggering someone, I can choose to stop my behavior or not. If I don’t stop, it’s because I can’t stop without somehow harming myself too much. If I am being triggered, I can do my best to let go of the feelings coming up. If I don’t let go, it’s because I feel truly harmed.

With many people, our personal cultures are malleable enough that we can find ample common ground. Where we aren’t malleable are the deal-breaker spots, those boundaries which we aren’t willing to have crossed. Whereas countries have physical boundaries, within which the culture must be honored, people have deal-breaker spots. If I want to visit another person’s country, and they want to visit mine, we must each be able to see where the deal-breaker spots are and be willing not to cross them. Everything else is up for negotiation.

One benefit I got from traveling to foreign countries is the understanding that things I thought were universal to the human experience turned out just to be cultural. My favorite example is being stared at — I thought it was a universal human trait to think being stared at was rude. Then I moved to Germany, and I discovered a whole country full of people who don’t mind being stared at. This experience allows me to be less attached to my own personal culture — I understand that the things that trigger me may not be the things that trigger others, and I know that where my deal-breaker spots are will be different from where other people’s deal-breaker spots are. I know what’s right for me; you know what’s right for you. If we are willing to respect each other’s boundaries, we can communicate. Someone without this perspective, who thinks that their boundaries are “right” (as opposed to just right for them) may not honor other people’s boundaries because they think they are “wrong”. This attitude is like the Brit who continues to use the word ‘fag’ in the U.S., because they expect the local culture to bend to them, instead of the other way around. I prefer to associate with people who are more culturally sensitive than that.

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