I’d like to propose an idea to you: I believe that admitting your preferences helps prevent prejudice when befriending people from other cultures.
The reason is this. When we feel that having preferences is wrong, and that we should be working towards feeling equally comfortable in any culture, then we begin to hide our discomfort. When things become hidden away and closed off, what happens? They fester. And hidden preference can easily fester into prejudice, since prejudice is created by isolation from “the other.”
First off, what’s the difference between preference and prejudice?
Preference says, “You know what? I like my way of doing things best.”
Prejudice says, “My way of doing things is the right way for all people and if you don’t agree you are less than me.”
So here’s the backstory of why I say it’s important to acknowledge our preferences so that they don’t turn into prejudice.
When I went to Ethiopia, I was a recent MA graduate with a degree in Intercultural Studies. Now, I don’t think my program explicitly taught this, but I had the mistaken notion that if I wasn’t a prejudiced person it would be equally easy to make friends with Ethiopians as it would be with other Westerners. We moved to a neighborhood without many foreigners, and since I married into the culture, my network was 95% Ethiopian. And I wondered why I was struggling.
“I don’t know why but I don’t feel like I’m very good at making Ethiopian friends!” I told my husband. “It’s hard to connect. But when I meet another Westerner, it’s like we instantly click!”
He wisely stated the obvious. “Jessie, of course it’s easier for you to make friends with people who are like you. Don’t be mad at yourself about that. You’ll have to work harder to make friends with Ethiopians. But you can do it.” And you know what? He was right.
American women tend to deepen a new friendship by sharing their emotions pretty freely. We may not spend much time together, but when we get together, things get deep quick. Ethiopian women tend to deepen a new friendship by spending time together, chatting and drinking tea, and serving each other in practical ways. Both ways of deepening friendship work for people (see, I’m not prejudiced), but I prefer one over the other, and it’s easier for me to make friends with someone who prefers the same method I prefer.
But you know what? Rather than detracting from crosscultural friendships, admitting that I preferred an American way of making friends actually freed me up to stop my morbid introspection (in other word, asking, “What is WRONG with me??”) and instead woman up and make friends in an Ethiopian way (even though it didn’t come as naturally to me).
Acknowledging my preferences caused a huge breakthrough in my crosscultural interactions, because it took the pressure off. It let me acknowledge awkwardness and discomfort and make peace with it. It let me understand and process frustration rather than letting negative feelings send me running for my comfort zone.
I realized I don’t have to like different ways of doing things (for example, I do not like it when meetings start what I consider to be “late,” and I probably never will). I don’t have to like different styles of communication (I am a fan of direct hashing out of differences rather than hinting and saving face).
But because I believe that crosscultural friendships are infinitely valuable (more valuable than my preferences!), I can set aside my preferences in order to connect with those who are different from me in a meaningful and sustainable way.
I say sustainable because I think denying your preferences is possible for a time, but not healthy. It leads to burnout and distancing yourself from people different than you because you don’t understand why you’re so frustrated by them. Or, even worse, it prevents you from connecting in the first place, because it’s too hard to find room for the hidden baggage of preference in the relationship.
In other words, acknowledging your preferences enables you to put them aside in pursuit of a greater goal: meaningful crosscultural connection. Denying your preferences leads to shame and trying to hide your true self, which creates a barrier when trying to make friends crossculturally.
Doing this hard work of acknowledging preference is only worthwhile if there’s a great goal in mind. Tomorrow we’ll discuss that great goal, talking about 5 reasons crosscultural friendships are worth working towards.
What is a preference you’d like to acknowledge so that you can intentionally put it aside in pursuit of meaningful crosscultural connection?