How to Navigate a Crosscultural Misunderstanding

Having a misunderstanding with a crosscultural friend can be amusing or shocking, depending on the issue! I’ve had my share of both kinds of misunderstandings, and know how confusing they can be.

Here are a few things we can do to help avoid crosscultural misunderstandings in general, and to sort through them more quickly when they do happen.

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt.

This is helpful in all misunderstandings, of course, but particularly crosscultural ones. Even if your initial reaction is to feel that your crosscultural friend was being deliberately nosy, or disregarding your time, etc., entertain a different idea:

“What if he/she did not intend to hurt me? What if his or her motives were good, but something has gotten lost in translation?” This is almost certainly the case.

  1. Analyze stereotypes.

Let’s be real. When someone from another culture offends us, we often turn to stereotypes to validate our offense: “Ugh, ___ (insert ethnicity) are all so ___ (insert negative trait).” Stereotyping is natural. Sometimes stereotypes have a grain of truth, especially regarding the perception of a group of people by people outside that group (i.e. Non-Westerners often think: “Americans are all so individualistic.”)

But stereotypes are not helpful unless they are understood to be an outside perspective and used as a springboard. Let’s use the example above: “Americans are all so individualistic.”

Well, it is true that most of the Non-Western world sees Americans as caring much more about themselves than about their family, community, and world.

For some Americans this stereotype is very true and should be addressed—individualism has gone too far in many cases and has produced selfishness. But a focus on the individual can be healthy and balanced, and has produced such things as the helpful concept of individual human rights and the fact that an average Joe can stand up and have a voice against people in power and big organizations.

In other words, don’t pretend you don’t stereotype in your mind (then you’ll repress the stereotype and it will just sit in your mind, unexamined, causing unfair prejudice). We all stereotype. Instead, when you have a stereotyping thought in reaction to a crosscultural misunderstanding, examine it closer:

How can that cultural trait be overemphasized unhelpfully by some? And—more importantly for our exercise—how could that trait actually work positively for the group you are considering? How are your own cultural biases influencing your perception of that cultural trait?

  1. Educate yourself on cultural value systems.

Doing the above analysis of stereotypes is much easier when you have a framework of cultural values in mind. Great minds have put together some very helpful tools to understand the broad contours of cultural categories.

In my opinion, the slim but powerful Ministering Cross-Culturally: A Model for Effective Personal Relationships is the gold standard if you’re looking to study this topic. You can read it in an afternoon, but the things you learn will stay with you and benefit your crosscultural friendships for life.

  1. Ask “stupid” questions.

One of the agreements my Ethiopian husband and I made before getting married was that there would be a “no stupid questions” policy in our marriage. This has proved very helpful to appeal to, because believe me, there have been some questions that we have felt stupid asking each other.

It often seems at first that the answer should be obvious to a given question—but when you’re dealing with someone with a different cultural orientation, you realize that there is more than one way to skin a cat (or treat the flu, or talk about money, or give a hostess gift, or deal with a cranky child, or comfort a grieving person, or…you get the idea).

Saying: “To me, it seems this way. What do you think?” or “My first thought is that we should do this—what do you think?” or “You seem upset about something but I think we’re misunderstanding each other, what do you think?” is a brave move that will likely show us that these questions which seem “stupid” (as in, really obvious, shouldn’t be necessary) at first are actually vital if we are to progress in crosscultural understanding and friendship with someone very different than us.

You can ask these questions of the friend with whom you’re having the misunderstanding if you think it would be appropriate, or you can ask a “cultural consultant” (see Tip #5 below).

  1. Listen to understand.

A gift that you can give to your crosscultural friend is to seek to understand before you seek to be understood. When you ask one of the “stupid” questions above, really listen to the answer. Ask follow up questions. Check your understanding. Consider what you have heard. See if their explanation can help you come full circle and give them the benefit of the doubt (Tip #1) with more confidence.

Listen to your particular crosscultural friend, but also listen to trusted “cultural consultants.” That’s what I call the group of really wise internationals and culturally savvy locals who are only a text or a Facebook message away and have been willing to help when I’m struggling with a crosscultural misunderstanding. Cultivate mentor relationships with people like these, who have significant crosscultural life experience and who have a balanced understanding of both “sides.”

A personal example to illustrate all this: When I lived in Ethiopia, I became annoyed after several of my Ethiopian friends complained (on different occasions, separate from each other), that I had not called them and they hadn’t heard from me in a few weeks and WHY where was I had I forgotten about them???

Here’s my perception of these encounters, as an inner dialogue: “Why haven’t I called her? Well, she didn’t call me either! Why is this all about what I did wrong? Why is there so much blameshifting in this culture? Why does she have to try to make me feel guilty? Why do I always feel like I should apologize to people?”

Then I got ahold of myself. I talked to some “cultural consultants” like my husband and a few friends who understood my perspective as an American as well as the Ethiopian perspective.

I considered giving the benefit of the doubt, because these complaining people had been good friends to me in every other way. I thought about the fact that what I perceive as blameshifting (“Why haven’t you called me—you’re lost!”) is actually used by Ethiopians to communicate their desire for connection with a friend…trying to affirm that they are wanting to reconnect, but making sure that you are wanting to too?

I thought about cultural value systems—that I did tend to be a bit more task focused, while my friends tended to be a bit more relationally focused (and thus more uncomfortable with the fact that neither of us had called each other in a couple of weeks!).

I asked stupid questions of my “cultural informants,” like “Are they trying to make me feel bad? What should I say?” And I listened when all the things I said above were patiently explained to me.

I learned to just say, “Yeah, I know, I’ve really missed you. Let’s get together soon” is a perfectly fine response (no apology needed). Also, I sometimes beat Ethiopian friends to the punch: I’m the one who now says, “You’re lost!” They don’t mind at all.

Crosscultural misunderstandings are difficult. But when we give the benefit of the doubt, analyze our stereotypes, educate ourselves about cultural value systems, ask “stupid” questions, and listen to understand, we will have a much greater likelihood of navigating and resolving them with grace and goodwill.

How do you deal with crosscultural misunderstandings?

For more encouragement and practical tips for navigating crosscultural misunderstanding, check out my book:

Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus

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