culture and language

The Wave and a Lesson in Cultural Awareness

cultureWhenever I speak to a group about culture and communication, the first thing we do is brainstorm and name elements of culture. We humans are pretty good at this exercise, but there are some favorite cultural elements, like food and music, that can be difficult to use as concrete examples of how different values and expectations can cause breakdowns in communication.

I’ve noticed over time that a great example of the difficulty of functioning in a multicultural environment is navigating how we’re expected to greet each other, and how we say farewell. Here we go:

In my first staff interpreter job (in the US), I learned quickly that among the staff of native Spanish speakers, the expectation was to kiss (or air kiss) hello and goodbye on the cheek, once. OK, got it. At that point, I’d recently lived in Central America for a year, where that was the custom. But the twist was that it was a Spanish speaking staff, but working in the US. Another hospital employee approached me one day in the hallway and asked me giddily, “Who was that girl you were kissing this morning?” I was like, um, what? Oh, that. Noted: Conserving cultural norms within the dominant culture can seem…Weird to others. Be prepared to explain.

Every time I went back to Costa Rica: OK, kiss on the cheek hello and goodbye. Got it. And nobody’s going to ask me who I was kissing and why, as it would be weird to NOT kiss.

Grad school: I was so confused. I had a Spanish classmate (double kiss), a French classmate (lost count of the kisses), Iraqi classmates (kiss and sometimes bear hug), Central American and Brazilian classmates (one kiss–I got this!), and Chinese classmates (sometimes a hug, maybe a friendly wave, NO KISSING).

Socially in the US: I recently met an Italian through an Indian woman (who shook my hand when I met her) and he kissed me twice? Three times? Ok, I’m going with it. He shook my husband’s hand. I have also kissed hello to people in the US who are from the US but have lived abroad (like me), which seems somewhat affected to me (kind of like how I feel when I speak Spanish with a native English speaker), but if they take the initiative, then OK.

At work in the US: I did a job this year with a French team, and when it was over, they kissed us goodbye. I leaned the wrong way and nearly kissed the French interpreter on the mouth. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I feel a whew-it’s-not-just-me rush of relief when I see it happen to someone else.

With students in Spain: Watching our students meet their host families, I realized (once again) that you can read in a textbook that in Spain, you kiss hello, but they won’t really believe it’s true until it happens. So the students realize after kissing their host families hello every day that this is a thing. But then they don’t know what to do with us (the director and assistant director). I noticed some of them at the beginning kind of moving in close to see if we’d make a move for the kiss hello. It’s all very awkward.

At work in Spain: My director was Spanish, but I know him from the US professional context and the kiss hello just isn’t happening. But what about other professionals I met in Spain? Sometimes it happens, and sometimes not. I felt really awkward at professional events. Mostly doing this awkward wave thing when I saw people who probably thought I was weird and/or rude (one of those things may be true).

And THIS IS THE THING. I know that kissing hello is a thing in Spain. I see people do it. All the time. Yet, at my core this is not a thing, and I just can’t do it unless someone else takes the initiative. And they probably won’t because I likely seem standoffish and uncomfortable. This is why in one culture (the US) I am polite, and in another (Spain) I am rude. See?

I think cultural diversity is awesome. I thrive on it, though to be fair I feel anguished and incompetent through some of it. I understand the benefits of flying the “cultural diversity is awesome flag”, but I think it can backfire when unsuspecting people are first dipping their toes in the water of customs that are different from theirs, and they think, Hey this isn’t awesome at all.

After “diversity is our strength slogans”, I want an asterisk that says, “Functioning in a different cultural context is near-miss mouth kisses, awkward waves, and thinking you’ve got it figured out when you watch one group of people do one thing, only to see people who you consider to be part of that same group do the exact opposite.” And that is okay. Why can’t we just say that?

This week, I had a heart-to-heart about my health with my new primary care doctor. When the visit was over, we stood in front of the closed door of the exam room and she opened her arm, as if to embrace me. I went in for the hug to thank her and say goodbye. When the embrace felt awkward, I realized that she was in fact extending her arm not to hug me, but to open the door. Even within the “same” culture, we can get it wrong. It helps to laugh about it.

What’s your experience?

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