Cross-Cultural Interaction: It’s Worth It

I grew up in a small North Dakota town whose diversity mostly consisted of ethnic Germans or Norwegians. Kneophla or lutefisk anyone? It wasn’t until I went to college and interned in the International Affairs office, making friends with the staff and international students that I first really experienced the beauty of cultural diversity. The beauty I experienced was not without an occasional confusing or painful time, some well-intentioned mistakes or naive faux pas on my part.   However, in persevering through those hard conversations, in choosing to ask a question or admit ignorance, I received only warm responses, deeper friendships, and greater empathy.

Gathered below are some ideas to keep in mind when you engage in cross cultural interactions:

  • Don’t be afraid. If your highest goal in cross-cultural communication is to never offend, you may never talk with anyone out of fear of causing misunderstanding. Take a breath. People can sense when you’re being genuine and respectful.
  • Assume the best. This is so important. In regards to language fluency and intelligence, assume high. Albert Einstein and Madeline Albright were refugees. PhDs come as refugees. In regards to behavior, assume the best. If someone acts differently than you expect, assume the best about the person and not the worst.   Remember: different doesn’t mean bad.
  • Treat everyone as an individual. If you’ve met one person from Ethiopia, you’ve met one person from Ethiopia. Withhold making stereotypes for whole ethnic groups from encounters with only a few individuals.    
  • Cultivate your power of observation. We see more with our mouths closed. Pick up on cues and adjust your behavior accordingly. Learn from mistakes.
  • Laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously and have a sense of humor. Embrace any awkwardness you may feel. Awkwardness can be just a signal that a social risk is happening…and risk is a good thing.
  • Ask questions. It is nearly impossible to know the appropriate behavior or response or action for every culture you may interact with.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is a Chinese proverb that says “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Cross-cultural interactions are becoming more frequent and more important every day. In today’s world, brought ever closer by technology and increased mobility, cultivating the skills necessary for meaningful cross-cultural interactions can be the difference between getting the call back for a job or not, finding friends or staying strangers. On a larger scale, successful and healthy cross-cultural interactions can be the difference between growing tolerance and peace or ethnocentrism and war.

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