The Secretary of State, on that Friday in March 2009, did what many TCKs do on a regular basis when transplanting from one culture to another. I call it UCI: Unintentional Cultural Irrelevance.
All the details were right…for an American audience: Hillary Clinton’s light tone of voice, her engaging smile, her self-deprecation and the orange-and-yellow plastic Reset Button that looked like the “Easy” button featured in Staples ads. “We want to reset our relationship,” Ms. Clinton said, holding the prop out to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. She used the term because it’s commonly used for various reasons in English, but it’s as common in the former USSR. Adding to the confusion, the translation printed on the button, unfortunately, said “overcharge,” not “reset.”
Welcome to a globally broadcast UCI moment.
Just last week, it happened again. When John Kerry brought James Taylor to France to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” in response to the terrorist attacks, the thinking was likely that it would be a soothing and meaningful gesture. To an American, it would have been. James Taylor’s is a familiar voice whose songs are the equivalent of chicken soup and apple pie. To an American, having him represent our country’s commitment to standing with France makes sense. But to a French person watching an elderly musician leaning into a too-low microphone during a political event and singing a song in a foreign language? It doesn’t work.
What the world witnessed in both these instances was a raging case of Unintentional Cultural Irrelevance—an attempt at high stakes interaction using props and values that don’t translate well from the American culture to the Russian and French. Where we value positivity, creativity and a friendly demeanor, the Russian culture upholds seriousness. Straight-talk. Steely determination. Where we understand the calming essence of James Taylor as an artist, to the majority of Frenchmen he’s an old guy with a guitar performing an interminable song they don’t understand.
Most TCKs have made similar mistakes at one time or another. Smaller stage, fewer onlookers, same mistake.
The problem stems from our interwoven internal diversity. Like colors blended into a single, composite hue, the places, people, customs, experiences and relationships of all our “here and nows” are often indistinguishable to us. They form a solid whole. So we sometimes fail to acknowledge that what’s relevant in one of our worlds is completely incomprehensible in others.
- The Nepali nod agreement side to side, not up and down. (Think of the misunderstandings!)
- In some Himalayan cultures, defecating right outside one’s front door is a symbol of wealth. But if a refugee does that in the Chicago suburbs…
- When George H. W. Bush flashed a “V” sign to Australian fans, years ago, he had no idea how vulgar the gesture was in that context.
But it’s in our personal interactions that managing the differences can feel even more onerous.
When I came to the States at eighteen, I assumed, as I revealed personal information early in conversations, that my new friends would be comfortable with this TCK quirk. I assumed they knew why I walked around campus staring at the sidewalk rather than looking people in the face. I assumed they knew that dressing in black every day meant I was French…not goth!
In my other spheres, these were normal behaviors. But I’d made the mistake of assuming my “reset button” would mean the same thing to my American friends too.
I was wrong.
But…here’s the great thing:
As TCKs, we’ve already learned transition skills and adaptation methods that give us an advantage in overcoming cultural divides. That means the onus of responsibility is on us to initiate the “gap-bridging” that is essential to cross-cultural relationship building.
It’s not that others are stupid, it’s that we come better equipped. Besides, it’s ridiculous to expect an entire culture to change in order to suit us—instead, we must adapt (not necessarily conform) to more easily insert ourselves into the culture.
What can we do to avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of Unintentional Cultural Irrelevance?
1. Learn the values and subjects that are relevant for the culture you’ve just entered—its concerns, symbols and language.
Values: In North America, we generally say that our values are time (don’t waste someone’s time by being late or staying too long…and for Pete’s sake, be efficient), success (whether it’s measured by achievement, scores, social status or income) and friendliness (which can feel fake to Third Culture Kids from more guarded places, but is essential here). Try to be mindful of those as you enter into even casual relationships.
There are times when another culture’s values will feel trivial or misplaced. That’s OK. Don’t let your opinion hinder your insertion.
Subjects: Listen to the conversations around you. What are the subjects that come up most often? What do college students do and discuss? How about colleagues in the workplace? What do couples talk about when they’re out with other adults? What holds their attention? What do they invest their energy in? What kind of small talk is customary with cashiers or parents at your children’s school?
Educate yourself on those topics—not out of a desire to conduct shallow conversations, but out of a commitment to forming meaningful relationships. And check anything that looks like arrogance at the door!
2. Be aware of the symbols, customs, stories and events woven into your own identity that are NOT universal—that’s anything people in this present culture might not instinctively relate to. An Australian won’t know what you mean if you say that a painting looks like a Kathmandu sidewalk after the Holi Festival. An American might be confused when you ask him, on February 2nd, if his kids ate crêpes at school. A German might be taken aback if you ask her why her country doesn’t celebrate Armistice Day.
[Explanation: during the Nepali Holi Festival, people throw brightly colored powder and water at friends and strangers in the streets. On February 2nd, every French classroom makes and eats crêpes for the Chandeleur. And the German don’t mark Armistice with the rest of Europe because they don’t much enjoy celebrating their defeat!]
So take the time to determine what parts of yourself will be pertinent to your new culture, and then…
3. Armed with all of the above, engage your friends and acquaintances on topics that are relevant to them and with attitudes, words and illustrations they’ll understand. Commit to learning about what makes them tick—to entering into their version of relevance—and apply your wealth of transitional skills and interpersonal instincts to deepening your identification with each other.
Here’s what’s important:
Out of your effort to be culturally relevant, relationship will develop. And in the context of that relationship, you will be able to unwrap the details of your life to friends who, before friendship with you, wouldn’t have explored the heritage and perspective of your other worlds.
An example from my own life: Many of my new friends in the Chicago area are sports fanatics. I’ve learned more about the Chicago Bulls and the Bears in the past 4 years than I’ve learned about any sport in my 46 years of life! (Go ahead—ask me about Derrick Rose and Jay Cutler!) And because I’ve asked the questions and put in the time, we’ve built a common foundation on which those friendships can grow and deepen. We’re learning more about each other with every chance we get to be together, and our relationshp now goes far beyond the drama of a sporting event. But we started there—and it paid off.
“That sounds way too tedious,” I hear some of you saying. “Why should we do all the work?” It feels unfair and forced. But it’s not tedious or forced if it’s fueled by the anticipation of friendship.
The worst thing we can do, as TCKs seeking to live cross-culturally, is bring a reluctant or bitter attitude to the process of relationship-building. If we gripe about it or resent it, that attitude will color our efforts with negativity and invalidate the process. Yet more than any other people group I know, we NEED relationship.
So why not try to bridge the cultural divide with the skills and adaptability we’ve developed in order to earn the reward of true friendship—and without the UCIs of misinterpreted reset buttons and misunderstood James Taylor ballads? We’ve got what it takes to do this better.
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