A lesson on cross-cultural communication
Last year, my friend, Gwen, and I took a small group of North African friends camping. It was the first time these ladies had ever slept outdoors, made a fire, or paddled a kayak. I’ll never forget Thiziri, crawling in the boat, full of nervous giggles. We had a blast.
This year, when I threw out the suggestion to our international women’s group, I expected only one or two responses. Instead, I had seven responses. All the women wanted to come, and they insisted on bringing their husbands, because as Anya told me, “the men can serve us. They can watch kids while we cook… We need the men.”
I didn’t think we needed the men, but she had a point. And they all wanted to share a special family experience. And so the group became 25 people, including children, representing Russia, Belarus, Iraq, Algeria, and Senegal. The Russian family owns their own equipment, but the rest have never been camping. I spent two weeks acquiring tents, tarps, stoves, lanterns, headlamps, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, propane, a first aid kit, extra pots, and utensils. Because much of this was scrounged from people’s basements, Chris and I set up all the tents in our yard to check for parts, repair holes and apply weatherproofing. Despite this meticulous and time-consuming preparation, when the week arrived, rain was forecasted all weekend. We rescheduled for the next weekend. And that was rained out too.
The truth is, I was nervous about this trip - and not just due to the responsibility of hosting a large group in the wilderness. I was nervous because I know that my friends come from vastly different cultures. Many of them have joined our women’s group recently, so they don’t know each other. Our diversity works fine for ladies’ teas and interesting holiday parties, but how would they do making breakfast together over propane? Would they enjoy each other? Would it be awkward? Would people’s differences create conflict?
When I went to reschedule, my friend Eugene texted, “We are not going. It’s going to be much colder.” But the other Belarusian family said, “We’re going to the mountains and getting a cabin with Eugene.” I started to dig a little deeper and pieced together that three of the families had alternative plans. But knowing my Russian-speaking friends are usually honest and direct, I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just say so. Why weren’t they telling me the truth? And why was Eugene so rude about it? I called a friend to process. “I know I shouldn’t be offended - but I am. Please tell me not to take it personally.”
“Maybe it’s an honor-shame thing,” she hypothesized. “They didn’t invite you on this other trip, so they didn’t want to make you feel bad.” She encouraged me to ask them directly. It would be a good cultural lesson.
The next week, I was sitting in Anya and Eugene’s kitchen enjoying tea while our kids were in school. They are both from Belarus, but much of Eugene’s life was lived in Siberia, so he’s culturally Russian. But even for a Russian-speaker, Eugene is a leader with a strong personality. He has his own YouTube channel with a large following. His wife, Anya, in contrast, is gentle, sincere, insightful and kind; she smooths his rough edges and balances him the way good spouses do.
Eugene explained to me that he had recently been "let go" from his position in the US Army for “being rude.” He was outraged over this and felt that people were culturally insensitive and prejudiced against him for his accent and his general way of being. He’s forthright and direct, and he believes this shows integrity and respect. I listened for a long time.
“Is this rude…?” I asked, holding up his text message. “Just curious - why didn’t you tell me that you guys had other plans? Why would you give an excuse when you say you value honesty?”
“No. We made plans later. We didn’t want to go because it’s too cold - just like I said.”
“Oh, okay. But…” I hesitated. “I umm…I still felt it was a little rude.”
“Well, what did you want me to say?”
I grinned and stood up to imitate him. “Thanks SO much, Rachel, for thinking of us! And for your hard work. And for all your efforts setting up tents, and getting us sleeping bags, and a stove…and for reserving the campsite… It was a great idea!…But we’ve decided we can’t go because it’s cold. We’re so sorry, but hopefully next year…”
Anya was laughing and nodding.
He stood up and slammed on his fists on the table. “But WHY!? Why you want me to zay all zees vancy vancy tings to you! You vant me to be all vlowery with you? NO! I respect you. So I stay straight, “we are not going!” (Eugene’s accent gets thicker when he’s making a point).... And zat’s just you. But ze army?…Zey are supposed to be tough…but zey are a bunch of Zissys!
Anya leaned over, looked Eugene in the eye and gently patted his hand. “You can be rude, Zhenya. Just admit it.”
This led to a discussion of European vs. American communication, and “cold” versus “warm” cultures. I told him that I don’t know why, but in my culture (from the Southern United States), such an abrupt response is hurtful. You should always preface your “no” with a show of respect, such as “I’m sorry, but…” or “Thank you so much. However….” A curt response is like saying, “I don’t like you or your stupid camping trip.” It’s personal. And though I’ve had years of experience working cross-culturally, I still can’t program my brain not to react emotionally to what I perceive as rudeness.
Eugene continued, “When you want me to zay all zees things, it’s like I build you up, up, up, only to shatter you down - boom! Zat’s not nice. And all ze niceness? It feels fake to me. What’s the word?... insincere.”
“Do you think I’m insincere?” I smiled.
“Well, no, because I know you.”
He admitted that many times, especially working with other cultures, he gets frustrated by people’s dishonesty. They often say “yes” but then don’t follow-through. It makes them seem untrustworthy and fake.
I told them that in many countries, it’s very rude to say no. It’s like slapping someone in the face. You have to say, “yes” to show honor to that person. But if you really mean “no,” then you must find a polite way without being direct - like “we’ll see” or “insha’allah,” (as my Muslim friends say). Or just don’t show up. The other person, ideally, understands these unspoken rules and they will detect that you mean “no” by your tone of voice, posture, and body language. But you showed them honor by not openly voicing disagreement or disapproval. In these cultures, keeping harmony is more important than honesty and accurate communication.
“WHAT?!” exclaimed Eugene. “That’s ridiculous! That’s lying”
“It can be frustrating, even to me as an American,” I admitted. “But every culture has its own set of rules about how people interact and communicate.”
“Yes,” Anya agreed. “Understanding culture is important.”
Cultural rules are unspoken and often unconscious. I had never considered that my own manner could seem off-putting or insincere. I had also never considered that to some, like Eugene, directness shows respect. The same response can be perceived very, very differently by two opposing cultures.
I’m always grateful for these rare moments of open and humorous conversations with international friends. They help me to see the world through different lenses. I wonder how many wars have been fought because political leaders offended each other with different values and styles of communication.
As for our camping trip… God willing, we will try again in the Spring! No doubt it will be the source of many stories to come.
In the meantime, Anya and I offered to proofread Eugene’s work emails for ‘niceness.’ :)
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For further reading, Chris and I recommend:
Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold -Climate Cultures by Sarah A. Lanier.
It's an excellent, easy read to develop cultural sensitivity and skills needed to communicate cross-culturally.
Stay tuned for my upcoming interview with Anya and Eugene as they share the their story of immigration! They'll be helping us begin a media series to highlight the coming-to-America stories of immigrants in our area.