The bridge is a structure that joins a great chasm formed by many and troubled waters that flow over common ground. The bridge completes a broken circle on which life, activity, is renewed.
A cultural bridge is an avenue of shared interests and concerns by which two or more cultures consciously interact for the purpose of communication and beneficial exchange. It is common ground where each side belongs but where no single side has ownership. Corbitt
In this chapter I want to describe how bridges are constructed. This paradigm, or model, will help you visualize a concrete process for establishing relationships with people who you consider different. I’ve purposefully omitted technical communication language, which I’ll cover later, in order to help you focus on the task at hand–understanding the bridge.
The first class of every semester, before the wooded area was converted to a parking lot, my students and I take a walk through the beautiful grounds of Eastern University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The purpose of the walk was simple: to reconnect ourselves to the world of the forest hunter many centuries before, reach a chasm and to discover a bridge.
Eastern College is located in St. Davids (Wayne), Pennsylvania, an historic area on the Main Line off Route 30 just fifteen miles west of Philadelphia. Most of the buildings and grounds of Eastern University were once a part of the Walton Estate. Mr. Walton loved natural beauty. Throughout the one hundred acres are indigenous flora and even a roaming herd of deer. It has even become a bird sanctuary. Geese, swans and a variety of birds stop traffic on campus with endless lines of waddling troops marching from one lake to another. The small lakes support a healthy bass, perch, crappie and goldfish population. There are several fine trails which connect the campus buildings and a small forest on the north side of the campus. Each season brings surprises of color, character and beauty. Community members regularly take walks on the grounds, fly fishermen try their skill in the small lakes, and young newlyweds particularly enjoy having their picture taken near the old waterwheel which spills water from one lake to another.
Before the University began “expanding”, there was one trail began at the parking lot behind McInnis, in which my office and classrooms were located. College, like that of the modern office or business, is a driving and focused environment. Tight schedules, the pressures of exams, reading and paper deadlines often preempt the experience of other aspects of our life. Our senses are equally deadened. The low grade hum of fans and generators, artificial light, regulated temperatures each take their toll on our ability to incarnate into a physical realm outside the artificial and controlled environment. It is an interesting experience to observe–the walk in the forest. One of the rules is to listen and try to relive the experience of Sojo the hunter. There is nothing to hear in the parking lot. We’ve heard it all before so that it becomes common place. There are no planes overhead, no lawnmowers in the neighbors yard, no cry of the bird because they have become blended and deadened by asphalt acoustics and suburban intensity. The forest at the end of McInnis lot is a backdrop for a parking lot. We are still in the context of school.
However, at the edge of the forest a hush rippled through the line of students as we enter the world of the deer, the eagle and the squirrel. The path wound through the oaks draped in ancient vines. The new context heightens our senses. The smell of honeysuckle brought back the memories of plucking the blooms and sucking the nectar from its tip. If we looked, we saw, a doe peering behind a distant bush to watch us pass. One student, not used to walking where roots and branches grabbed the toes of his shoes, stumbled, and crashed forward a few steps scaring the doe to another part of the forest. It then became a challenge for thirty of us to walk as the lone Sojo.
The path wound its way out to a gentle stream settled deep in a small chasm and appears to stop at the top as we saw two houses in a clearing across the stream. The late eighteenth century stone houses, also belonging to Eastern, beckoned our class across the stream. One student trampled through the undergrowth, slid down a small embankment and tried to jump across the stream. The rest of us were not so brave, so we looked onward for a possible fording site. The path widened to a track the width of a car where someone had thought of crossing before. Just ahead, past the briars, is a stone bridge crossing the stream and leading past the old house and onto King of Prussia Road. It is an arch bridge built in 1932. We walked across, down through the garden to take a closer look.
Bridges are important in our lives if for no other reason than to get from one place to another. They connect us with the world around us. When we come in contact with other people and places our lives are enriched. We learn from each other. We build many small bridges in many different directions. The handshake with a new person, a smile to a stranger, a look of acceptance are meaningful bridges we extend outside of ourselves to those at a distance. Building relationships takes place at both lightening and “snails” paces in myriad directions of quantum culture as we journey from home to office or to play.
In this day and time as in millennia before, we do not have a choice. Just as great canyons and chasms in the earth’s surface are formed by historic cataclysms in the earth’s surface there are great cultural and spiritual chasms that have separated us from each other. Much of this human chasm is a result of political, economic and social cataclysmic events of past centuries. This separation has a devastating effect on us and those in other parts of the world. We need not look far to see the terrible wars and social upheavals of this century that create and perpetuate deep canyons of mistrust and hatred. Physical walls that were once built to separate us have now tumbled down opening passageways to unity but leaving huge canyons of human separation. Bridges of communication and community remain a formidable challenge.
The word communicate derives from a Latin word “communicare” meaning “to share.” The more we have in common the easier it is for us to share meaning. As a chasm must be crossed by means of a bridge which joins opposite sides, so must a communication bridge be built to join people who may be radically different in culture and its parts of language, customs, values and belief systems. Beneath the chasm of difference, however, is an often overlooked similarity.
Have you ever looked underneath a bridge? What do you see? “Troubled waters!” One student inevitably calls out. What joins them? “Opposing sides.” Another responds. If we step back from the bridge we see common ground. The chasm is joined at some point beneath the waters in the earth’s surface. Maya Angelou, in her 1993 Presidential Inaguaral poem, was right in saying, “We are more alike than we are unalike.” All people are alike, in some ways. To be made “in the image of God” implies that there must be some common ground for all peoples to communicate and interact together.
Anthropologists suggest that we are alike in at least five ways. We all think, though we may not think in the same ways. Studies show that we have different cognitive styles. Some people think holistically while others are more analytical and abstract in their thinking. Learning theory even suggests that we have different intelligences. Music and art, mathematics, language and science are different gifts of intelligence. We speak, though we speak in many different languages. In Kenya, where I lived for a time, there were over sixty languages spoken in the country. We make tools, though the tools for the African Bushman are different than the western information society. I’m not very good at stalking game in the desert with poisoned arrows but I do pretty well at stalking the aisles of the supermarket with Vickie, my wife. I understand the concept of our capitalist system and can follow the transaction when I push my harvest in a grocery cart to an electronic cash register. We organize in social groups for survival, though we have different social structures to survive a diverse and sometimes hostile environment. We believe. Virtually every society has a belief in a Higher Power, though we don’t practice that belief in the same way. Focusing on differences widens the chasm. As I learned, respecting differences and building on common ground builds bridges.
It was in 1989 that our new neighbors Rahman and Zora moved next door to our house in Zimbabwe. There was no house on the vacant lot when I first saw them. Rahman was wearing a white Kanzu of the Islamic faith. Zora covered her face in the Islamic fashion and would do little more than nod. They didn’t appear very friendly. I’m not sure how friendly we appeared either, but as we talked we begn to learn something about each other.
Their plan was to erect a wall around their property and build a small prefabricated building that would later become their garage. They later moved into the small building and began to construct their house. During one of our first meetings at his gate we began to discuss religion. At first it was an intellectual discussion. I am a Christian. He is a Muslim. I am an American. He is Pakistani. Soon our discussion about faith turned to debate and then to argument. I’m not sure how Rahman took it, but I could see that if we wanted neighborliness, arguing over our religious differences would not build any bridges. For the next several years we avoided “religious” discussion and focused on our common interest which led to some rather interesting and deeper discussions about spirituality.
The bridge connects a circle of broken earth. There are few natural bridges. Bridges are manmade structures constructed to cross wide chasms. There is, however, a very famous natural bridge called by the native America Monocan nation “The Bridge of God.” Legend has it that the Monocan people came to a huge canyon while being pursued by the Shawnee and Powhattan nations. When the nation came to an unpassable canyonThe “Bridge of God” was the gift of and the answer to prayers to the Great Spirit .
Natural Bridge, on the edges of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Natural Bridge boldly reaches 200 feet above a small creek–once a river–in a circular arch joining two sides of a canyon. Cedar Creek, now a gently flowing stream, carved the bridge from a limestone base over which flowed the force of a waterfall. One hundred million years of force eroded the limestone leaving the bedrock exposed as a Natural Bridge.
There are a few natural bridges in relationships. There are some people with whom we just “hit it off.” The more you have in common the easier it is to “connect” with another. By and large, however, building bridges requires work. It is true enough in your culture but the differences of “other” culture require, even demand, that you make the effort. But how? There must be some process by which you succeed at building relationships in the intercultural environment or cross-cultural living situation. There must be a correlation between people bridging differences and engineering principles of structural bridges.
Dr. George Glenn was Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Rutgers University. One afternoon we discussed the parallels of building cultural bridges and engineering physical bridge structures. While we didn’t reach absolute agreement or exacting statements, we did discover seven basic principles to help you build a bridge of relationship on different levels of intercultural communication and cross-cultural living. Throughout the rest of the book I will elaborate on each of these steps, giving practical suggestions for applying them in your communication situation. Let’s look, first, at how bridges are constructed.
How Bridges Are Built
There are many types of bridges. Each bridge is designed for the size and shape of the chasm in proportion to the amount of load that will be required during use. One of the earliest bridge-like formations was the arch. The arch was built by constructing a curved platform out of wood. Then starting from both sides of the platform, stones were carved to match the curvature of the platform. The platform, or temporary support foundation, held the stress of the stones as they rested freely on it. When the stones had been laid toward the center from both sides, a final larger block of stone was carved in a wedge shape and fitted in the center. It was usually larger than the others in order to withstand the compression as the wooden platform was removed. It was called the KEYSTONE.
The keystone withstood the compression of the other stones as they were built upon it. Flat stones are then laid above the arch to strengthen it, approaching the level for travel across the bridge. From both ends more stones are laid to raise safety walls to prevent a traveler from falling from either side. Above the completed arch, headed by the keystone, flat stones are placed to form a surface suitable for travel across the bridge. These are called CAPSTONES.
Bridges do more than join the two sides of a chasm. They are part of a larger system of transport connecting two cities. Without social groups of people living in different places seeking exchange of goods and services, there is no need for a bridge. In the words of the seventeenth-century English author John Donne, “No man is an island.” Even in our contemporary world, islands are joined with continents by brisges of transport and communication.
Mauritius is a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean. Once the home of the dodo bird it is filled with exotic birds, lush greenery and people from many cultures. Daily “space bridges” of modern technology connect the island with the rest of the world. Its growing economy is closely linked to Hong Kong, India, France, England and the United States.
During the great flood of the summer of 1993, we witnessed, via the television, the plight of two cities. There was a bridge which had been built between two cities which faced each other across the Mississippi River. They exchanged good and services that contributed to the economy and survival of both communities. The rising flood waters of the Mississippi threatened to carry the bridge away, breaking the tie between the communities and forcing business to travel almost 100 miles out of their way to reach a town just a few miles across the river. Eventually the bridge broke loose from its foundation and was carried down the river. Tremendous resources are required to reconnect two cities that need each other for survival. Thus, it is people and their needs who require the construction of bridges.
Before an engineer is called onto the scene to design a bridge, people must recognize the need for a bridge. Someone must have the idea and vision to bridge one place–and their people–to another. Without this desire or need, a bridge will not be built. City planners, in conjunction with engineers, seek to establish the highest benefit/cost for building the bridges. In some cases the cost is too great to match the benefit to be received by both communities. This is a business concept. Yet, it can also apply to cross cultural situations. You may want to build a bridge between you and the people of Peru. The cost of language study, expense of travel, lack of needed expertise may far outweigh the mutual benefits to both of you. Yet you know that there are international bridges in operation which benefit both countries. For example, if you were to work in the same office with a Peruvian man, with whom you come in contact on a regular basis, the mutual benefit of an intercultural relationship would be well worth the effort. Not only would your lives be enriched but so would the life and productivity of the company. Bridges are waiting to be built. Everyone, I repeat everyone, has the opportunity for mutual exchange by building a bridge. By following seven principles, you can become a people bridge builder.
1. Survey The Territory
When construction engineers are given the task of building a bridge the first requirement is to survey the territory. The survey seeks to answer basic questions: What does the broad territory look like? What is the best location for the bridge? What type of earth formation will support a bridge? Once these general questions are answered the engineer can then design a bridge suitable for the geology and anticipated loads which will be carried across on a daily basis. After this survey, an estimate of cost is made.
The engineer is first concerned with an aerial survey. Photographs from an airplane or satellite provide the engineer with a broad view. Since the bridge is part of a greater transport highway, the engineer or team of engineers will study the topography between the two cities and project the most effective route for the highways as they approach the chasm.
Once a site has been selected, which provides the most efficient access to both sides of the chasm, an on-site survey is conducted. On-site surveys provide a first hand look to verify the selection of the site. On site, the surveyor uses two basic precision devices in combination. You may have seen these tools being used by survey teams. The theodolite measures angles for vertical and horizontal angle, combined with electronic distance measurement. The surveyor wants to know how each side is to be approached. While bridges can be constructed on a curve, it is preferable that the bridge begin and end on level ground at right angles to the chasm direction.
Finally, the engineer is concerned with soil and rock conditions at the bridge site. Below the base of the bridge is a foundation. The surface structure provides an avenue for transport, but without the support of the earth, the bridge will collapse. Generally, the bridge stretches across a river, which usually has a flood plain. You may remember from the flooding of the Mississippi in 1993 how the river overflowed onto vast flood plains of farmland on either side of the Mississippi. The engineer drills into the flood plain hoping to find shallow rock. If not, the deeper the engineer must drill to find rock or very firm earth. Design is based on the strength of these foundation materials.
The survey, however, is not complete with design. Throughout construction, “construction surveys” are performed to assure building continues according to plan. The engineer supervises carefully as each phase of construction is performed. It is important that the precisely prepared materials be delivered according to specification and in proper sequence. This detailed survey is required in people relationships as well.
If you have ever enrolled in a new school, purchased a home, taken a new job or moved to a new city you understand the concept of surveying the territory. Most likely you took an aerial view of the situation. You were concerned with the face of the new place. You noticed things like how people were dressed and what they sounded like when they talked. Recently we returned to the United States after eleven years in Afrca. Our first visit to Pennsylvania was a cold and rainy February day. Traffic was heavy on the highways and people hurried from place to place.
As I began to take a deeper survey I noticed vast differences between the African culture I came from and the Western culture I was returning to. I was accustomed to spending many hours talking with people in an event and person oriented culture. The Pennsylvania job interviews were timed and limited to a task of no more than an hour. It became obvious that I would have to make adjustments in my concept of time and relationships in order to survive in my new home.
Since that time, like the engineer who performs continuous construction surveys, I have had to stop at many points of anxiety and frustration to evaluate differences in culture. At times I have made value judgments by not accepting certain elements of my new culture. I don’t wear a watch and still try to take time to talk with people even when a task may go uncompleted. At other times I have refocused on tasks and find it difficult to spend the time for relationship building. The adjustment has not been easy but one which has provided understanding and growth for me. I gained a new understanding of the differences confusing communication between African and European derived cultures within the United States. I also learned to smooth some of my rough edges.
2. Smooth The Rough Edges
The construction of the bridge begins by preparing the earth. The earth may not be naturally strong enough to support the stress and heavy loads of the bridge. Soil compresses readily. If you have ever mired on a muddy country road you understand this concept. Soil can be strengthened by being compressed but may need additional techniques. It gives way to heavy loads. Temporary roadways are cleared of brush and debris. Then comes the process of stabilizing the soil. Construction roadways are compacted so that they will not give way under the weight of heavy loads. In some cases compacting is done by huge weighted rollers you may have seen during highway construction. In other cases, the soil is compacted by banging with huge weights. Not all soil, however, can be stabilized. The soil may need to be excavated and replaced with different, more supportive, materials.
One of the most difficult tasks in developing relationships interculturally is to smooth our rough edges. When we build intercultural relationships or live cross-culturally we must remove obstacles, both within ourselves and in the minds of others, that might hinder the progress of the relationship. This means identifying and excising beliefs and attitudes in ourselves that would prejudice us against others and helping others to do the same for us. We must clear the mental and emotional landscapes of misunderstandings that would prevent the building of the relational bridge.
There are many useful images that describe the obstacles your own home culture places upon your ability to appreciate people from other cultures. These are the rough bumps in the earth that must be cleared away from either side of the bridge. Alternatively, cultural obstacles are blinders.
Several years ago I was standing at the entrance to a guest house in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was chatting with a colleague about the cold weather front moving in from the south when a man walked by. He greeted us with a smile and went on about his business. “He’s a friendly man,” I said. “What is he like?” His reply, “He is a man who walks around without any blinders.”
Blinders placed on a horse will tend to focus the horse’s head straight ahead so that it will not be distracted unnecessarily and so that it can efficiently perform tasks that are required.
Smoothing rough edges may not be something we do willingly or knowingly. It is not something we can do in isolation. It is in the interaction with others that we discover mutual perceptions of ourselves and others. Proverbs says it best, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The growth we realize in the journey may not be evident in the making but it is well worth the refinement it brings to us and others. Yet, without a foundation, smoothing can erode a facade of strength exposing a slippery and shifting center of gravity.
3. Lay a Good Foundation
Choosing a foundation is the most important part of bridge building. It is often unseen, yet it visibly supports the bridge and the continual loads which travel across it. Let a bridge collapse and the first point of inspection is the foundation.
The best foundation is igneous rock. Igneous rock, like granite, was formed by the cooling of molten lava beneath the earth’s surface. Clay, on the other hand, is not as useful for a foundation. Usually, it is the medium through which piling transfers bridge loads to bedrock below the clay. Sand can be used for a foundation under certain conditions of confinement.
Engineers, where igneous rock is not available, choose a “spread foundation.” If the sand can be contained over a large area then it will support certain loads. The sand is vibrated into a stabilized formation. In some cases foundation piles are forced through the sand until they reach bedrock.
A foundation is tested to insure it will support the intended load. The test is not the final word; usually a team of engineers confer and make the final determination.
The spread foundation is reinforced with steel. When concrete pilings are used, they provide a core of steel rods on which the concrete is poured. If the foundation is near turbulent waters is can be scoured and eventually eroded. Lateral supports, like cross pieces, provide strength so that the foundation can resist lateral loads. This is particularly crucial in areas where there are earthquakes and strong winds.
Stephen Covey in his popular book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, discusses the importance of living by principles. In the course of the book he asks the reader to write a life “mission” statement. This statement includes defining intentional values and beliefs about oneself and their relationships to others. From these statements come the habits of daily living. At the heart of the sojourner is a principle of life. Like igneous rock, your life must be founded and centered on a principle of living which will support you on a daily basis in relationships but also withstand the inevitable challenges of intercultural relationships and cross-cultural living.
The sure foundation is one of LOVE. M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled defines love as a choice. “Love is not only an act of will-namely, but an intention and an action. Will implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” But love, once made as a choice also requires commitment, “… commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.”
From this foundation grow four pillars of action which provide you with the proper vision or ethic for living in the global village. You must be willing and committed to love–as a foundation for the journey–must see life itself as a sojourn, to become involved in the lives of other travelers.
The sojourner is a seeing person recognizing people who are unseen or have made themselves invisible by prejudice, hatred and injustice. Merely seeing the unseeable is not enough. The sojourner must willingly and committedly take the time and effort to serve and sacrifice for bridges that stand the storms and floods of cultural clashes scouring at foundation of intercultural relationships. The sojourner acts willingly, mindfully and artfully as engineer, construction worker and safety inspector. This empathetic response to “other” is an extended hand to build toward the middle.
4. Building Toward The Middle
Earlier I explained the construction of the arch bridge. You saw how the bridge is built from both sides to the middle. Actually, it is possible to build a bridge from one side to the other if the chasm is very small. Gravity, however, prevents bridges from being built from only one side in large chasms. Compression is the force that holds things together. It is measured by pressure. Tension is the outward pulling force that pulls things in the opposite direction. In all new relationships we find pressures to conform and tensions to change. Our in-groups want us in and our out-groups want us out. We must expend considerable amounts of communication energy to develop a third culture through new relationships with “other.”
Sheila was always interested in living and serving overseas. When she felt a desire or call to work with an overseas organization she told parents. They were strongly opposed to her traveling in a “foreign” environment and placed a great deal of tension on her. “Why would you want to do that?” They would ask. “You might be killed, taken captive or get a terrible disease and we would never see you again.” Before she could reach toward its middle she felt the tension of “cultural pull” away from the cross-cultural chasm. As an adult Sheila was constantly pulled back to her culture by her parents and friends who shared honest concerns and, at times, unfounded fear. Seeing her unwavering resolve, they eventually began to help her with support rather than pull her down.
When Sheila arrived in her host culture she quickly set about making friends. She spent a great deal of energy and time with new friends who reached out to her. Suspended between two cultures, they developed a third culture, one which belonged to them, was part of both but belonged to neither. The success of building bridges is in direct relation to the positive involvement of both cultures. The greater the distance of difference between them the more energy is needed to build strong bonds on mutual terms.
Building a third culture requires artful skill. Sheila, in her new culture, began to bond with those around her. This bonding occurred as she applied four skills in her relationships with others. She learned a new way to talk by studying the local language. This talk was more than learning new words and phrases. There were greeting rituals, sharing of meaning, and creating a common understanding between her and her friends.
She also spent time with her new friends. Making time required not just unlearning old habits of trying to complete many tasks. It was a new mindset of prioritizing people and a process above task. Instead of seeing people as a contract experience in learning language she began to establish covenants for long term relationships.
Being together provided opportunity to explore differences and build common ground in the relationship. Shiela also learned to touch the lives of others in new ways. In her American culture it was inappropriate to hold the hand of a woman. She learned that holding hands in her new culture was a way of showing friendship.
While there was always the tension of cultural pull by family and friends from both sojourners, Sheila learned to use that tension as feedback for safety in her relationships.
Sheila’s experience is not unique. The same tension and pressure for NOT developing intercultural may be even greater in America, and especially for Christians. Aside from the in-group and out-group pressures, years of fear, mistrust, prejudice and anxiety prey on the internal desires and intentions to “love thy neighbor.”
5. Design A Safety Factor
When I was a young boy I spent regular summer vacations with my grandfather Corbitt. He drove a 1954 Chevrolet pick-up truck back and forth to his farm about seven miles outside of a little southern Illinois town called Anna. On one hot August afternoon we decided to take the country road past his farm to a nearby forest–it must have been to go fishing. The road wasn’t traveled much and when we came to the small bridge that crossed the gentle creek he stopped. We both climbed out of the truck to walk across an old wooden bridge that had begun to deteriorate. Two hewn logs stretching from one side to the other were covered with old planks. Over the years the nails in the planks had rusted through and some of the planks had rotted or fallen into the creek. Grandpa wanted to test the strength of bridge and ensure our safety before driving across so he walked across jumping up and down on the structure. It seemed passable so we carefully drove across–not without considerable anxiety on my part.
A bridge is designed for two types of loads: dead loads and live loads. The dead load factor is the ability of the bridge to support its own weight. The live load factor is the dynamic “live” function of transporting people. Generally, the bridge is designed to handle twice the load it will support under normal circumstances. Recently, in the Pennsylvania area, as well as the greater United States, there has been concern about the safety of our bridges. Transportation and travel have increased greatly in the past decades. Bridges have begun to deteriorate as a result of increased usage and improper maintenance. Inspectors grade a bridge on a scale of 0-100. In an inspection of some local bridges, inspectors rated the bridges no higher than five due to cracking cement of support pylons, torn railings and broken pavement. Not only are bridges designed for safety, but they must be maintained to ensure safe travel and passage of people, produce and supplies.
Abraham Maslow proposed that all people have a hierarchy of needs. The two basic needs common to all people are survival and safety. When we interact with other cultures and their places of abode we want to ensure that we can survive and be safe. Safety and survival are relative concepts. At the basic level we all need food, clothing, water and air to survive. Survival to my family is finding the nearest hamburger restaurant. Yet, to many people of the world, survival may mean finding the next meal. Survival is not the greatest concern in intercultural relationships. We meet people of “other” culture usually within a known environment. Survival is a serious concern in the cross-cultural living situation. Were you to travel to Somalia at this time you would be thinking of where and how you might find food and water.
Safety, on the other hand, is a concern at two levels; physical and emotional. When we enter into the unknown we become vulnerable because we lack the necessary common sense of survival and safety in the other person’s territory. Taking risks is part of building relationships with others. Some people seem to be made to take tremendous risks in visiting war torn countries and violent regions. Others are less equipped with adventuresome spirits. As you step out on the journey, self-knowledge of risk and vulnerability are important to your survival and safety. Always be concerned for your survival and safety. Yet, realize that risks may be taken in small steps.
We cannot always prepare and protect ourselves from mishaps and even catastrophies. They happen even in our home environment. We can, however, minimize the danger of new situations. We can learn basic survival skills of the new culture. We know how to survive in our own culture and others know how to survive in theirs. We can also develop safe ways which minimize the possibility of being “at risk” in a new situation. Once establishing your safety zone, however, you want to maintain balance.
6. Stabilize for Equilibrium
One of the most famous bridge collapses of the twentieth century took place on November 7, 1940 in Tacoma, Washington. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a suspension bridge over a large body of water. The incident has been studied by engineers and is a classic case study of “resonant frequency.” Resonant frequency is the principle explaining that when a structure is not stable under a given dynamic laod it begins to resonate with its environment and thus pull apart and disintegrate. This is the case with the Tacoma bridge–though contested by many experts–in which the bridge began to undulate with the wind whipping through the canyon eventually destroying the bridge.
At the opposite extreme, bridges can be overstabalized and become extremely rigid. Support joints which are welded have no space for flexibility and can snap once the safety factor has not been maintained.
Stress is an inevitable part of intercultural relationships and cross-cultural living. Adjustment to life changes causes stress. Stress leads to physical disease and emotional disorders. In this country it is estimated that “50 to 70 percent of all medical complaints are associated with some kind of stress.” Stress contributes to many illnesses such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, diabetes, headaches, ulcers and asthma. Finding balance in our lives helps us to avoid both rigidity and a destabilizing frequency that can pull our lives apart.
When developing relationships with others and living in new surroundings, we have to strive to maintain balance and equilibrium. Realistic expectations are a good place to start. As much as one might like to become an “insider” in a new culture, very few people actually do. As much as I may want to shed my own culture, I rarely can. Living in new environments and meeting new people require that we balance our real self and begin to grow in ways which add to our being and to that of another. We seek mutual edification. We cannot expect to become like others. For us to seek to be like others denies our own identity. Yet, to refuse to change those things which are changeable creates a rigid personality which may eventually snap.
There is a line between being a “doormat” and a “doorram.” You remember Hagar the Horrible. I’ve met a few people like Hagar the doorrammer. They are always right and everything must be done their way. They are not much fun to be with in a close context. They are often found with doormats, those people who give in to every whim of the doorram. A person who is balanced and has equilibrium is a door post–one who stands firm in themselves and seeks the common good. There are ways to gauge the stability of the relational bridge.
7. Monitor With Strain Gauges
In 1992 I visited the Great Zimbabwe. This is one of the ancient structures of an African culture. It is built on a tall acropolis like hill and contains, in the valley below, many fortress-like structures. Shrouded in mystery for many centuries,it is now believed to be the center of the Shona Kingdom many centuries ago. Its construction is truly remarkable and was the center of much cultural, social and economic activity. Archaeologists continually study the structure and are restoring it where possible. During my visit to the structure, a friend and I climbed the steep and narrow steps and walkways off toward the acropolis. The narrow paths would have made a claustrophobic person nervous because of the tall walls that surrounded us. In the past number of years some of the stone structure has been collapsing and the workmen have been restoring or rebuilding the walls.
As I began to return down the hill I became lost in the maze of lookout points and walkways. As I rounded a corner I saw two men squatting behind one of the walls. They held a bag and were doing something that curiously looked inappropriate for the setting. I cautiously peered from the upper way and saw that they we placing something on the stone bricks. They were polite but business like. I inquired as to what they were doing. They explained something in archaeological construction I had never heard of. The wall by which they were standing had collapsed several weeks earlier. A team was sent in and rebuilt the wall. In order to make sure that the structure was stable and that they could have early warning of another collapse, should their rebuilding not be correct, they were attaching tiny thin glass rods with glue to two separate stone blocks as a type of gauge. They had done this to three pairs of rocks. These men were the foundations maintenance surveyors and each day they would return to see if there had been a shift in the structure. The slightest shift of any pair of rocks would cause a glass rod to break; by the position of the break they could determine where the stress was coming from and then compensate before another damaging collapse occurred. “But what about the inside?” I asked and “How did you know that you had placed the rocks in the same position?” “Good questions,” they responded. “The inner foundation of earth and rocks must be compact but it is not necessary to place them in an exact position.
But look at these rocks, closely.” They showed me. Each rock was color coded with tiny specks of color. Every rock had this identification. If the wall collapsed then the builder could rebuild placing each rock in its original position.
I was later to find out that some bridges also have strain gauges that are checked regularly. This was true of a bridge at the famous Victoria Falls where the bridge is high above a dangerous canyon. Should the bridge collapse it would mean peril for anyone on the bridge. Of course, travel between Zimbabwe and Zambia would be suspended.
Conflict, that word of disharmony and disunity, is inevitable in any relationship. It is more common in intercultural relationships than intracultural relationships–relationships with people from the same culture. The more unlike we are the greater the potential for conflict. Conflict can be a positive experience if it is handled early, with finesse and to the benefit of both parties.
In 1992 I met a wise old African man I’ll call Babu. Babu had an uncanny ability to read people. Just like time, talk, togetherness and touch are important ingredients in building relationships so their polar opposites are important signs of conflict. Babu, through the experience of dealing with people over his many years, had the ability to “read” people and contexts. He was not a pushy reader of people. You never felt watched or probed. His was a kind understanding as people began to reveal themselves through their conversations and interaction with others. Like Sojo, who understood the forest, Babu understood social contexts with quiet wisdom. He studied people from the beginning of relationships and knew the comfort zones of personal and social space. He read distance, silence and words of discomfort. He didn’t gain this wisdom in a book, though he faithfully adhered to the Bible for knowledge. He tested, tried and experienced each precept from years of living with people.
As you have read this paradigm of relating interculturally you may have personalized the examples in a relationship you have had with someone of another culture. Below, read how one person related the principles to her life.
Applied Bridge Building Relationships – Case Study
Amy Elser is a bright, yet quiet, student from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. A farm girl, she had never had an intimate relationship with anyone of “other” culture. In my intercultural class she met and successfully developed a sojourning relationship with a female international student from Burma. Two problems entered into the relationships throughout the six weeks of the assignment. In solving the problems she describes the application of the Bridge Building Model to her situation. I prefer to let her tell the story:
How did we move from having time differences and relational problems into not having an energetic and vibrant relationship? A lot of what was done was done unconsciously, but as I examine it, it follows fairly closely the model we learned in class for building bridges. The first step is to Survey the Territory. Most of this was done by simply observing differences between my culture and Niang’s. I observed the way we related to each other. It was a time of noticing all the different facets of our relationship.
The second step in building a bridge is to Smooth the Rough Edges. It was at this stage that I began to examine my ethnocentrism and to attempt to change into a person with 360° vision. I began to examine my stereotypes and any prejudices I held. The biggest challenge for me at this stage was to understand that many of my perceived offenses were in actuality cultural differences. I also dealt with my fears. I had a lot of fear on how to be with someone who I did not know and with whom I could not make any assumptions because they came from a different culture. It took me a while to learn to just be myself.After the territory was surveyed and the edges smoothed, it was time to Build a Firm Foundation. It was at this point that I had to accept Niang for who she was just as I expected to be accepted for who I am. I had to accept that she was not looking for a deep relationship. The funny thing is that as soon as I began to accept that, and truly appreciate what she could give, she began to reach out more.
Next, I learned to Build Toward the Middle. This is the time where a “Third Culture” is created. This particular area was important, because it was here that I realized that I was not the only one who had the responsibility to change, it was both Niang and I. It was here that we developed communication patterns that were comfortable to both of us. We developed a communication style that was appropriate for us together, not for each of us individually. By doing this, we created a relationship that was comfortable and good for the two of us.
Designing a Safety Factor was not something that I was particularly concerned with. I always felt very safe in this relationship, the only safety factor that I really incorporated was in protecting my emotions by not getting too close. By making sure I was safe I resolved some problems in the relationship. When I felt threatened by uncertainty, I acted to resolve the situation so that my safety (particularly my emotional safety) was intact. [For her safety, her emotional stability had to be greater than the emotional pressure which was put on her.]
The sixth stage is to Stabilize for Equilibrium. It is here that all the needed adjustments in our relationship occurred. I learned to give a little and not to get uptight if Niang showed up late, and Niang began to view our relationship as a friendship and not a time of interrogation. We each learned to be flexible, to be sensitive to the feelings of the other person, and to recognize areas in which we were detracting from the relationship. In this process of mutual consideration our relationship was strengthened and our problems resolved.
The final aspect in building bridges, is to Monitor Strain Gauges. After our problems were worked out by going throughout the previous steps, we need to monitor our relationship. If Niang was ever late, I needed to examine how that made me feel, and I found that as our relationship improved it bothered me less and less because I had gained understanding. In monitoring our relationship, I listened to what she said, I tried to be attentive to her feelings and her needs. As I did all those things, we grew closer.
Through this project I found that communication and cultural differences can indeed be a huge stumbling block in a relationship, but that with hard work it is not an insurmountable obstacle. By the final week of our official sojourning experience, Niang and I were making jokes and sharing together. Skin color, accents, clothing styles, and backgrounds were simply aspects of ourselves that were unique but not detrimental to our relationship.