Getting Involved: I Relate Therefore We Are
“I want you to leave the room today, go out and initiate a relationship with someone of another culture. You are to maintain that social interaction over the next six weeks.” That’s the assignment I give to every class on cross-cultural studies. Inevitably, I observe uncertainty, fear, and sometimes panic on the faces of students. There is a lot of stress when we intentionally begin new relationships. We are often unsure, nervous, anxious, even fearful. Introverts, like myself, have to muster a lot of energy to get going. Sometimes this stress comes from not knowing what to do. With all the changes in America in the past decades–divorce, violence, mobility, multiculturalism–our boundaries of behavior have been broken, ignored, and even lost. I find that many young people, even adults, do not know how to go about the protocol and etiquette of simple introductions with people who they find different. If you are unsure how to establish social interaction, this chapter will help you get started. If you feel confident in getting started, you will still find help in monitoring your social interactions over the next few weeks.
In helping people bridge the culture gap, I have discovered an eight-step process by which most of us travel. Look at the diagram above. The first four stages are a mental process of preparation: make a decision, clarify your motive, establish your intent or goal and discover the appropriate access to a person. The last four stages are the actual involvement in the new situation: introduce yourself, meet for the first time, plan and negotiate subsequent meetings, and experience a pivotal meeting where you “connect” in a more intimate way.
Occasionally, I will have a student who asks, “Why bother? Can’t we just read and study about relating with others?” Learning to relate effectively across the culture gap does involve cognitive competence –knowing what to do, but it also requires behavioral competence–doing it effectively–that comes from first hand experience.
1. Make the Decision
Bridging the culture gap, like building structural bridges , requires knowledge, practical skill and good judgment. In an article entitled “How Engineers Loose Touch,” Eugene S. Ferguson explains that, prior to the 1960’s, engineering education used practical training as part of the curricula. Since the 1980’s engineering training has shifted to more analytical approaches dependent upon computer simulation. Less emphasis is placed on the “hands on” work of seeing, touching and experiencing all aspects of engineering design. This hands on experience is critical in teaching good judgment. Engineering failures still occur in spite of more advanced technology. “Engineers need to be continually reminded that nearly all engineering failures result from faulty judgments rather than faulty calculations.”
In a similar caution, you are reading this book about relating effectively with people across the culture gap. Reading and study will provide you with the necessary terms and understanding of the material–cognitive competence. However, without learning through experience, wisdom–the ability to make sound judgment–will never become a reality.
Count the Costs
“This may cost me something.” You might be thinking. You’re right. There are personal costs in worthwhile adventures. You may have heard the expression, ‘The good things in life are free.’ They may be financially inexpensive, but the good and right things in life take personal life investment. “So what are these costs?” You ask. “I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.”
Bridging the culture gap requires Communication Energy. This is the actual time you must spend in interaction with others and the emotional energy you expend in focusing on the interaction. This is one of the greatest costs and challenges to people of Euro-centric cultures who are task oriented, individualistic and value time as money.
“I am a busy executive,” a highly successful man began to justify. “My organization depends on me. If I take time out to talk with people, I will not accomplish my many tasks and people will loose confidence in me as a leader.” This is a legitimate concern, yet, experience has shown that a person-centered approach, as opposed to a task-centered one, is a needed mind-set in relating effectively with other cultures. As we will see, our ultimate success may be measured more by our relationships than by our accomplishments.
A second cost is the pain of change and cultural discomfort in ambiguous situations. As we begin to move from the known to the unknown, we discover many rough edges in ourselves. We can no longer blame actions and attitudes on our culture’s way of doing things. We will be forced to honestly evaluate these assumed and long held beliefs, values and attitudes. At the same time, we may feel discomfort in ambiguous situations. We experience cultural vertigo, where we are lost in the space of someone else’s culture. We will ask questions for clarification, and accept some things because that is the way they are, until the ways become clear. We will make mistakes. Cultivate the joy of being wrong in order to be right (correct) in order to grow and mature in your relationships.
Finally, we will experience initial loneliness and opposition. In-group cultural pull creates stressors when we step out of our group. Sometimes others distance themselves from us because they do not understand or agree with our honest intention to build relational covenants across the culture gap It can be a threat to the survival of the group.
The costs are worth it. You will grow as a person. You will become new, energized, excited and broadened as a person. As you make your journey, commit yourself to become a sojourner developing covenantal relationships with fellow sojourners. Expect the unexpected as your world expands, your relationships grow and surprises unfold on the plains of new worlds. To decide is to make a willing commitment to place thought into action. It is an act of will. I hope you will make that decision. Once making the decision to interact across the culture gap we must clarify our motive for doing so.
2. Clarify Your Motive
To claryify your motive means to establish, for yourself, the objective of your decision. It is the ‘why?’ or reason behind your decision. I am not trying to be flip in saying this; but, you are not asked to meet someone, fall in love and get married. Nor are you being asked to interrogate a captive by probing for cultural secrets. You are to socially interact with an intercultural partner in order to learn the process of relating effectively. The person is someone who you consider different than yourself and who has agreed to enter the experience for mutual exchange. Success is not determined by the outcome. Success is learning gained from the process. You may fail in successful interaction yet succeed in learning about yourself and intercultural communication.
Occasionally someone will complain, “I don’t like forced friendships! This is an ethical issue with me. I feel as if I’m using another person for my benefit.” This complaint is valid. You do not want hidden agendas in any relationship; nor should you use people against their will. That would be unjust. However, there are two underlying assumptions. One is that you are developing a friendship, an intimate relationship, and must “spill you guts” with a total stranger. One may fear the possibility of “exposing” themselves to a total stranger or have uncertainty about the outcome. They worry about success. Another concern is that the other person does not want to interact and is being forced to do it or they do not understand the reason for the interaction.
Am I taking advantage of other people? In many ways this is a Euro-centric value judgement related to individualism. An individualist values independence and regards dependence on others as a weakness. “I think, therefore I am.” In collectivist cultures, relationships and membership to a group are highly valued. “I relate, therefore we are.” Some people are comfortable at intentionally establishing a relationship for mutual learning. Others, with different personalities, are more reluctant and prefer to develop intimate relationships through coincidence. In this assignment, people will agree to explore this assignment with you. Therefore, they are intentional in their entering into a contractual relationship with you.
You are probably an American citizen. In new encounters across the culture gap you may be an insider. Your fellow sojourner may be an international student who will be an outsider to your culture. In the future, if not already, you will be an outsider when you travel overseas, take a new job or move to a new neighborhood. Outsiders are often excluded. Insiders must learn to include outsiders by creating a friendly space. It is an incorrect assumption to believe that outsiders do not want to be insiders. At the same time outsiders fail to take initiative because they fear exclusion (often rightly) and the hurt of rejection. This assignment helps you explore the feelings, needs, fears and responsibilities of insider and outsider. It may be that one’s failure to welcome others is a greater moral concern than one’s ethical concern of offending others.
3. Establish Your Intent
An intent is a goal with desired outcome. In this case, your intent it is to relate effectively with those across the culture gap by establishing social interaction. To help us better understand our intention, let’screate a mental map of the word relationship.
When I say the word “relationship” what do you think of? You may imagine two lovers, “They are in a serious relationship.” We mean that they have a very intimate relationship. We use phrases like “broken relationship” and “meaningful relationship” to express different levels of intimacy. To relate, in this case, is to interact or communicate with another person on a personal level. ‘Relationship’ indicates what type of interaction we have with others. It is our state of relating.
Daily, we relate with others in a number of ways. Understanding how we relate helps us to clarify our motive and intentions.
When you refer to a person as your employee, boss, wife, daughter or friend, you are giving an indication of your inter-role relationship. An inter-role relationship is like a drama where parts are played to complete the story. Societies have behavioral expectations for roles that help them to function. These ‘social contracts’ are implied through the unwritten rules and expectations of members, and not always legally binding. Roles, in society, also have status and power. These role relationships are called role-pairs, for example: mother-daughter, teacher-student, citizen-alien . The role is not the total person, but one of the many aspects of the person. Roles are our basic way of interacting within society. Our level of commitment, however, is defined another way.
Contractual and Covenantal Relationships
In Leadership is an Art, Max DePree discusses the difference between contractual and covenantal relationships. Contracts are usually legal arrangements and demand some type of reciprocity. A contractual relationship is quid pro quo. It usually has legal implications in a reciprocal, often benecifiary obligation. When a legal obligation is placed on an inter-role relationship it becomes contractual–like employers contracting with employees for goods and services. A specific outcome behavior is contracted. There are then both ‘social contracts’ of behavior and ‘legal contracts’ for reciprocity.
Covenantal relationships, alternatively, have to do with developing intimacy with people in learning about their values, beliefs and goals. We learn to work together for the common good. While we may relate to others in a role, and even have a contract, convenantal relationships are a commitment that transcends a contract and suggests a much deeper level of interaction. For example, when you were born, your parents entered into an intentional and covenantal relationship with you. They promised to care for your biological needs and guide in your psychological, physiological, cultural and spiritual growth. Covenantal relationships are more than agreements, though there is agreement. They are commitments and we develop intimacy with persons, even though we interact in roles.
Object and Person Relationships
Martin Buber descibes another level of relationship which helps us to understand our level of interaction with others.  He suggests that when we treat each other with equal regard, or respect, and develop intimacy with an inner person we have an “I-Thou” relationship. There is a holy or sacred quality in this interaction.
An “I-It” relationship indicates that we treat each other as objects. To objectify a person is to only see a characteristic of a person in a selfish or stereotypical manner. We see a specific function of a role, but not the person beneath the role. For example, when one person sees another person as an object for sexual gratification, they have objectified the person. Other examples include nurses identifying patients (their role) as a ‘foot’, because that is the part of the body that is sick, or salespersons referring to a potential buyer (a role) as a ‘sale.’
Our level of interaction with people involves developing intimacy. Intimacy ranges from familiarity to knowing. It means taking the risk to expose one’s self, becoming vulnerable, and mutually discovering aspects of personality and self. We mutually reveal our attitudes, beliefs and values. This level of intimacy is described by a number of English words. We index words that represent levels of intimacy from acquaintance to casual friend to “bosom buddy” to life long mate. The behavioral expectations of these “roles” are more intimate and complicated. They require both time and energy which is not expected with single inter-role communication in which we begin.
Trust is the ability to rely on or have confidence in another person. Developing trust with people like us is more certain and predictable than when we try to develop trust with a ‘stranger.’ We learn from an early age not to trust strangers. Because of the differences in cultures, we do not understand verbal and non-verbal behavior which leads to a lack of trust. Just as we may have our ‘guard up’, in initial encounters, so will others be skeptical of our motive and intention for developing a social interaction. Developing trust requires open communication, honesty and consistent behavior of respect for the person across the culture gap.
Many of our relationships develop unintentionally; they are coincidental. When you move to a new house and find new neighbors you enter into unintentional relationships. Your neighbors happen to be there. Unless we intentionally and willingly take risks and expose our vulnerabilities of self, we will remain in an inter-role and contractual relationship–relating as social objects.
Your interaction across the culture gap, however, must be intentional. You may decide to enter a contractual relationship between the roles of interviewer and interviewee. This is acceptable and ethical when you disclose your intentions at the beginning of the interaction. You then contractually agree on terms of the “learning contract.” In many cases, roles take on personalities. You may, unintentionally, develop intimacy and bond as persons in deeper relationships. On the other hand you may choose, if you are willing, to enter into an intentional and covenantal relationship. You relate to a person in an I-Thou relationship. You explore the personhood of each other. As a bridge must be built from both sides to the middle, both of you must voluntarily and willingly reveal your “selfs” to the other.
As you prepare to establish social interaction across the culture gap, answer the following questions:
- Have you made a decision? “This is something that is important and I want to do.”
- What is your motive? “I want to become a learner.”
- What is your intention? “I hope to learn…” or “I want to effectively…”
- Can you commit communication energy to this? “This is so important for my life; I will commit myself to new social interaction for the next six weeks.”
- Will you prepare mentally? “I will try to be realistic in my expectations, prudent in my words and actions.”
4. Discover the Appropriate Access
Once you have made your desicion to bridge the culture gap, you’ve clarified our motive, and you understand your intentional goal, you can begin to think of the right person with whom to interact. I’m sure you want someone who is approachable, interested, friendly, sensitive and genuine.
Some people may feel as if they don’t know anyone. They experience anxiety at having to develop social interaction with a complete ‘stranger.’ You might be surprised at the access you have to people of difference near your home, at work, at school, in the market where you shop or even in your own family. These simple guidelines may give you encouragement as you begin a mental search.
Look for someone of the same gender. This is a proven guideline. First, many cultures do not look with favor on men and women meeting together. Second, sometimes emotional needs get in the way of learning goals. And third, other culture sojourners may question the motive for the interaction or misinterpret your intention. However, where understanding gender differences is an honest goal and there is mutual respect and trust, this can be an excellent interaction.
Look for someone beginning within your expanding circle of life. You may have a family member who is in a mixed-race or ethnic marriage whom you have never gotten to know. You may have a new neighbor who has recently moved into the neighborhood. You may attend school and sit in the same class with someone you have wanted to get to know. You may have a colleague at work.
Look for someone of equal status . With the exception of learning about poverty, age or status, which are worthy goals, your power can limit trust in your relationship. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but one which requires considerable energy.
Weigh any negative possibilities. One person, a very busy executive, decided against developing an interaction with a mentally impaired worker in her building. She honestly realized her limits at that time in her life and was afraid of any ‘dependent’ relationship that might develop. On the other hand, another person was quite comfortable in involving themselves in an interaction with a homeless person that led to a widely expanded ministry.
Go one step beyond your comfort zone. You may realize that you have limited interaction with someone of a different culture already. Commit yourself to learning about someone who is totally different, or deepening your understanding in a present relationship.
5. Introduce Yourself
The Introduction: Direct and Indirect
In a new place we must initiate relationships. We cannot avoid interacting. We need others to survive. Psychologist Sid Cormier encourages that “perhaps the most powerful advice of all [in reducing stress] in maintaining normalcy in an often crazy world is to initiate, develop, and maintain warm, trusting, loving relationships.” The introduction and first meeting is the most anxious and uncertain time. Getting started can be stressful but it does not have to be difficult. There are two types of introductions: direct and indirect. In the direct introduction, you intentionally approach another person, introduce yourself and enter into dialogue with a person. You then enter into a negotiation period where you explore communication styles and agree on a contract for interaction. Many people do not feel comfortable with a direct introduction. In that case they prefer an indirect introduction. This may also be a cultural consideration. In cultures which assign status, as opposed to ascribing status, direct introductions may be inappropriate.
In an indirect introduction, a third party brings you together in the same context. They formally introduce you and assist in reaching an agreement of the learning contract. The third party can be a friend who knows both of you or a “mediator” who does not know either of you, like the professor, but who arranges the meeting. The mediator discovers, beforehand, your intentions and expectations in order to find an appropriate match.
Another consideration is the level of intimacy. If you are complete strangers, direct introductions are difficult because of a very low trust level. In this case, you should try an indirect introduction. However, you may have an unintentional relationship where you are an acquaintance with a fellow student, neighbor or colleague. You have developed some level of trust and can approach the person directly. Try these steps:
Narrow down your options to one or two people.
- Introduce yourself, or, seek a third party who knows you both and ask them to mediate your introduction.
- Learn his or her name and how to pronounce it prior to your meeting. Names are sacred and should be treated with respect. Ask how he or she wants to be called. Using someone’s name when talking to them indicates your personal interest in them. If you have trouble remembering his or her name, repeat it often in your initial conversation.
- Explain the reason for your wanting to meet. (Some people enter this part by meeting with the person first in order to feel out the openness of the other person. That way they have not committed themselves to a long-term interaction.)
- Agree on a time and place that is mutually comfortable. You might ask the other person, “Where would be best for us to meet?” By allowing the other person the decision of where and when to meet, you are illustrating your willingness to make the sacrifice necessary to make the meeting work. Some people will prefer a very public place. You may need to find a place where the person is in the majority.
6. Meet The First Time
Meeting for the first time is probably the most critical and stressful time in establishing social interaction with someone who is different. You both have expectations about each other and generally will seek to ‘judge’ if these are true. You will also have some fear, embarrassment, uncertainty and uncomfortableness. As you get into the meeting, these emotions will subside.
Prepare yourself. Go to the library and read about the culture of the person. Remember that these are general descriptions and people usually reveal their identity–who they identify themselves with. To expect them to be like a general description would be to stereotype. Ask a friend how you should approach the person. Think of and prepare several informal topics for discussion. These are not written scripts, but general ideas such as sports or current events.
Show yourself friendly. The most uncomfortable time is the greeting ritual. Take a deep breath and try to relax. Follow the lead of the other person. Offer your hand if you sense they would like to shake hands. If not, smile, nod your head, and initiate your dialogue, “Hi! my name is Jack. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Then wait for a response. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts, yet, always season them with prudence. Show yourself friendly by smiling, engaging the eyes of the other person and assuming a non-aggressive body posture. For example, if you are a large person, do not hover over them. As we will see, some cultures read your personal distance. Try to judge what is comfortable for them.
Establish rapport. Always begin your conversation with general topics like the weather, sports and current events and move slowly to more specific ones. It is better to save religious discussion to a time when you both know each other better. Try to establish a communication rhythm. This may be difficult in some cases where the person does not speak English well. Focus on the person and follow their lead. If your spoken languages are difficult to understand, slow down, listen attentively and speak slowly. You do not need to talk louder however. Finally, ask open questions that lead to a response, like “How do you feel about…” or “How do you see…” or “What do you think…”.
Seek common ground. Try to discover and center on the subjects that you have in common as opposed to dwelling on your differences. When all you have in common is your differences, you establish an inter-role relationship between two “differents.”
Clarify your motive and intention. Before you conclude your meeting, explain why you were interested in getting together.
Negotiate another meeting. See if this is something the other person is willing to do. Allow them the opportunity to respond. Listen to verbal and non-verbal signals of agreement. Some people are polite and do not want to hurt your feelings by saying “No,” directly. Schedule a time to meet again. Depending on how you got along, you may want plan to go someplace together or share a meal.
Exhibit proper leave taking. Sometimes leave taking is uncomfortable because cultures have different ways of “getting out of” the communication event. Look for non-verbal signals and verbal cues that the time has come to an end. Americans, generally, start looking at their watch, start talking about what they have to do next, or even directly say it is time to go. Other cultures, however, are not time bound and may not have the same concern for ending the meeting.
7. Negotiate Subsequent Meetings
Developing social interactions takes communication energy. You will have to ‘invest’ time in order to see them work. Some social interactions develop very quickly into more intimate relationships. Others take more work. Experience has shown three important factors to set the context for a deeper and on-going relationship.
Change the context. It is helpful to change the context of each meeting. When we meet in the same context, our conversation and roles tend to remain the same. After a while we find that we are “circling”–we then run out of things to talk about and come back to a previous subject. Some suggestions are: go for a walk, visit a park, invite them over for a meal to meet your family or go to a sporting event.
Broaden the subject matter. Experience has shown that people may play a part for a particular role in a single context. As we change the context we begin to see the personal side of our sojourner. The more you meet, the deeper you can discuss issues that affect both of you. For example, you can follow some of the subjects in the book as questions for discussion about your respective cultures. Select subjects that affect both of you and dialogue about how they affect your lives.
Deepen the self-disclosure. As you broaden the subject matter, you can begin to express your own feelings and ideas. Be sure to allow the other person the “friendly space” to express his or her feelings and ideas. Be sure to listen more than you speak.
Focus. One student complained of “language tiredness” as she began to deepen her social interaction. Because English was the second language of her sojourner, she had to constantly focus on the conversation and be mindful of the meaning. The experience was tiring for her. However, she was able to focus and as a result, they developed a relationship which continues today, even after her sojourner returned to her home country.
8. Claim the Pivotal Meeting
At some point in the subsequent meetings you may face a critical incident. This incident may be a conflict of understanding or behavior. You will need to work through this incident as it shows your commitment to the interaction. See the guideline below.
Somewhere in your interaction you will reach a pivotal meeting where you both realize that things are going very well and this may the beginning of an intimate friendship. Others have expressed it by, “We felt like we knew each other for a long time.” “The conversations we had moved along smoothly and easily.” “We decided to keep up with our daily lunches.” “We found that we are very much alike, no matter how much our background and culture may vary.”
Alternatively, you may find that things just aren’t working. Remember a bridge is built from both sides to the middle over common ground. If you find that your meetings are not connecting, you or your sojourner lose interest; it will take much effort (maybe more than you have) to repair the interaction. If you do not connect, do not feel rejected or guilty, if you have really tried. Things happen and we cannot always know or understand what the other person is experiencing. Go back and review what happened and learn from the situation. The next time will be better.
Monitoring Your Interaction
An essential part of crossing the culture gap is to monitor your social interaction. This is an important step in the learning process. The goal is not to present a positive light on the interaction, but to provide you with a road map of the development of your communication and relation building skills.
1. Take the Relational Inventory (see attached to this lecture), then, fill out the form below called a Monitor Map. It has been designed to help you gauge your progress. It is not an exact tool but a reflective index.
2. Keep a journal. Keeping a journal is an excellent way to monitor your learning. Following each meeting, spend time in reflection and writing about your experiences, impressions and learning. See the attached journals of two sojourners for an example. Please do not share this document outside of the class.
3. Write critical incidents. A guideline has been provided below.
Writing Critical Incidents
Your goal as an intercultural communicator is to attain communicative competence. An essential skill is the ability to understand how things happen in the event and to know what actions may be required of you or expected by the other person. The bridge building model provides a framework to analyze the events within a cultural context and reflect on cultural learning.
Describe the Event. Critical incidents grow from an awareness of a cultural error, feelings for safety, emotional stress or outright conflict. Gather information through observing, interviewing and reflecting and make notes of the cause of the incident.
- The critical incident paper should be no more than 500 words, typed and double spaced.
- Define, as succinctly as possible, the critical event. For example, Gunfight at the OK Corral: Learning Not To Shoot Myself in the Foot. This should be the title but also include a brief introductory sentence.
- Using your notes, describe the communicative event including the context of the event and the drama–what happened. Include the roles, rules and relationships of the major players.
- What was your involvement? Include discussion of relevant cross-cultural difficulties and how you faired in the event.
- Finally, analyze the event and what made it so critical for you. What learning took place? What have you learned and what skill have you begun to develop or refine as a result of the communicative event/critical incident?
Use these words to refresh your memory as you write:
4. Self Assessment: What Kind Of Relationship?
We relate with others everyday, but our relationships take on different characteristics depending on motive, intent, level of intimacy and trust. Using the following key and the explanations in the text, what word best describes the social interactions below?
d. Object or I-It
e. Person or I-Thou
1. ___ A couple signs a pre-nuptial agreement before their marriage, in case it doesn’t work out.
2. ___ A blind man complains, “Everyone seems to always be talking to my blindness and not to me.”
3. ___ You have a conversation with your teacher who keeps referring to you as his student.
4. ___ A young man refers to a woman as “ho.”
5. ___ A young couple wants to have a child they will nuture into adulthood.
6. ___ A woman refers to men as “pigs.”
7. ___ A couple has been married for fifty years because of a vow they took, “…till death do us part.”
8. ___ You are stopped for speeding by a policeperson and written a ticket because you broke the law.
9. ___ You and a friend really know each other and treat each other with a sacred, equal regard.
Answers: 1. b, 2. d, 3. a, 4. d, 5. c, 6. d, 7. c, 8. a, 9. e.
5. How Do You Deal with Embarrassment?
We are embarrassed or “loose face” when we:
- do something improper
- lack competence in social situations
- are made conspicuous when singled out, or
- receive more accolades than we deserve?
Individuals and cultures deal with embarrassment in different ways. How do you handle it?
I often feel:
And then I:
- Explain it away (justify)
- Laugh or tell a joke
- Try to make it right (remediate)
- Escape or avoid it
[See “Responses to Embarrassing Predicaments” by T.T. Imahori and W.R. Cupach in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Volume 18, No. 2., Spring 1994. 193-219.]
Philip R. Harris and Robert T. Moran, Managing Cultural Differences, Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1991. 104.
Eugene S. Ferguson, “How Engineers Loose Touch,” in Invention and Technology , (Winter 1993, Volume 8, No. 3), 16-24.
Max DePree, Leadership is an Art, (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1989).
Buber, Martin. I and Thou.
Sid Cormier, Ph. D., Am I Normal? New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1993, 316.