Walls That Block Communication
How Culture Influences Who We Are
Culture has been broadly defined as “a set of shared ideas, . . . the customs, beliefs, and knowledge that characterize a way of life.” We learn many cultural values through direct teaching, but we also absorb much without even being aware of it. Said one researcher: “From the moment of [a child’s] birth the customs into which he is born shape his experience and behaviour. By the time he can talk, he is the little creature of his culture, and by the time he is grown and able to take part in its activities, its habits are his habits, its beliefs his beliefs, its impossibilities his impossibilities.”
In many ways culture makes life easier for us. As children we quickly learn how to please our parents. Knowing what is acceptable in our society and what is not guides us in making decisions about how to act, what to wear, and how to relate to others.
Of course, what we are as individuals does not depend on just our cultural background. Within every culture there are variations among people. Who we are is also determined by genetics, our experiences in life, and a host of other factors. Nevertheless, culture is a lens through which we see the world.
Our culture, for example, decides not only the language we speak but how we speak it. In parts of the Middle East, people value the ability to express themselves skillfully with many words, using repetition and metaphor. In contrast, the people of some Far Eastern countries keep verbal communication to a minimum. A Japanese proverb reflects this view: “By your mouth you shall perish.”
Our culture governs how we view time. In Switzerland if you are ten minutes late for an appointment, you are expected to apologize. In other countries you can be an hour or two late and little apology would be looked for.
Our culture also teaches us values. Think how you would feel if someone said to you: “You are putting on a lot of weight. You are really getting fat!” If you grew up in an African culture where heftiness is valued, you would likely feel happy at the remark. But if you were raised in a Western culture where slimness is highly esteemed, the frank comment would likely upset you.
‘Our Way Is Best!’
What so often hinders communication between those of different cultures is that people everywhere tend to assume that their own culture is better. Most of us think that our beliefs, values, traditions, style of dress, and ideas about beauty are correct, proper, and better than any alternative. We also tend to judge other cultures according to the values of our own group. Such thinking is called ethnocentrism. The New Encyclopædia Britannica observes: “Ethnocentrism . . . may be said to be almost universal. Members of nearly all the world’s cultures regard their own way of life as superior to that of even closely related neighbours.”
Two hundred years ago, an English squire put the matter bluntly, saying: “[From what] I see, foreigners are fools.” The editor of the book of quotations in which these words appear wrote: “[This] must come as close to being a universal sentiment as has ever been uttered.”
Examples of intolerance toward those of other cultures abound. Though originally penned by a German novelist in the 1930’s, the following quotation is often attributed to Nazi leader Hermann Göring: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.”
Strong ethnocentric views can lead to discrimination, which in turn may lead to hostility and conflict. Richard Goldstone is the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal investigating war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Concerning the barbaric acts in both conflicts, he said: “This sort of thing can happen anywhere. Here you have two separate lands, with distinct cultures and histories, yet similar atrocities [are] committed by neighbor against neighbor. This kind of brutal ethnic or religious warfare is just discrimination taken to a violent phase. The victimized group must be dehumanized or demonized. Once this is done, it frees ordinary people from the moral restraints that would normally inhibit them [from] doing such terrible things.”
Broadening Our Outlook
Usually the people we choose to be our friends are those much like ourselves, people who share our attitudes and values. We trust and understand them. We feel relaxed in their company. If we view the behavior of another person as odd or abnormal, our friends will probably agree with us because our friends share our biases.
What, then, can we gain by communicating with others who differ from us because of cultural background? For one thing, good communication will help us to understand the reasons why others think and act as they do. Kunle, a West African, says: “Many children in Africa are strongly discouraged from talking while eating a meal. In some European countries, however, conversation at mealtimes is encouraged. What happens when the European shares a meal with the African? The European wonders why the African seems to brood silently over his meal. Meanwhile, the African wonders why the European is chattering away like a bird!” Clearly, in such situations, mutual understanding of each other’s cultural background can do much to remove social prejudice.
As we come to know people of other cultures, not only do we improve our understanding of others but we also understand ourselves better. An anthropologist wrote: “The last thing which a dweller in the deep sea would discover would be water. He would become conscious of its existence only if some accident brought him to the surface and introduced him to air. . . . The ability to see the culture of one’s own society as a whole . . . calls for a degree of objectivity which is rarely if ever achieved.” Nevertheless, by exposing ourselves to other cultures, we are like the sea dweller who is introduced to air; we become aware of the cultural “waters” in which we live. Writer Thomas Abercrombie expressed the matter nicely: “One never seduced by a foreign culture can never appreciate the fetters of his own.”
In short, an appreciation of other cultures can enrich our lives by broadening our outlook, so that we better understand both ourselves and others. While cultural heritage and ethnocentric thinking can be walls against communication, they do not have to be. Those walls can be breached.

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Some of the problems that you as an immigrant will face can be anticipated, if not avoided, by learning as much as possible about your prospective destination. Reading, studying, and speaking to others concerning the country, customs, and culture can go a long way in preparing you for the culture shock that you will inevitably experience.
Of course, legalizing your move is essential to gaining the respect of the local populace. In the eyes of many, illegal aliens are a nuisance and a threat. At best they are viewed as cheap labor, just waiting to be ruthlessly exploited. Successful immigrants say that it pays to try your best to legalize your presence. When being interviewed by immigration authorities, a clean, neat presentation is essential in making a favorable impression. Show a cooperative attitude. Do not be evasive.
But there is much more that you, the alien, can do to ease the pain of adopting a new country.
Broaden Out
The natural tendency of most newcomers is to huddle together in their own communities. For example, in New York City, entire neighborhoods are predominantly of one nationality—little Italy, Chinatown, the Jewish sector, to mention a few. Such communities provide essential support services that make the immigrant feel at home—a launching pad to explore new horizons.
Unfortunately, at this point some turn inward and cut themselves off from opportunities and advantages that could really help them. “If rejection and distance of the host culture becomes the preferred mode of coping with the new . . . way of life,” says the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, “the adaptation process may never be successfully completed.”
In contrast, most aliens who have been broad-minded enough to take the plunge into their host societies report that their lives have been greatly enriched as a result. A group of American students who spent a number of weeks doing a cross-cultural study on the Micronesian island of Guam commented on the broadening effect this had on their view of other cultures. “I look at differentness with interest and curiosity rather than as a threat,” admitted one student. Another said: “I am beginning to look at my culture in perspective. . . . I am questioning values and things I have previously taken for granted. . . . I could learn from them.”

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Can the Culture Gap Be Bridged?
“Our visas have been granted. We will immigrate to Canada next month.”
“Have you heard? My husband has been transferred to the Persian Gulf States. We will be moving soon.”
“Meet my fiancé. Yes, he is from the Middle East. We plan to live in his country after we are married.”
DID you notice what all three couples have in common? All three are about to face a culture gap that will perhaps prove even greater than the trip that they will make.
In our grandparents’ day, the problem practically did not exist, since only a small portion of the world’s population traveled any great distance from their place of birth. But today, many cross continents and oceans on a regular basis and in just a matter of hours. More and more leave home for good.
The reasons are numerous. Many western companies have sent skilled employees to work in developing countries, with whole families being transferred because of long-term contracts. Students in developing countries have sought specialized training in European and American universities. And in recent years civil wars, national conflicts, and racial or religious persecution have caused many to seek refuge in countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Whatever the reason for the transfer, the newcomers will have to put forth an effort to bridge the gap between their own culture and that of their adopted home.
When East Meets West in Marriage
Many meet their mate while completing their education outside their own country and bring the mate home after marriage. Meeting the challenges of marriage takes understanding, patience, self-sacrifice, and conscious effort, even under the best of circumstances. So when the partners come from different cultures, those qualities must be developed to an even greater extent if the marriage is to last. Yet, many culturally mixed marriages are doomed from the start. Why? Let’s take a typical example:
The romantically inclined American coed finds it very easy to fall in love with Sami. He is so accommodating and treats her like a princess. No local boy has ever been so respectful. And those dark eyes—how they stir her emotions! Accepting his proposal of marriage and going to live with him in the mystic East seems very appealing.
What are the chances for such a marriage to succeed? Though her husband may have given her some description of his country, the bride may really have no idea of the actual situation in her husband’s land of birth. She has never seen him in his own surroundings or with his family. Even though she may have taken a trip or two overseas, daily living in a foreign country is quite another matter.
Sources of Irritation
One of the greatest sources of irritation to the new bride most likely will be a lack of the privacy that may be so respected in her homeland. She will find that having a Middle Eastern mate means taking on a whole family of intensely interested in-laws—including aunts, uncles, and first, second, and third cousins. These and immediate neighbors can ask very direct and personal questions that would be considered impolite in other lands. Yet, citizens of Mediterranean countries are not offended by such inquiries and may have their feelings hurt if one doesn’t ask just as personal questions of them. Since they expect marriages to be fruitful, constant scrutinizing for signs of future offspring can be anticipated.
It is said that an Englishman’s home is his castle, but a Middle Eastern man’s home is sometimes more like a hotel. Friends and relatives drop in at any time without previous notice and in many instances spend the night. If the cupboard is not sufficiently stocked, it will take some ingenuity to stretch meals.
In the East the woman’s place is in the home. True, in some Eastern countries women may work outside the home, but they are still expected to do all the housework as well. The man is very definitely the head of the family, and his word is law. In some Persian Gulf States, women are not even allowed out of the home alone. If they do go out, they must be covered from head to foot, including their face.
A source of frustration to a person unfamiliar with Eastern ways may be the lack of organization and the free-for-all attitude encountered in bus lines, at supermarket checkouts, while driving in heavy traffic, and in dealing with those in government offices. A person used to the principle of “first come, first served” will be sadly disappointed with a system where having pull is of primary importance.
Other possible sources of irritation involve the different sense of humor, the quick show of emotion—be it anger or sympathy—and the generally louder tones used in everyday conversation.
Avoid Being an Irritant
On the other hand, the bride herself can be a source of irritation to those in her new land if she doesn’t observe the local customs. Women in Eastern lands are expected to be modestly dressed. Bare backs are frowned upon. Alcoholic beverages are forbidden in Muslim countries or communities.
When a visitor enters a room, all present stand up to greet him and shake his hand. A casual nod in his general direction would be like a slap in the face. Also, some sort of refreshment is always offered, even to the most casual visitor. So it would be discourteous to ask first if a visitor would like a cup of coffee; he will always answer in the negative, no matter how much he would like to accept. Even if the refreshment is offered spontaneously, the visitor may refuse and have to be coaxed to accept, since he does not want to appear greedy. If no coaxing is forthcoming, the host or hostess will be considered stingy.
These are but a few of the new customs a bride will face in moving to the Middle East. Other countries will have still different customs.
Bridging the Culture Gap
A good suggestion for those who contemplate moving to another country because of marriage is to find out beforehand the situation that will be encountered. First read as much as you can about the country, its history, and its customs. Pay a visit there, and observe your fiancé with his family. A person one has come to know on familiar ground may seem an altogether different person in his own community. Is that polite, accommodating suitor just as accommodating and polite with all members of his family?
Complete frankness with each other is vital. Sources of irritation should be aired before they grow out of proportion. See what can be worked out. Some, after all effort has been made, may find that life-styles are just too dissimilar and that they just cannot make the required changes. If so, it is better to realize this before entering into a lifelong arrangement that will make both unhappy.
For those who decide to marry, the following suggestions will prove helpful: Make the effort to learn the language of your in-laws. Continually speaking your own language in the presence of those who do not understand it may make them suspicious that the conversation is about them. There is no need to wait to talk to them until you know the grammar perfectly. Use what you know, and you will find that people will be happy to help you along.
Do not make constant comparisons of your new situation with the life you left behind. Accept the fact that your previous way of doing things is not the only way. It may be more familiar and comfortable for you, but everyone around you is used to a different way. For example, the main meal in the Middle East is at midday, whereas “back home” it may have been in the evening. So instead of having her husband grab a sandwich at noon, a wife is expected to have a hot meal ready, and he usually expects her to share it with him. All it takes to keep life smooth is adaptability, applied by both partners.
While on the subject of meals, cultivating a taste for local dishes is also helpful. Trying a new dish “just once” to please one’s mate may be delightfully surprising. Perfecting it and adding it to those dishes you regularly prepare will further cement the marriage. The same can be said of cultivating an ear for Oriental music.
Additionally, take time to learn the local social customs. Some can quickly be learned just by observation. In the Middle East these include: polite conversation, even with deliverymen; offering a cup of coffee or a cold drink even to the casual visitor; and rising to greet visitors with a firm handshake and relatives with a kiss on each cheek.
Ask your mate what will be expected of you in any new situation. For example, one bride was told by her husband that it is the custom even for adult children to kiss the hand of their parents and in-laws as they greet them. It is the local sign of respect. The first few times that she complied with the custom, it felt awkward. But later it became a matter of habit, and besides pleasing her in-laws very much, it made for good family relations.
Right Attitude Important
The fact that your neighbors may show more interest in your personal affairs than seems fitting can be balanced by their always being on hand in times of trouble. For example, an American woman married to a Lebanese man came home from shopping one day to find her house full of neighbors. It turned out that her husband had taken sick at work and had barely made it to his gate when a neighbor noticed his weakened condition and helped him into the house and into bed. The neighbor then sent out the alarm to the whole neighborhood, and while some went to fetch the doctor, others made the husband comfortable and then went to buy the prescribed medication. How glad that woman was for her attentive neighbors!
So recognize the right of others to have different ways of doing things. And remember, the difference in itself does not make such ways either good or bad, right or wrong.
Living by the Bible’s admonition has proved to be a tremendous help in bridging the culture gap. The wife who respects her husband as her head and the husband who loves his wife as his own body will find success in their union. (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:21-33) They will especially be keen to show patience and understanding during the period of adjustment to the new way of life.
Yes, there will be times when differences of opinion arise as to whose customs should be followed under various circumstances. But couples who respect God’s Word will look for the applicable principle in the Bible and seek to follow it. Even if the matter turns out to be one of personal preference, the Bible principle at 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5 can be applied: “Love . . . does not look for its own interests.”—See also 1 Corinthians 10:23, 24.
Always keep in mind, though, that if you have moved to another country, you are the foreigner, and most of the adapting will be up to you. You cannot expect everyone else to conform to your standards or way of life. At the same time, you can share things from your culture with your new friends.
So can the culture gap be bridged? The example of many who have done so and who have enriched their lives by combining the best of the two cultures answers yes.
What an interesting essay! It provides you with an insight into a different culture!
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Good day South Africa,

Just a note to thank you for this great post!

It is rare to find well-written articles on cross-cultural communication and relationships which are not totally biased.

I agree with your advice that assimilation is key to happy integration; I moved from South Africa to The Netherlands 2 1/2 years ago, and while I miss my hometown, I have a life here now because I have made myself a part of my host country... Learning Dutch, making Dutch friends, understanding customs and finding out about all the other cultures' customs (NL is highly diverse) has not only taught me about myself and my culture, but it has shown many universal aspects of culture which I would not have anticipated.

I wish you great success with reaching more people with your message about successful cross-cultural integration.

GPW