Cross-cultural aware-what?

Most people grow up among others who have similar patterns of behaviour, concepts of what’s polite and what isn’t. You don’t need to wonder about whether a five-minute delay requires an apology, is an acceptable time or is even early. You know the traditions on holidays, when to give a gift and when not, how to address others and whether to greet someone with a bow, a handshake or a cheek kiss. In short – you know the rules, and everyone around you plays according to the same rules. When you go on vacation, you might chuckle about the behaviour of the locals or utter in frustration “That’s so typical for the British/Italians/French…!”

Many people can get through their whole life like this, never having to think about the rules because they always live in cultural surroundings they know. More and more people however spend some years of their lives in other countries or even move there permanently. Others travel abroad for business or work in international teams. Chances are, if you are one of those people, you at one time thought, “Whoa, they’re playing by different rules! And I don’t know them!” And there you are, right in the middle of the wide field of cross-cultural awareness.

I was born in Belgium as the child of a German father (who grew up in the Flemish part of Belgium) and a half-British mother (who grew up in Great Britain). My father talked Flemish with one of his sisters and German with the other, my mother talked English with her mother and switched between English and German when talking with her father. I had cousins who spoke Flemish and French, but (in the beginning) hardly any German and other cousins who only spoke English, so when they visited, I always carried a dictionary around in order to communicate with them.

Boy, did I feel international!

When I was six, we moved from Belgium to a small German town close to the Eifel. I was the only kid in my grade who was not born in that small town. I also had an uncle who spoke with a Flemish accent and greeted everyone with three hearty bisous, I called my aunts by their first names only and I watched Dutch TV (those were the days of long ago, before cable TV, and we were lucky to live close to the Dutch border so we could receive Dutch TV stations which showed English and American movies and series with subtitles and original sound – the only chance to hear English on TV back then). That all made me quite exotic (but then, it’s not difficult to be exotic in the Eifel area). I didn’t feel like a “real” German and was quite pleased with that. We used the words “typically German” for others, not for us.

How wrong I was…

After I got my German Law degree, I moved to Philadelphia to take part in Temple University’s international LL.M. program. We were a group of about 30 graduate students from all over the world and it was the first time I was in close contact with many people from different countries. I didn’t know the term cross-cultural awareness back then, but I think that was when I started to become cross-culturally aware. It was small things – I was amazed by how extremely cordial my fellow students from Middle and South America were, that one fellow student from Asia seemed to sleep through all lectures (not knowing that closing the eyes was a way of listening with full concentration) and how some things I said were misunderstood because of different communication patterns. Another thing I noticed was how German I was (gasp!).

I took things said to me literally, because that’s the way Germans communicate, and didn’t realize that often there was a whole context I completely missed. Others were surprised by my direct communication and my urge to discuss conflicts instead of just letting go. Time was a major issue for me. My Latin friends quickly learned to add “Mexican minutes, Heike,” when they told me they’d be there in 5 or ten minutes.

It is often said that when you’re abroad, your own cultural preferences become even stronger, and I think that might be right. I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality and became even stricter on this in the USA. I remember one day, when a Swiss friend and I wanted to go to New York for a few days. Being poor students (my father’s credit card was only for absolutely necessary things like food, study materials or cute shoes), we took a Greyhound bus. It was supposed to leave at 2 pm. At 2.02 pm the bus was still standing and I started glancing at my watch repeatedly and getting annoyed. At 2.05 pm I was grumbling quite incessantly and my Swiss friend told me, “Relax! It’s just a few minutes.”

You know you have a problem when a Swiss person tells you to be more relaxed about punctuality…

Anyway, throughout that wonderful year in Philadelphia, I think all of us reached some degree of cross-cultural awareness. There was plenty of good-natured teasing about our cultural peculiarities (and I will never forget a French fellow student exclaiming from the bottom of his heart, “I’m French. I ‘ave to be rude.”) and it goes on until today.

Recently we were discussing a small reunion next spring. Half-jokingly (but only half!) I pointed out that it would be good to start planning now. My Swiss friend agreed. Our Mexican friend wrote “One year in advance… Hahahaha!” and told us to just tell him one month in advance where to turn up.

And no, I’m not nervous that we have not yet done any actual planning.

Not very nervous at least.

Though it’s only 9 – 10 months until spring.

Excuse me, I have to go and write some emails about a reunion.

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8 thoughts on “Cross-cultural aware-what?

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