Could the principles of this post apply to any romantic relationship? Of course. But I am especially writing it for my friends in international dating relationships. If you are dating someone of a different nationality or a different culture there are some things that are sure-fire fight starters. I’m going to outline four of the biggies. They aren’t complicated or that hard to avoid necessarily but they DO make a difference and if you indulge in them too much you can expect a lot of drama and some lonely nights at the every least. The upside is that, if you avoid these international relationship faux pas, you can navigate some exceptionally delicate territory and enjoy the diversity and fun that can especially be found in love of the borderless variety…
Think that just because your beau/belle jokes about her culture, you can too
Just like with jokes about family members, you have to leave this kind of humor to “insiders”. If your boyfriend jokes about his mom’s quirky conversational style for example, common sense dictates that while he can do that because he is her son, you should shut your mouth the moment you are tempted to fire off some cracks about the woman. You aren’t a bloodline family member and thus you don’t have the right to comment. That’s exactly how it works with cultures and countries. She may think that her exaggerated imitation of her country peoples’ handling of the English Language is hilarious but beware of coming up with your own version. This may sound like common sense but in the moment, when everyone is laughing with your hilarious girlfriend, it may be tempting to strut your stuff with a few of your own choice lines at the family New Year’s get together. DON’T.
Get too complacent about leaving all the “cultural” stuff to your significant other
This one is also tempting. Your boyfriend’s culture has so many complicated rules and nuances that you decide to leave all that complicated “cultural stuff” to him. Why learn all the rules when you can just copy him, right? WRONG. Family members (ESPECIALLY those in the 55+ age category) are great at sniffing out this kind of complacency. They can tell if you are bluffing. They know if you haven’t done your homework. They know what you think of their culture and are better judges than you of your own efforts to discover their culture. If you slack off, be prepared for a very unimpressed reception at family gatherings. You will quickly be relegated to the “girl he’s seeing now” category and will have to work twice as hard to win their approval.
A quick word about the positive flip side: If you make an effort to learn some customs and some of the native tongue they will think you are ADORABLE. Instead of being obstacles family members will often fall over themselves advocating for you. All kinds of goodwill is generated by a little effort. So be smart.
Be a cultural crusader
There is something weird about culture, language and tradition. It is so close to our hearts and our natural rhythms that we often overreact to the slightest disruptions. Is your Brazilian girlfriend getting a little too boisterous around your elderly anglo relatives? Has your Asian boyfriend said something about “giving kids a good spanking” as your over-sensitive Scandinavian family collectively prays that you will never have children? Has your All-American girlfriend just turned up in jeggings to your ultra-conservative church service? Stuff like this can flip the switch and, under enough pressure, very regrettable things can be said. You may be tempted to launch into a hysterical lecture: “What were you thinking? Are you really that clueless? How do you EVER expect to be accepted if you behave like a total moron?!”
Patience goes a long way in times like these. Decide AHEAD of time that when these things happen (because they for sure will), you will calmly work to resolve the situation. Often some humor and and subtle maneuvering defuses the tension. Explain that your anglo grandparents only understand “library voices”, that talk of spanking kids gives Swedes ulcers or that, it’s your fault for not prepping her and that its OK to change and come a little late to church today instead of having to endure angry looks from elderly parishioners whose pacemakers have been sent into overdrive by your girl’s wardrobe.
Get a big head about your progress
As soon as you make a little progress it is easy to pat yourself on the back. Beware of doing this to excess. There’s a fine balance between gaining the respect of your girlfriend’s fellow nationals by being culturally sensitive and acting like the know-it-all. Everyone likes someone that shows some effort but you can definitely go too far. I think of this German guy that I once heard speak to a large crowd. He had married a West Indian girl and somehow now felt that he was a black preacher. MAN it backfired. Don’t get me wrong. People enjoyed it. But for all the wrong reasons. Something about Wolfgang trying to be the Jamaican Jesse Jackson had everyone smiling a little too broadly.
Summing it up
Everyone screws up while dating. There’s no avoiding it. ESPECIALLY not when different cultures are a factor. But being self-aware and cognizant of some of the more common traps gives us a good head start. Good luck everyone.