Tag Archives: boundaries

Grin and Bare It… Topless Culture Change

Topless - summer beach conceptIt was hands-down one of the funniest things I had ever seen on a beach.  I was with a friend in Nice, on the French Riviera, surrounded by locals and tourists in various stages of undress.  Not far from me were a couple of topless girls and local etiquette stipulated that everyone had to act like everything was normal.  And, for a French beach in the summer, everything basically was.  Well, at least it was until a group of American teenagers, in predictable khaki shorts and baseball caps, came over and struck up conversation with the topless ones.

The guys’ intent was clear: they wanted a picture with the women.  Amused at the ballsy request, the women obliged the horn dogs and posed with their newfound American friends.  The guys were delighted but conversation quickly dried up because of the language barrier and they took off.  The best part was when one of the guys hollered, “Y’all keep it up now!” over his shoulder.  Beautiful.

The young guys’ break with etiquette was amusing.  If they had been locals or at least somewhat accustomed to Mediterranean protocol, they would have been considerably less eager with their photo requests.  Everyone came out of this one well – the nervous kids, the nonchalant boob models and the amused onlookers.  Observing the whole incident made me think about the huge role of cultural rules in the day-to-day – right down to beach attire and how to acknowledge topless strangers.  It also made me think of what allows us to bend the rules of culture (in this case, approaching topless women) and test the boundaries society decides are appropriate.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” identifies the drivers of societal change as Connectors (social magnets that are master networkers and love nothing more than working a crowd), Mavens (information specialists, people that have the information society needs) and Salesmen (Charismatic, persuasive people that can get people to agree with them).  When all three kinds of personalities come together and benefit from a strong message and favorable circumstances, you get enough traction to affect major societal shifts.

Watching the kids I saw each of the personality-based change agents.  There was the Connector – the kid in the group that probably was the reason they were all on the beach, skipping the assigned lecture on Franco-Spanish relations. Then there was the Maven – the pervy nerd who’d worked out what stretch of beach would yield the best topless odds. And finally, there was the Salesman who talked both his friends and the busty French into posing for the camera.

So there you have it:  a little example of how cultural change, however insignificant, can be achieved. Whenever cultural rules feel rigid and overbearing, remember that with some clever planning, some key leadership and a little luck, rules can bend and boundaries can shift.  And there’s nothing that some teenage spunk and some multicultural levity can’t fix.

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Bjorn Karlman

Border Skirmish – Boundaries in Cross-Cultural Relationships

Voluntary Restrictions
Voluntary Restrictions

You know how it goes: Straight-laced white guy with IBM pocket protector meets exotic young curvy thing from Guadalajara, they fall in love, struggle through no end of relational issues and cultural adjustments and then finally reach some kind of happy cultural equilibrium and live happily ever after. The predictability of these Hollywood cross-cultural romances is touching. But how do you navigate cultural diversity in real-life relationships? Some would say that the most important thing is to break down all boundaries, to create a complete blend of both cultures. I would say the exact opposite: in order to have a successful cross-cultural relationship, you need boundaries. Effective boundary setting is the most effective way to multicultural relational bliss. Here are a few boundaries to watch:

Overgeneralizing: Familiarity in multiclutural relationships can easily lead to slips of tongue and overgeneralizations about the other person’s culture. “You Swedes are such emotionally unavailable bores…”, for example, is not something that needs to be heard. “National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging http://bit.ly/4kXDgE.
“No cultural stereotyping” is a great ground rule for cross-cultural relationships; it will spare you a lot of conflict.

Comfort Levels: It is entirely unfair to expect your significant other of another culture to enjoy or feel at ease with each one of your cultural practices. Come from a loud, spontaneous culture? Don’t judge your boyfriend for his inability to jump straight in and blend in. Decades of conditioning to one way of life are not reversed overnight. Give your partner some space and allow for very gradual change. The Harvard University International Office tells Harvard international students that it is possible to control the discomfort of living in a new culture and the accompanying culture shock. The first step: Realize that dealing with culture shock is tough. Students are advised to reach out to family and others from “back home” to have some connection to their roots. (http://bit.ly/1dMfXT).

Superstition: Whether or not we come from a background of organized religion, most of us have beliefs that seem very true and very important to us. As personal and non-transferable as some of these beliefs may be, we do not appreciate ridicule about them. An example from Filipino culture: turning your plate around when someone leaves during a meal to ward off bad luck. This may look petty or silly to the outside observer but it speaks to the importance of community-building and sharing food in Filipino culture… ignore it at your peril. Check out this article that touches on the benefits of respecting cultural superstition, no matter how strange it may seem: http://bit.ly/2pPlWC.

Historical/Political Pressure Points: It is important to know a little about the historical and political landscape of your partner’s home country. Often, seemingly harmless jokes can have disastrous consequences if they indicate insensitivity about another’s culture. Realize that jokes about political developments in your girlfriend’s country may wreak havoc when her father decides you are an uneducated brute who hasn’t even bothered to understand basic cultural taboos.

Good boundary setting is ultimately one of the most freeing things if you want to have a happy cross-cultural relationship. Solid ground rules and structure facilitate respect and understanding and the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences.

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Bjorn Karlman