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.