Sunday, March 06, 2011
Knowledge, respect of differences can close cultural gap
By Thelma Domenici
For the Journal
Dear Thelma: I read your recent column about the segregated dinner party and was very interested to see how you would respond. I was disappointed that you did not address anything about different cultures and how they have different communication styles, gender roles, social status frameworks, food traditions and, of course, languages.
While the hostess should have explained (or had this person's spouse explain) the reasoning behind her approach, you cannot assume that someone from another country is going to just adopt an American approach to social gatherings.
Especially in intercultural marriages and families, the socializing process can be very complex and is often somewhat uncomfortable for some attendees regardless of what special efforts the host or hostess makes. It is not as simple as controlling a guest list when it involves extended family who in some cultures would be very insulted if not invited.
Someone who is trusted by the hostess may be able to talk through how she thought the party went and perhaps make suggestions to employ some of the ideas in your column if they could be applied in a way that is culturally acceptable. In this way, future gatherings may be smoother for all concerned.
Many cultures have a more indirect way of dealing with "constructive criticism" and sometimes it may take a while for changes to occur. It is important for people to realize that to reap the benefits of more diverse social circles, you will sometimes have a "learning curve" and occasions when you just have to relax and not have rigid expectations.
I have a master's degree in intercultural communication, have lived abroad and am in an intercultural marriage, so I speak from both formal study and personal experience. Thank you for considering an alternate response.
A: Thank you for your insight. While I agree that cultural differences are something we have to approach respectfully and seek common ground within, I contend that a host who invites a group of people from varied backgrounds should attempt to make all of those people comfortable. That may mean explaining the differences that a guest of another culture might expect to see or examining the guest list carefully.
As a guest, one should always enter a social situation ready to enjoy what is presented and as you say, "relax and not have rigid expectations." But on the flip side of that, no one should feel as the reader in the previous question did, as if the hostess "wanted us out of there quickly so that they could begin their party once we were gone." There was a disconnect there that made the event less than successful.
I come from a family in which both of my parents were born in Italy and immigrated to the United States, my mother as a child and my father as a teen. I grew up with my mother's Italian-speaking relatives living with us. Even though they could not speak English, they were always included with any company we entertained. Balancing the two cultures created the opportunity to learn from them and for them to learn from our guests. Since then I have been the kind of person who wants to learn about the world, especially from other people. To exclude them would have meant the loss of an incredible experience in life.
As our worlds expand and experiencing the diversity of culture becomes the norm, it is more important than ever to be cross-culturally savvy. The best way to do that is for those on either side of the cultural gap to stay respectful and work from both sides to meet in the middle.
A continuous search for knowledge and good manners never go out of style.
Have a question about etiquette? You can ask it at www.askthelma.com. Thelma Domenici is CEO of Thelma Domenici & Associates, offering corporate coaching and contemporary social skills development programs to all ages.