Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

Oops! How Can You Repair a Goof?

The Native peoples of North America have engaged in cross-cultural situations since time immemorial. A look at the cultural mosaic of Alaska alone shows that long before Vitus Bering's ships plowed the waters, there were 20 separate languages spoken -- and people regularly traded and interacted with their "foreign" neighbors.

But with the dawning of the colonial era the nature of cross-cultural communication changed. Status, power, and wealth became the overriding factors, and cultural differences became not just differences, but matters of shame or pride, depending on the individual's ethnicity.

North America's Native people are still dealing with the legacy of the colonial days; now they find themselves in the minority, their parents and grandparents having been forced to learn how to communicate in English, and in the manner of mainstream America.

The task for the teacher is to perceive when cultural differences are interfering with learning, and try to accommodate the styles of the students.

But what if, despite a person's strongest effort, there are still problems and hurt feelings?

There is no easy nor sure-fire method for repairing mistakes, because our very beings are intertwined with our cultural selves to such an extent that what is inappropriate culturally feels personally insulting. Remember how you felt when someone stepped away from you when you were talking, a move prompted when you inadvertently stepped into his or her personal space? You felt as if the other person thought there was something wrong or unpleasant about you and didn't want to talk to you. In that situation, you supplied the MOTIVE for the other person's actions based on your own cultural understanding, when the only information you really had was the BEHAVIOR itself. In effect, you filled in the bottom part of the iceberg with your own cultural lens rather than with that of your conversation partner.

This is both human and necessary. We need shortcuts to make sense of the world. As this Learning Center has demonstrated, most of what we perceive from others is not spoken, but still expected to be understood.

So, it's inevitable that we will be sometimes hurt or insulted, as will others we deal with. Here are a few suggestions. Try them and if they don't ease the situation, move on. You might just have to prove yourself through future actions, accepting the fact that the impressions you left in the past are there to stay.

  1. Acknowledge to yourself that at least part of the problem is probably due to cultural differences.
  2. Apologize for your behavior. It doesn't work to say, "IF I offended you, I'm sorry." The truth is, you HAVE offended someone, and need to leave your sense of injustice (that you were wrongly considered a boor) behind you, and deal with the behavior alone.
  3. Observe the person or local group and figure out what would have been appropriate behavior.
  4. Analyze what you did or said against the many aspects of human communication styles that you encountered when you did the Cultural Style Observation exercise.
  5. Practice a new approach based on your observations and self-assessment.
  6. Shake it off and start again. Most people are forgiving if they see you trying to repair a goof. And since everyone in a cross-cultural situation was once new to that experience, everyone can relate to the first few fumblings. If you establish a long-term relationship with the person or people in question, your early behavior might well become part of a funny story that you and your new friends can enjoy and laugh about for many years.