Talking about cultural difference – blocks and threads

There is no question at all that we are culturally different to each other because of the way we are brought up in different nation states. So much of who we are and what we think is influenced by educational, political, economic and media systems that are often specific to national structures and policies. Then there are life-defining resources to do with climate, physical geography, and agriculture, some of which can also be influenced or even determined by national and geo-politics. 

These things are not however the issue. It is what happens next that is important – what we do with and how we think about and frame these backgrounds. 

I find it helpful here to distinguish between blocks and threads as alternative ways of thinking and talking about cultural difference. This exchange is an example of blocks – asking questions and getting answers that encourage us to think about cultural barriers:

‘How do people in your culture behave at mealtimes?’ ‘The whole family arrives on time and eats together; and show their appreciation of the person who has prepared the meal, who is normally the mother.’ ‘Oh, interesting. That’s a bit different to my culture and others I have been to, where the whole thing is less formal and organised. But we can certainly learn from each other in this respect.’ 

There is some sharing here; but it doesn’t really get beyond an ‘us’-‘them’ concept of ‘my culture’ and ‘your culture’. The barriers remain up. It stops dangerously at tolerance.

What I mean by threads is quite different – searching for ways to share experiences – threads of cultural experience that we carry with us but that can resonate with those of others. 

When I find myself talking to two people sitting at the next table in a café in Algiers, I have to work on this by looking for cultural threads that might bring us together. Perhaps they are interested in talking to me, and make the first move, because I look foreign, might have rather clumsily looked for a table and been generally uncertain about how to come and sit down in a café like this one in Algiers. However, instead of looking at them as essentially foreign, which would be easy, I have to focus on how they are café sitters like me. So I talk to them about cafés, about how good it is to sit and relax, about the sorts of work that we have, leisure activities, where we have travelled to, what it is like to be away from home, this part of the city and its history, and so on.

On another occasion I am with a young Chinese man who is taking me in his car to a conference. (It’s his job to look after me for the day as a visiting speaker.) Imagining his age and perhaps noticing some young children things on the back seat, I use my recent experience with my daughter and grandchildren to talk to him about childcare, how being a parent impacts on his career and so on.

I suppose this is not unlike making conversation a lot of the time. But we do have to work at it – searching for resonances. While cultural difference is still on the agenda, the effect can be to open up possibilities for sharing and crossing boundaries. This does however mean that the act of talking to people about  cultural difference, whether in interviews or in conversation, or in the sort of interpersonal research cultural travellers may engage in, there might be something strategic to do – to get to talking and thinking that gets us to new places of understanding about who we are and how we can be together. For the first time, surprisingly, I can see a route here through to a possibility for intercultural training!

(The two examples are taken from my recent paper submitted to Language & Intercultural Communication – ‘Difference and awareness in cultural travel: negotiating blocks and threads’)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *