Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cultural Misunderstandings

This week I received a phone call out of the blue from a former Nigerian classmate at Hesston College, Goshen College and AMBS. He found my number in a recently-published Hesston College Alumni Directory and wanted to invite me to his son’s up-coming wedding. I was honored.

Hearing his voice brought back a memory from one of our first encounters. I don’t recall the theme of our conversation, but we were walking back from the snack shop in Erb Hall at night to the Kauffman Court dorm at Hesston College. It must have been significant, because while walking he reached out and took my hand. My initial reaction was to jerk my hand away and to see if anyone was watching, being embarrassed by walking hand-in-hand with another male.

I had lived abroad enough to intuit that this was a cultural rather than a sexual thing, so I walked hand and hand with him all the way to the dorm continuing our conversation as if nothing was amiss. Luckily for my sake, we didn’t meet anyone until we parted. I later learned that two males holding hands in friendship was not unusual in my friend’s country of origin. He was actually honoring our conversation and ensuing friendship by holding my hand.

That event reminded me of my worst cultural faux pas in Honduras a few years earlier. I was participating in my first Maundy Thursday foot-washing service in our small Mennonite congregation in La Ceiba. At my home church in the USA, it was customary to give a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; and 1 Thessalonians 5:26) to the person whose feet you were washing.

Apparently this was not the custom in Honduras. As I zeroed in for the kiss, I could see the panic in my washing-partner’s eyes. I was sure I was going to be slugged senseless, even in a church known for its pacifism and nonviolence. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but I imagine that it was similar to my own reaction to the hand-holding incident.

Both of these incidents show how easily our intentions can be misunderstood, especially in cross-cultural encounters. These misunderstandings can happen just as easily in places where we think we understand the rules of the game. Misinterpreted glances, gestures, and words all can potentially cause problems of communication. Human interactions are always messy, and yet fun! They require a lot of openness and grace.

During our telephone conversation my Nigerian friend and I discovered that both of us had taught a course on intercultural communication at our respective universities. I have used these two incidents in my class as illustrations of cultural misunderstandings. I wonder what stories about me he has used to illustrate some similar concept.

Do you have any stories of cultural misunderstandings to share?

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