For a host of different reasons, there is a new, massive wave of people crossing the planet—greater than any seen since the emergence of the industrial era. As a result, cross-cultural relationships are noticeably on the increase. In any situation where cultures cross-pollinate, there is always potential for conflict.
As any diplomat will tell you, the trick is to get a proper understanding of the culture you are encountering, and make as many concessions to it as you are comfortable with. All well and good, of course, but what exactly do we mean by cross-cultural?
Never judge a book by its cover
When we think of cross-cultural relationship issues, it’s typical for stereotypes to dictate our understanding. We think of different religions, different races, and different languages…but in reality, that isn’t always the case. Cross-cultural issues can occur in far more domestic-seeming situations than you might think.
For example, one person I have spoken to, an Englishman, described his experiences of living in both Calcutta, India, and rural Missouri, USA. Although stereotypes might lead us to make instant assumptions about where the cultural clash lay in these two situations, it is the opposite that is true; whereas he found a lot in common with the inhabitants of India’s third largest city, the people of Midwest America were completely beyond him. However, there are most certainly several areas of contention that can commonly lead to a cross-cultural clash if not addressed, and these are further discussed in the following list.
#1 The common tongue. If you’re a fluent English speaker, then you have a head start on any other language you wish to mention, as it is the world’s first choice when it comes to international communications. However, even when your partner does speak English, if it isn’t their first language, it may not be quite the English that you know and understand.
New Creole and Pijin versions of the language spring up on an almost daily basis, creating an almost mutually intelligible family of the same tongue. In some ways, it’s almost better if your partner doesn’t subscribe to one of these Pijins, and you both choose instead to learn each other’s language from the bottom up. This way, you can show an equal commitment to the partnership.
Clashes most commonly occur due to linguistic reasons, where one of the two makes no effort whatsoever to learn their partner’s language—and by doing so, marginalizes a very important part of who their partner is. [Read: Intercultural relationships and 5 big things you need to know about them]
#2 Have a little faith. Religion doesn’t have to cause any contention within a relationship, but it frequently does, depending upon how fervently the person in question subscribes to it. Again, this contention doesn’t always conform to stereotypes. An Anglican and a proponent of Hinduism, for example, both hailing from religions that promote freedom of thought and personal choice, are likely to come to a fairly agreeable understanding.
Contention is far more likely to arise between the somewhat more dogmatic Catholic and Methodist believers, even though they hail from the same Christian umbrella. And let’s face it, atheists are often guilty of being the most confrontational and dogmatic of the lot!
The biggest problems occur when one’s religion directly affects the other’s, such as where a faith demands that a couple be married in their tradition, or that any children are brought up a certain way. Usually, though, issues such as these can be overcome with a smattering of understanding and good, healthy dose of mature discussion.
#3 Worlds apart. This is a fairly obvious addition to the list, describing the logistic issues associated with disparate geographical locations. It doesn’t even have to be a matter of one member of the couple living in a different country, *that being an altogether different issue* but the fact that one of the pair will probably need to spend long periods of time each year in their home country.
This could be for family reasons, or just to deter home sickness, but you will both have to prepare to put up with an occasional long-distance-style relationship. [Read: 10 things you should never do when you’re in a long distance relationship]
#4 Etiquette. By this, I don’t mean the right way to hold a fish knife, or which way to pass a bottle of port around the dinner table. Each culture has its own distinct ways of behaving and not getting these right can cause massive offense.
Many East Asian countries, for example, will take off their shoes before entering someone else’s home, while the Westerner will stomp unashamedly through the threshold, fully booted and dragging the street’s dirt in behind him.
Conversely, in the West, the act of spitting is considered an offense of etiquette comparable to defecating in public or using your host’s curtains to clean your nether regions, whereas in many Asian countries, it is a normal means of reducing the risk of ill health.
Getting either of these wrong will elicit feelings of horror in the offended party, but—and this is a big but—there is no excuse for either. If you love your partner, you will make an effort to understand their culture and also patiently explain why certain things they do are unacceptable in yours. As ever, communication is key. [Read: 5 most important signs of relationship compatibility even if it’s cross cultural]
#5 Third party perceptions. Let’s face it, the world isn’t full of people willing to accept others’ differences. Racism, culturalism, and sexism are prevalent the world round, and there are always going to be plenty of people prepared to point out differences in a far less than positive light—often more from ignorance than outright hostility.
I recently experienced a situation in a Chicago bar, when an IT consultant of Indian ancestry was harassed by the bartender over some recent ISIS terrorist attacks. He pointed out to the bartender that he, himself, had as much cultural connection to the terrorists as this poor chap, and was sitting politely, just trying to enjoy a quiet drink. His explanation fell on deaf and confused ears. But you get the picture: a lot of people are idiots, and you’re going to have to be prepared for them.
There are many reasons why a cross-cultural relationship might not work—but only if you’re unwilling to compromise. If you love your partner, then make an effort to learn about their culture and make yourself aware of any potential relationship pitfalls.