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Little things that make a difference

Stephen Rendahl, Ph. D.

Adjusting to a new culture and getting along with the local people are two common challenges for nearly everyone who lives, studies or works abroad. Whether in business, diplomacy, education, or as a long-term visitor abroad, anyone can be blindsided by a lack of international knowledge and experience and be caught at a disadvantage. Cultural incidents can be caused not only by major events or serious offences brought to either one of the two parts, but even by the smallest, most insignificant things like an American peeling off a banana for an Indian woman or an Arab arriving at an appointment with a Romanian two hours late without even apologizing or an American business person refusing an offer of a cup of coffee from a Saudi businessman. In the latter case, the rejection was considered so rude that the business negotiations became stalled.

That is precisely the reason why I chose to apply some of Malcolm Gladwell’s and Craig Storti’s concepts on two “every day situations” for expatriates so to speak. I must say I found it rather difficult to choose the incidents for my analysis as the examples I’ve come across on the Internet or talking to my friends whom have met people from other countries and cultures were countless.

The Art of Crossing Cultures is a book that deals with the process of cross-cultural experiences focussing on how the issue can best be faced and providing a plan of action for dealing with the effects of culture shock and cross-cultural adjustment. As he states in his introduction, his purpose in doing so is to help the sojourner understand and take control of the experience, for all those whose circumstances require them to effectively interact with the local people (Storti, p. xvii). To help the reader better understand the cross-cultural experience, Storti identifies two types of intercultural incidents rather than just one, giving a more holistic picture of cross-cultural misunderstandings; that is, such misunderstandings are two-way streets. Type I incidents are those experiences in which the local people’s behaviour seems to the traveler to be strange and may result in the traveller’s withdrawal from the situation entirely. Type II incidents are those in which the foreigner’s behaviour frustrates the locals, who also begin to avoid the situation. As a result of a continuing pattern of such incidents, many expatriates may find it hard to adjust to the new community and may evade into the artificial world of the expatriate subculture. The model of cultural adjustment presented by Craig Storti in “The Art of Crossing Cultures” includes both types of incidents.

Storti says that the ethnocentrism is a fundamental fact of the human condition. We expect others to be like us, to behave the way we do (the origin of Type I incidents) and to assume that we behave the way they do (the origin of Type II incidents) (Storti, p. 66). As children we are taught how to behave, we are told the difference between right and wrong, and what makes those things right or wrong are the values and beliefs of that culture. In other words, we are inoculated with a set of norms. Storti says that this phenomenon is known as cultural conditioning which guides a particular group to behave and to function effectively. (Storti, p. 67). Therefore, according to our set of norms, not only do we consider that the way we live and behave is normal and right, but we regard any lifestyle or behaviour that is different from ours wrong.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and unexpectedly as it does. The author’s insightful argument is that ideas, products, messages and behaviors spread like viruses. Gladwell calls them social epidemics, and the moment when they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the Tipping Point. To support his argument, the author describes how Hush Puppies shoes in the 1990s suddenly became fashionable after years of steady decline in sales. Or how Paul Revere’s “word of mouth” ride alarming colonists of an imminent attack by the British spread more effectively than his counterpart, William Dawes, who was carrying the same message. Gladwell argues there are three rules which can provide us with insight into the Tipping point: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. Malcolm Gladwell’s book also presents the three characteristics of the epidemics: one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects and three, the fact that changes happen in a hurry, at one dramatic moment, and this moment is called the Tipping Point (Gladwell, p. 9). The second of those principles, the fact that little things can somehow have big effects is a fairly radical concept. As human beings, we always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, and for there to be some relationship between cause and effect. Gladwell says that epidemics are an example of geometric progression, but we have a hard time accepting it because the effect seems far of proportion to the cause (Gladwell, p. 11).

The concepts that I am going to use in the analysis are Storti’s concept of cultural incidents which is strongly related to the concept of ethnocentric impulse and Gladwell’s concept that little things make a big difference.

The incidents on which I chose to apply the course concepts involve two students who had similar experiences while studying abroad. The first one is a Finnish boy who was in the USA for a year as an exchange student and he lived in an American family. He says about himself he is the kind of person who needs to have some time for himself every day so he would go to his room in the evenings for a couple of hours and do his homework or write letters or just relax and listen to music. He didn’t think there was anything wrong whith what he was doing – for him that was a normal thing. One day the host-Mother came to him and asked him if he was ok. She said she thought he was sad and homesick, or maybe not happy with the host family because he would go to his room and stay there for a few hours every evening. The Finnish boy was really surprised to hear that because he hadn’t immagined his behaviour would cause such worries to his hosts.

The second situation involves a Dutch girl who was studying in Finland was involved in a critical incident with her roommate. The second day she arrived there, just as her Finnish roommate was putting on her jacket, Anna wanted to make some small talk so she asked her where she was going. The girl answered that she was going out with her boyfriend that night because it was her birthday. Anna wanted to congratulate her, so she walked towards her and kissed her on the cheecks like she was used to in Holland. The Finnish girl seemed really scared as she did a couple of steps back and looked at her roommate with big eyes. The Dutch girl realized then that she must be doing something unusual so she stood right and shook her hand instead. But this gesture didn’t seem to be appropriate either. The Finnish girl still looked uncomfortable to say the least.

Both situations reflect cross-cultural incidents but they can be interpreted as both Type I and Type II incidents. In the first case the Finnish boy worried his host by behaving the way he did (Type II incident). The host-Mother didn’t know what to think about the boy going to his room every evening and staying there alone for such a long time, so she assumed he was homesick but wasn’t able to talk about it. Another aspect that crossed her mind was that the Finnish student was unhappy about the host family so he preferred to spend time by himself. According to the boy, her assumptions were wrong (Type I incident): the only explanation for his behaviour was that he needed to have a little time for himself to relax and do the things he likes to do. It was just a matter of personal space and privacy. Therefore, they were both frustrated by the other’s behaviour; the host-Mother because she was feeling responsible for the way he was feeling (or at least she thought he did) and the student because he was put in an awkward position although he knew he had been acting as he usually did.

In the second case, the Type II incident is more obvious. The Finnish girl was almost shocked by her roommate’s behaviour firstly because it was an unexpected gesture, secondly because she wasn’t used to that type of behaviour, especially form someone she had just met. The fact that she did a couple of steps back and looked at the Dutch girl with big eyes, is a proof that she was very confused or even scared of her roommate’s wanting to kiss her on the cheeks. Furthermore, the Dutch girl realized she must have done something that the Finnish girl considered unusual and she tried to payback her mistake. So she chose to simply shake her hand to congratulate her for her birthday. However, this had the same effect as the kissing. On the other hand, we are dealing with a Type I incident from Anna’s point of view, who wanted to tell her happy birthday. Although she was well intentioned not only her action was misinterpreted, but when she tried to make up for scaring her roommate by just shaking her hand, she realized the Finnish looked her as she had done something horrible. The result of this incident was that they both ended up feeling very uncomfortable.

The concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural differences are well-illustrated in the two situations. In the first one, the host-Mother was basing her assumptions on the American way of communicating and relating to others. In North America social relationships are constructed more on social communication than in Finnish culture. The host-Mother tried to make the boy open up about his sadness because she thought he was homesick and in the US White American culture it is believed that communication is a way to nurture oneself. She thought that after talking about it the Finnish exchange student will feel better. The problem was that in his own mind the boy was not homesick. What happened was just a result of the American’s assumption that every one, no matter the culture he belongs to, behave the same way the Americans do. North American culture is less tolerant toward silence which is seen as a sign that something is wrong.

The same interpretation can be given to the second case, taking into consideration the Dutch girl didn’t stop to thing whether kissing someone whom you have just met, is the proper thing to do. She behaved the way Dutch people consider merely polite. But kissing someone (even just on the cheeks) is considered very personal in Finland. The gesture of kissing has a totally different meaning in Holland than in Finland, and that resulted in a big misunderstanding between the girls. The Netherlands can be seen as a country with a more “immediate” culture, this is to say people touch and kiss more than in cultures that could be considered as low contact cultures. All cultures have different notions about personal space, for instance how far away to stand or sit during a conversation, or how to shake hands or wave farewell. Every culture has its own set of rules or customs according to witch its members behave. We learn this rules at a young age, therefore we tend to take them for granted and do not come to think of the idea that someone else may have other rules (the ethnocentric impulse). This is why it can be highly shocking if someone outside of a culture suddenly breaks the rules of that culture.
Another problem that occurs when trying to understand and to adjust to another culture is that unfortunately most overseas visitors and those who receive them often are captured by misleading and often dangerous stereotyping. One of the most used stereotypes about Finnish people is that they are very silent and shy. Various explanations have been given for such national characteristics: race, cold weather and lack of communication studies at school (Sallinen- Kuparinen 1986, 3). The American host fell into that “trap”. As a conclusion, attempts to categorize cultural characteristics often end up in cultural stereotypes that are unfair and misleading and may cause a series of intercultural incidents.

I’ve intentionally left Gladwell’s concept (little things that make a difference) for the end of my analysis because I wanted to have the whole picture of the two situations. Just as Gladwell says such apparently unimportant gestures as retiring to one’s room to spend some time by oneself, or kissing another person on the cheecks and shaking her hand to congratulate her on her birthday resulted into cross-cultural incidents that made all the persons involved feel rather uncomfortable. Therefore, even the smallest and subtlest and most unexpected of factors can affect the way we act and the relationships that we try to establish with other people, especially if those other people come from another culture.

As a conclusion, social customs and behaviours differ from one country or culture to another, and there is simply no way one can fit in and be at home unless one learns what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. The most important thing in the process of adjusting to another culture is to remain open-minded and receptive to personal feedback. We often tend to blame the natives for the failing attempt to adjust to there culture, although sometimes observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture. In spite of all this, Storti states that part of true adjustment is to understand there will always be some behaviours we will never get used to (Storti, p. 68)
Similar to my first essay, the question that crossed my mind while doing the analysis was: “Why don’t people from different cultures who interact simply ask the others what is the proper thing to do in a particular situation?” This would certainly make it easier for them to connect and to avoid any cross-cultural incident.

Ramona Ene



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