Cultural Competency

Ever feel uncomfortable in business or social situations with persons or groups who are of other cultures? I recall a time with our friend Mai, who is Asian.  She behaves as if she is our daughter.  My husband, Ray and I feel the same way about her. We have been friends with her for about ten years.  We were often invited to Mai’s private, family events and sometimes given prime places at the dinner table. We love attending the Tet or Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. In Januarys past, we’ve shopped for the traditional red envelopes in which we would put new paper money as gifts to our Asian friends.

Mai tells us and others that we are her surrogate parents and that she looks to us for many of life’s lessons – especially as it relates to relationships.  Once, early in our friendship, Mai invited herself and her fiancé, Jesse, to Thanksgiving dinner with us.  Of course we were delighted.  Upon arrival, she took a prominent seat at the table next to Ray, and when our son arrived, she jokingly introduced herself as his sister.  Our son was not amused.

Now Mai was getting married.  Her wedding date was set for October 31st.  The reception was a masquerade ball.  Most of Mai’s family members are devout Catholics. Jesse does not practice any organized religion.  He said that if Mai wants a Halloween wedding date and masquerade ball, so be it.  The masquerade ball would be held at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, an event facility gigantic enough to house a parade of floats.

We introduced her to Father Michael Nguyen, our pastor, who agreed to preside.  The wedding would be held at our Catholic Church in their Asian tradition.  Just what did this mean to us as guests? We could have some of these conversations openly with Mai and Jesse.  Others required a modicum of subtlety.   …And what about gifts for the bride and groom?   Would they accept gifts?  What kind of gifts?  Ray asked another Asian friend.  “Money,” she said.  Aha!  Now the question became, how much should we give?  What was expected?  What amount was typical? In our revered status, what would be considered a generous gift? Hmmmm.

We just didn’t know.  Could we ask family members? We finally did.  Mai’s sister, Jessie, concurred that money was a good gift.  We were set.

The multihued wedding and reception were both intriguing and fun.  We had a wonderful time. The bride and groom honored us by showing their appreciation and introducing us to family members from other US cities and even Viet Nam. We are most honored by cross-cultural learning with them.

Navigating cultures can be difficult.  I can remember times when I wasn’t even aware of a necessity to navigate culture.  Now, I am on a journey to discover how to better interact interculturally, through communication.  Exploratory communication can provide a compass for the journey.  Becoming culturally competent means being in learning mode as it relates to culture and cultural communication.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the most we can hope for is keeping ourselves in learning mode and becoming better navigators of the cultural landscape.

Because humans stereotype as we breathe, we are incredibly challenged by intercultural communication.

Here are some tips for your journey of understanding to help you forge mutually beneficial and gratifying relationships with people of other cultures:

    1.  Step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes talking about cultures can be uncomfortable.  Stay open to relationships regardless of cultural difference.
    2. To avoid a negative consequence, consult authoritative cultural references as we did with Mai’s sister for gift-giving advice.
    3. If there is a negative consequence to your cross-cultural encounter, don’t give up.

Send us your stories about your cross -cultural encounters.  We make no promises. However, if they fit, we will consider publishing them in future newsletters.