In our last post, we went through the first three stages of Milton J. Bennett’s process of developing cross-cultural sensitivity. We left off at Minimization, or a tendency to downplay cultural differences, particularly if those differences challenge a belief or value of your own. It’s a form of ethnocentrism, or a lack of awareness that you yourself are influenced and shaped by a culture.
We closed on a reflection that even the European-American majority culture has a history and ethnic heritage that can be celebrated. Naturally, for all but the most recent arrivals, the “American” aspect of that culture comes out a little more strongly than the “European” aspect. I may have a lefse iron stashed away in a closet somewhere and let slip the occasional “uffda” when I open up a long-neglected container at the back of the fridge, but the Janteloven stuff was more or less left behind with the rest of the family in Sognefjord, thank goodness. Passelig is a value our fast-paced, consumeristic American culture could stand to consider, however.
In America, instead of Janteloven, there is freedom of expression and free enterprise, and Americans admire those whose hard work and innovation brings them success (sometimes ignoring the role of community and socioeconomic privilege in the process). Americans speak directly, and don’t hesitate to say “no,” and truth and self-expression are valued more than cooperation and harmony. They show up to work “on time,” even if they have to turn down a friend’s invitation for coffee to do so, and leave exactly “on time,” even if it means that a project is left unfinished. They are this way because the nation’s history and context has shaped them to be this way, just as the nomadic life shaped the Somalis, and lives full of persecution, perseverance, faith and resistance have shaped the Karen. When we have the self-awareness to see that we have culture and are influenced by it, we have advanced to what Bennett calls Acceptance.
Acceptance is primarily a mental state. We stop being patronizing toward our friends when we see the inner logic of their point of view, and start to question our own assumptions. We learn to see certain values as both good and bad—individualism is good when it encourages innovation and positive social change, but bad when it leads to selfishness. Promoting social harmony is good when it makes members of the community feel loved and supported, and bad when it hinders the healing process by forcing people to suppress their unpleasant stories of conflict and trauma. Acceptance is being able to see things from the other culture’s perspective, while not losing touch with your own.
Adaptation is putting acceptance into practice. As an American, you will learn to take off your shoes at the entrance to a Bhutanese home, to accept the offer of tea, to leave a little food on the plate when you are finished, and to stay out of the kitchen, and you understand and appreciate the reasons for all these things. As a Karen person, you learn that you have to speak more directly to Americans to be understood, though it feels uncomfortable at first. As a Somali, particularly one of the many Somalis moving to rural small towns, you learn to be less direct, and begin to master the unconditional (if artificial) friendliness and banter that grease the wheels of social interaction in the Midwest.
For most native-born Americans, the process ends here. From birth, we’ve learned the rules and values of our culture and that is what enables us to live, work, marry and play within it. There is much that we can learn from other cultures—we can learn healthier eating habits, better ways of managing conflict, and gain a stronger appreciate for family, for instance. However, there is a point where adopting another culture’s beliefs and practices would create more problems than it would fix (attitudes about women, for example). You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.
Our refugee friends have the problem of whittling down their African or Asian peg so that it fits neatly within an American hole. I say “whittling,” because throwing out that peg and replacing it with an American one is hardly a solution either, not just because of the social and psychological disruption it would cause, but because of the many African and Asian values that can be preserved in an American context, and should be, such as the examples above. Integration, as opposed to assimilation, is having a sense of one’s authentic self, but knowing how to be oneself in more than one culture. This is an essential skill if one wishes to move outside of the enclave and partake in the prosperity and opportunity of wider American culture.
For instance, Hawo sees herself as a thrifty shopping mavin. She knows to hunt for sales and shop the clearance rack at the local department store, but she also has a reputation as a skillful haggler in the shops of Karmel Mall. Most importantly, she knows which set of behavior is appropriate for which context, and understands that the difference is cultural. She can move fluidly between both worlds. It is easy to understate just what an amazing and hard to develop skill this is.
Since we who were born in America will probably never have to go through this last process, dialogue is key. We have to resist the urge to dictate to our friends how they should live, but at the same time, be available to explain why we do things the way we do, and be gracious in the face of criticism. This was a situation that nearly all of our families had to face at one time (the only truly “native” Americans, ironically, have to face this on a daily basis, too). A good idea is to imagine what it was like for your grandparents and great-grandparents who were new to America, and treat your refugee friends with the grace, compassion and openness that you hope was shown to them by their own neighbors.