Cross-Cultural Communication for Couples
Millennials are significantly more open to the idea of partnering with someone of a different race than previous generations. They are also more likely to have friends of different races (Rosentiel, 2010). A poll from 2015 found that 54% of millennials have dated outside of their races, while 88% would be open to doing so (Khan, 2015).
Dating outside of one’s own culture comes with a unique set of challenges and growth opportunities which call for the skillful cultivation of cross-cultural communication skills. However, cross-cultural communication skills are not just for mixed race or mixed culture couples. Coming from a different culture can also mean that you come from different backgrounds, different sides of the country, different socioeconomic classes, or have even just been raised differently by your respective families. Even if you’re not in a mixed-culture couple in the sense of coming from different nations, you can read this article and digest the questions and perspectives it poses with an eye towards each of your respective backgrounds and upbringings.
There is also a lot of individual variety within a culture. Expert mediator and workplace conflict management trainer John Ford (2021) reminds us that “there is as much diversity within a culture as between cultures. Thus, rather than thinking that we should use our cross cultural communication skills only when we communicate between different cultural groups, we should assume that all communications are essentially cross cultural.”
Here are some guidelines for enhancing your cross-cultural communication abilities.
Start with Self-Knowledge
Awareness of how your own cultural background and conditioning is key to understanding how you relate to encounters with other cultures. It is the foundation of cross-cultural communication (Ford, 2021); the more mindful you are of where you’re coming from, the easier it will be for you to understand and take responsibility for your reactions to cultural differences between you and your partner.
Here are a set of questions to ask yourself. We recommend writing down the answers or processing them aloud with your partner. As you go through these questions, pay special attention to where your own personality diverges from your culture. Some divergence is normal and common; most people do not fall within their cultural average for every single point 100% of the time. Some people even react to their cultural conditioning by going against the grain rather than conforming to any of their cultural norms.
In all of these questions, you can also replace the word ‘culture’ with ‘family’, ‘social class’, or any other term that you feel is relevant:
-Where does my culture fall on the spectrum between individualist or collectivist (Ford, 2021), and how has this influenced me?
-Where does my culture fall on the spectrum between expressive and restrained (Ford, 2021)?
-Is my culture more conflict avoidant, or comfortable with conflict (Ford, 2021)?
-Is my culture more outgoing than most, more reserved, or somewhere in the middle?
-Does my culture tend to encourage or discourage holding eye contact with others (Ford, 2021)?
-What is the role of personal space in my culture? Do people tend to situate themselves closer or farther from others during conversation?
-Where does my culture fall on the spectrum between expressing strong emotions, or masking them (Ford, 2021)?
-Does my culture tend to be relaxed about timing, or more punctual (Ford, 2021)?
-Does my culture tend to favor doing tasks sequentially (one thing at a time) or simultaneously (multi-tasking, doing many things at the same time)?
-On average, does my culture tend to value rules and order more, or feelings and relationships more (Ford, 2021)?
-How does this culture’s language show what its values are?
Ask Your Partner the Same Questions
Now that you have reflected on your own cultural conditioning, it’s time to shift your attention to your partner. Listen and take note of any major differences or contrasts between your cultural conditioning and theirs. There is no need to try to reconcile any differences at this time; instead, be aware of them and be ready to treat your partner with understanding when your ways of relating to the world don’t always line up with theirs. Although you will inevitably need to ask each other to change your behavior sometimes, coming at it with understanding and an eye towards culture will help you both to be more flexible when those discussions come up.
Tips for Handling Cross-Cultural Conflict
Adjust your interpretation of what happened.
The first story you tell yourself in reaction to a conflict is not always the whole story. In fact, sometimes it might be wholly incorrect! Sometimes, checking out other alternative interpretations makes all the difference. Start by writing down all your interpretations of why your partner behaved in a particular way. Next, ask yourself ‘what is the alternative story?’ Consider whether there could be a reason for your partner’s behavior that has nothing to do with you.
For example, let’s take Chiara (from Italy) and Jack (from England). They’ve just started dating. Jack is feeling hurt and indignant because Chiara spoke harshly to him, telling him in no uncertain terms that she was unhappy that he forgot to lock her door when he was the last one to leave her house in the morning. Jack’s initial interpretation might be that Chiara is being too high-strung, harsh, and critical. However, here are some alternative explanations:
-Chiara comes from a culture in which conflict is not avoided and which values direct communication portraying exactly the emotion behind it. Confrontations and strong emotions are usually let go of quickly by both parties. Additionally, Jack comes from a culture which values politeness and conflict avoidance.
-Perhaps Chaira is having a really hard day, or maybe she is at a stressful time in her life. Contemplating this, Jack might remember that her Mom is sick, or that she’s not getting along well with her boss, or that she’s having financial difficulties, or anything else. While none of this justifies behaving rudely, it might help Jack cultivate empathy for Chiara and use it to soften the discussion.
Exercise: Together with your partner, think of a conflict with another person you have experienced recently. Tell your partner your initial interpretations, and then think of some alternative explanations. If that person is from a different culture than you, think of alternative explanations that take both of your cultures into account. This exercise is relevant both within and between cultures.
Know your partner’s expectations
It’s popular nowadays to tout catchy phrases like “no expectations”, but in committed relationships, expectations are normal and healthy. Rather than try to get rid of them, the key is to shine light on them by discussing them and understanding one another’s expectations. Expect that others will have expectations! (Ford, 2021). What are you collectively trying to accomplish? What behavior does your partner expect of you? How do you plan to address conflict when it arises? Of course, this conversation requires careful consideration of your own expectations, first. Again it’s important to start with self-awareness.
Different cultures often have different expectations for their and their partner’s role in relationships when it comes to money, intimacy, communication, and many other areas. Shedding light on these expectations can help you avoid many conflicts that could arise when you don’t know one another’s expectations. Plus, talking about your expectations early on will help you avoid unpleasant surprises that might otherwise come up if you decide to get married and get a prenup later.
Exercise: To illustrate the importance of discussing expectations, tell your partner about a time when you had conflict within a team, group or with another individual because you didn’t know each others’ expectations. What could have been different if you had been on the same page regarding expectations? Bonus points if you can link in culture or background.
Adjust your view on conflict
Do you see conflict as predominantly positive or negative? If you’re like most people, you probably answered ‘negative’. Mediation experts Yarbrough & Wilmot (1995) wrote an entire book (Artful Mediation) on the premise that conflict is actually a good thing. But how could conflict somehow be a positive experience?
For one thing, conflict allows you to gain a wealth of information about the other person’s needs, which can help you to connect better with them in the future. There’s a wonderful proverb which says that love and understanding are the same thing (Carter, 2001). The more you know about someone, the better you can express love for them.
Also, remember that relationships are actually stronger after repair than before. When a metal pipe breaks and you weld it back together, it’s stronger at the point where it broke than it was before it broke. When a bone breaks, after healing it’s stronger at the place where the break is than before it broke. In the same way, relationships are also stronger after repairing a conflict. A couple is stronger after they repair a conflict effectively than they are if they simply don’t have a conflict.
Exercise: Tell your partner about a time you felt closer to someone (maybe them!) after resolving a conflict.
Listen, then ask questions
If you’re together with someone from a different culture or background, you’re probably going to have some misunderstandings. The absolute best thing you can do when this happens is first and foremost to listen. Good listening skills are widely known to be one of the best and most effective keys to conflict prevention and resolution (Ford, 2021). This is a whole article in itself, so we’ll be brief here.
When someone is upset, the first step to getting them to consider your perspective is to truly listen to theirs. It sounds counterintuitive, but listening with full presence and empathy (even if you don’t agree) is really the best way to cultivate understanding for their perspective as well as lay the groundwork for getting the other person to do the same. Listen carefully, and then before you give your own perspective or correct them, paraphrase what they said in order to check that you understood and show them that you hear their concerns. People usually soften up only after they feel heard.
When it comes to cultural misunderstandings, it could happen that you don’t understand why something is done a certain way in your partner’s culture. If this is the case, ask! But be careful to word your question in a way that doesn’t seem judgmental. For example, instead of “why is customer service here so shitty?!” you might try “what do you think are the attitudes and values surrounding customer service in your culture?”
Exercise: Tell your partner about a cross-cultural misunderstanding you have been a part of with another person. Explain what happened, assess whether you listened well to their perspective, and think of a question you could have asked about their culture that could have helped you to understand better.
Consider ‘The Platinum Rule’
The golden rule says to treat others how you want to be treated, but not everyone wants the same thing…especially when it comes to individuals with different cultural conditioning. Instead, try to treat your partner how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated. This goes back to knowing another person so that you can accommodate and connect with them more effectively. It’s not about ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ as yourself, but rather imagining how that person, with their unique background and experiences, feels walking in their shoes (Ford, 2021).
For example, in some cultures it is considered awkward to hold eye contact, while in others it shows interest, care, and connection. Let’s say Roxana is used to holding eye contact, but her date Hiroshi finds this very uncomfortable. Roxana notices that what’s natural for her isn’t comfortable for Hiroshi, so rather than treat him how she wants to be treated by holding eye contact, she decides to employ the platinum rule by intentionally glancing away more often.
Exercise: Tell your partner about a time when someone else treated you how you want to be treated, even though it was different from how they wanted to be treated. How did it make you feel?
Cross-Cultural Communication and Prenups
If you and your partner come from different cultures or backgrounds, you’re definitely going to notice that when it comes time to write your prenup. We recommend educating yourself in advance on how prenups work in your partner’s family or culture. Have other family members gotten one? What attitudes does their culture have towards prenups? Do such arrangements even exist?
While some ancient cultures (such as Jews and Egyptians) have/had their own version of a prenup (Hello Prenup, 2019), in some cultures the idea is completely foreign. For example, they’re rare in many easter cultures, such as Japan. In India, prenups are also highly uncommon and are actually in opposition to Indian views and customs regarding marriage. In Malaysia, they’re not even authorized by law (Morley, 2021).
While it’s absolutely recommended to get a prenup if you’re getting married, you will save yourself a lot of stress (and probably learn something new about your partner!) if you first discuss your expectations with an eye towards each of your backgrounds.
Carter, Forrest. 1976. The Education of Little Tree. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Ford, John. 2021. Cross Cultural Conflict Resolution in Teams. Retrieved from: https://www.resologics.com/resologics-blog/2016/7/26/cross-cultural-conflict-resolution-in-teams
Hello Prenup. 2019. What do Prenups Look Like in Other Parts of the World? Retrieved from: https://www.helloprenup.com/prenuptial-agreements/prenups-all-over-the-world/
Khan, Saher. 2015. Interracial Love in the Millennial Generation. Retrieved from: https://dailyillini.com/uncategorized/2015/02/11/interracial-love-in-the-millennial-generation/
Morely, Jeremy. 2021. Prenuptial Agreements Around the World. Retrieved from: https://www.international-divorce.com/prenuptial-agreements-around-the-world-2
Rosentiel, Tom. 2010. Almost All Millennials Accept Interracial Dating and Marriage. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/2010/02/01/almost-all-millennials-accept-interracial-dating-and-marriage/
Yarbrough, E. & Wilmot, W. 1995. Artful Mediation. Australia: Cairns Publications.