Cilantro chicken. Fried plantains. Bowls of strawberries and cream are awaiting us for dessert.
Yes, I thought, this is going to be a great night.
Looking across the table at one of my dearest friends, an amazing young lady from Columbia, I knew that the combination of good food and a great friendship was just what I needed as the perfect end to a fun weekend. We were cooking together at her house, hoping it would be good bonding time for two former roommates who hadn’t caught up in person for almost a year. It’s amazing how food and the preparation of it can loosen the tongue; as we started dessert, the topic turned to some of the adjustments my friend had gone through during her long-term stay in the States. Intrigued, I listened to her relate a particular experience she had with an American friend. I asked her to fill me in on some of the major idiosyncrasies she had run across while acclimating to mainstream Western culture.
Her answers surprised me a little: “well, for one thing," she remarked, "if people see you crying here, they will often just walk away.” In between smothering my poor strawberries with ungodly large dollops of whipped cream, I quickly ran down the list of awkward things I have done in my life (ha, a list...I mean a volume whose length could rival War and Peace) to try and remember if I had ever been guilty of that. “Really?” I asked, spooning a suffocated berry into my mouth and prodding her to explain how this approach (or lack of approach) differed from her Columbian context. She pointed out that in Columbia if people are seen publicly expressing emotion, they are treated in a far more relationally healthy way than in America. “People ask you what’s wrong in Columbia, but here they seem awkward about it,” she said. I nodded, not too surprised by this critique. After all, Americans do seem a bit skittish of public displays of emotion, and I had already guessed that my friend’s delightfully warm, expressive, caring personality might reflect an openness in her cultural that is quite foreign to ours.
My friend went on to explain that sharing things, like food, for example, is not treated the same way here as it is in her native Columbia. “Once, I offered a group of people some of my snacks and they all said no. I told them that it can offend me when they don’t accept the things I offer.” We both enjoyed more berries and, a little surprised by this latest point, I listened intently as she went on to say that “they said they refused because they didn’t want to take my stuff, but I told them that I wouldn’t have offered it if I didn’t want them to have it." I found out as we continued our conversation that it is as natural as breathing for Columbians to share things like food with each other all the time.
Both of our dinner plates polished clean by this time, we talked about the differences in punctuality between her culture and mine. She explained that she had to get used to being so prompt for every activity here, and I commiserated by pointing out that Americans generally tend to worship the almighty clock, perhaps even at the expense of investing in people. I shared with her that, in studying cross-cultural communication, I had learned that many non-Western cultures tend to view relationships and communication as more valuable than how much time is spent on a given activity. (This concept of time management can be found in the book "Ministering Cross-Culturally," which is an excellent read that compares and contrasts the U.S’s lifestyle with non-Western cultures). My friend identified with this, although we both agreed that a balance is absolutely necessary.
Now, friends, if you have even a measure of that famous curiosity Americans are so well-known for, you might be asking the question “why” at this point. Why did my friend have the experiences here that she did and how does it reflect on us? Now, of course, not all Americans turn away from people who are crying, not all of them turn down food when offered, etc., and not all Columbians do the opposite. The point of sharing this with you is not to draw cultural stereotypes or make sweeping generalizations but to (hopefully) learn more about ourselves as we learn about others. The chance to view our society through outside eyes can not only be fun, it can be enlightening. So in that spirit, I want to offer a few closing reflections on why my friend’s experiences should matter to us as we consider our American culture.
As I said earlier, when my friend explained that Columbians generally offer more open care and concern for those expressing emotion than we Americans do, I wasn’t surprised. To be perfectly honest, the way we in the West often ignore each other’s emotions to avoid awkward scenes reflects a surprising amount of relational restriction and cultural cowardice for "the land of the free and the home of the brave." I don’t believe the underlying cause is that people don’t care, but rather that, as a culture, we are not taught to be very open or relational. No, let me rephrase that: we don’t feel allowed to be very open or relational.
Again, the question would be “why?" If we are not as open and relational as other cultures, there must be a foundational reason, and I think part of that reason can be found in the other points my friend brought up. For instance, turning down food may not seem like a big deal to us but, for her, it meant much more than we would think. Judging by her open, sunny personality, I can imagine that for her (and her culture in general) sharing food is a relational statement, something that is meant to signify friendship or, at the very least, it points to a cultural precedent of giving without even thinking twice (she indicated this to be true). Dare I say that, as Americans, our Western materialism teaches us to hold on a little too tightly to what we have, thus when faced with someone who is giving for no underlying motive we have an undue feeling of taking something from them because we unconsciously think in terms of practical benefit? Just a thought.
Time management is another reason we find it harder to be as relational as other cultures. Apparently, as I mentioned before, non-Western cultures appear to value communication and relationship investment more than time (again, check out "Ministering Cross-Culturally" to learn more about this). If, as a culture, we are geared toward making the most of our time, that might not always include paying attention to someone who is crying or being truly interested in learning more about them. A balance is needed, of course, but it is, at least, worth considering.
If you’re thinking “all right, from now on I’ll carry a handy box of Kleenex with me, stare people down until they offer me food so that I can accept it, and smash all my clocks because, for heaven’s sake, I will not be ruled by a machine….” then you have just gotten a glimpse of my twisted sense of humor. On the other hand, if this has interested you at all, one thing you could consider doing is, every once and while, stopping and pondering why you do what you do as a member of mainstream Western culture. You might be surprised to find how much of what you do and how you do it is a reflection of societal norms that you never even considered before.