We are different, so what?

There is much written about cross-cultural communication in multicultural teams. It is vital in my opinion to apply this knowledge to a family context, a mini multicultural team.

What I tend to see is information for families arriving in a new country.

There are so many other areas to consider: being in an intercultural relationship, living in one or more cultural contexts, parenting from two different cultural backgrounds, and being multicultural. And then comes moving to a completely new context!

Learning about cultural differences has transformed my life, giving me a better understanding of who I am as a person, why I say and do what I do, and what I value. It is like a set of keys that can unlock a life code I didn’t even know existed.

Knowing myself through this lens has led to substantial improvement in communicating with my husband and understanding family members and friends.

How do cultural differences show up when there is distance?

In this blogpost, I am sharing cultural elements to be aware of particularly relevant for intercultural couples separated geographically by choice or necessity. In the end, I point to more resources for understanding culture as a whole.

Before we start, a few important points to remember when speaking about culture.

1.    Culture is everywhere around us. It is in what people believe, how they behave, what they assume, how they ‘do’ life, what is important to them. When there are patterns in these areas that go beyond personality and individual differences, then a culture emerges.

2.    Nationality & country are not necessarily the main indicators of cultural similarities or differences. Different regions or cultural groups within a same country can have a wide variety of cultural norms.

3.    Most people are already part of various cultures (musical, generational, professional, socio-economic for example).

For example, I grew up as a Missionary Kid, playing the cello in an orchestra, in the South of France, with a Welsh father and an Armenian mother. Being in a Christian environment, playing music at the Music Conservatory, living in Provence, having parents who had their own family and regional cultures, and the countries I have lived in since all this has contributed to shaping my cultural identity. Not just the place where I lived as a child.

Wiebke Homborg is a certified Cross-Cultural Trainer and Intercultural Coach. She grew up in Belgium, the US, and Spain and has spent a total of 22 years in six different countries. 

I asked her to weigh in on the distance question.

Here are just a few highlights she shared with me. Reflect on how you personally do each one and discuss with your partner what their preference is.  

1. How do you communicate (direct and indirect) – do you go straight to the point, or would you consider that rude?

2. How do you build trust? (task vs relationship based) – is it through doing practical tasks together, or through opening up and having emotional proximity?

3. Perhaps less cultural but more individual is the question of short vs long term orientation – how long are you willing to live in a long-distance relationship?

4. Another dimension to talk through with your partner is the amount of uncertainty that each of you can tolerate. This can change quite a bit between individuals, so knowing where the other stands can help avoid conflict and keep you pulling in the same direction.

5. How are decisions made? Are you from a culture where decision-making is mostly top-down, or consensual? This may depend on your view of power constructs – do you function with a hierarchy or with a more egalitarian approach? Think about how you and your partner would naturally react, and then decide as a couple which approach you want to take in your relationship.

She reminds us of some technical factors

Context matters: verbalize more to give context as video doesn’t convey as much body language. Be mindful of linguistic misunderstandings, use simple language.

Choice of media: Not every medium works equally well for everyone. Discuss, know, and respect each other’s preferences.

Time zone issues: Sort out when is a good time for synchronic communication (live calls) and when it’s better to communicate asynchronously (video or voice messages, texts, emails, snail mail).

Set some ‘team rules’. The time of day you talk for example. Do you work so well when you’re tired?  Conversations after 10pm aren’t always most productive for couples if both are tired. 

Meeting frequency: Some need daily calls for structure and workflow, while others prefer to work more independently

A few more areas to consider:

The most precious things in speech are pauses – Ralph Richardson

Do you pause when you speak? Imagine a phone conversation where one of you talks without taking a breath and the other waits patiently for a break in the conversation that never comes. Have you noticed pauses in your conversation? Do you respect when others pause?

Turn-taking: do you take turns to speak during a conversation or is interrupting each other acceptable?

Other areas of life where our upbringing, background, values, behaviours may differ: Grieving, Asking for help, Expressing our emotions, Boundaries, Disagreeing, Expressing gratitude, Apologising…

“How to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings”: Sundae Schneider-Bean, LLC is interviewed by Amel Derragui on Tandem Nomads Episode #86

More reading….

The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, masterfully uncovers the subtleties of culture, how the differences affect business and how awareness of them transforms interactions. A multicultural person will greatly benefit from reading it.

Intercultural Marriages, Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano is a must-read for anyone who doesn’t share a culture with their partner. She sets the scene beautifully in the first few chapters on how we interact with culture, then, as she weaves in personal stories, she addresses frequent challenges for intercultural spouses.

When Cultures Collide, by Richard D. Lewis provides leaders and managers with practical strategies to embrace differences and successfully work across diverse business cultures. Again, it can be applied to individuals and families.

Mixed Blessings, by Rhoda Berlin and Harriet Cannon. Part One has clear educational chapters that demystify the components of culture and confusion that undermine confidence and trust. Part Two, uses empathy and humor in twelve stories, based on real couples’ navigation through complex relationship challenges with each other and with their families. Part Three is a collection of creative exercises that individualise a couple’s path through cultural differences.


Rhoda Bangerter

Rhoda Bangerter is a coach who has lived abroad with a travelling husband for over 16 years. She helps home based mums and dads live an intentional life and build family togetherness even when their partner is away a lot for work.

Leave a Comment