In the last 11 days I’ve shared some of the responses I got from a survey I conducted during 2008 about Cross-Cultural Relationships. The survey was inspired by a book called “One Couple – Two Cultures : 81 western-Chinese couples talk about love and marriage” by Dan Waters, which is a terrific read about the topic, if you’re interested. The purpose of re-running the same themes from the book was to gain a better understanding of cross-cultural relationship first-hand and see whether a more diverse group of respondents that come from places other than Hong Kong would have something interesting to add to the discussion.
I should also point out that I was positively surprised by the response to the survey. I honestly didn’t expect to have as many respondents as I did, all of which showed tremendous patience with a long open survey. Though there’s obviously some serious selection bias and this is a non-representative sample, I believe that there is still alot to learn from those who shared their lives and reading the responses and ordering them into categories has been a meaningful and exciting journey. Since most of the respondents indicated they’d be interested in receiving updates and participating in future research, which leaves me hoping that we could do a follow-up sometimes soon.
Following is my very subjective personal interpretation of what I read in the posts:
Misunderstandings are inherent in cross-cultural relationships. It starts with language and basic communications, as usually atleast one side is not using his/her native language. The body-language, the humor, the slang, intonations… these small things make it more difficult to clearly understand each other. Naturally, this extends even further when you consider culture – eating habits, personal space, importance of face, sexual behavior, gender roles, customs, taboos etc.
The way I interpret this is that cross-cultural relationships require patience, acceptance and understanding from both sides and the ability to take those misunderstandings in perspective.
Behavior and body language are perhaps the most basic of differences, and sometimes it’s things that people are not aware of. It could be small things about the meaning of a hand wave, but could lead to much larger differences in socializing behaviors and how affection is or should be shown in public.
This extends the previous post with much more specific examples of cultural differences in habits in customs. Here, food was a topic mentioned often as well as cultural traditions. Stereotypically, different cultures tend to do things differently, and judge people – be it social status or perhaps intended respect – based on how they perceive others. Accepting others who do things in ways you’ve been brought up to believe are wrong or disrespectful requires the best of people for it to not develop into crisis. Even if the partners are willing to keep an open mind and accept those differences, close others might not, which is where family and friends come into play…
When a relationship becomes serious, and the significant other is introduced to friends and family those cultural judgments become increasingly important, whether the couple would like to or not. Personally, I’ve been lucky, as my family has shown warmth and acceptance above and beyond my expectations, and yet I’ve heard of several instances where family was the breaking point for a relationship. In the survey, language barriers and inability to communicate seemed the most important issue, though culture came in a close second. It seems, that acceptance by family and friends is cross-culturally a difficult issue as most cultures are not very multicultural and hold expectations or preferences as to who their family members should date with. It’s hard enough to live up to family expectations when people are from the same culture, so different cultures brings complexity to a whole new different level.
Based on this biased sample, it would seem that most couples who engage in cross-cultural relationships can both relate to one another to some extent, or atleast – that it helps the relationship in a very positive way. Those who reported mixed relateness or one-way relateness report slightly more complicated situations, but that by itself could be resolved by emphasizing one culture over another within the relationship, mostly by preference in host country where they both decide to stay. Those who do not relate much to the significant other’s culture hold on to their relationship, somewhat isolating themselves from cultural considerations.
To make a cross-cultural relationship successful responded mostly emphasized the ability to understand each other and accept differences, patience and keeping an open mind, positive communications and ability to compromise.
So what is good about cross cultural relationships? Cultural sharing seems to play some role in that, allowing both sides to open-up and expand their horizons. Another well-repeated point has to do with the adventurous side – cross cultural relationships are exciting, constantly introducing something new and interesting to the couple’s lives.
Yet, there is the other side of cross cultural relationships. Challenges arise, and these usually have to do with family and prejudice. For those living away from their homes or from each other location and distance plays an important role.
Is there prejudice against cross cultural couples. Some report that there is, and that it is a problem that sometimes affects the relationship.
One of the questions that people usually responded with to this survey is – are cross cultural really all that different than in-culture relationships? It’s a matter of personal opinion, and you’ll get to read a bit of each side. Personally, I think they are, especially if you’re not used to it or do not expect it.
If you enjoyed this series, please take a minute to write down a comment with your opinion on the topic, and what it is that you’re curious about. I’d appreciate that very much.
A big thanks to all the participants who took out of their precious time to answer a non-trivial and somewhat engaging survey.