By Julio Rodriguez
If you see someone with a clenched fist and a grim expression, you do not need words to tell you that this person is not happy. If you hear someone’s voice quaver and see his or her hands tremble, you may infer that the person is fearful or anxious, despite what he or she might say. These kinds of gestures are easy to be spotted, for they are universal. However, there are subtle gestures or distinct forms of behavior that are hard if not impossible to spot in the absence of cross-cultural awareness. Sometimes, if misunderstood or misinterpreted, it can lead to serious social discomforts or even social clashes.
That was what happened to me two years ago, when I was at a wedding in Miami. My friend, who is Palestinian, invited me to her daughter’s wedding. I accepted with glee, but my gleeful attitude was quickly chattered when I was introduced to a group of invitees of whom I knew nothing about their socio-cultural interaction. I pushed my wife forward to greet them, and I pursued by extending my hand, as anyone westernized person might have done, not knowing if this is offensive to Muslim women. I was abruptly turned down, completely rebuffed. On both sides, warm and smiling faces quickly turned cold and hard like stones on a rocky riverbed, to the bewilderment of several onlookers from across the room where we stood. My wife, who was speechless, was blushing in embarrassment. I stood there, glued to my position, feeling like a fly that gets caught in a spider web.
When I finally regained my composer, I came to realize the importance of intercultural communication or cross-cultural awareness. It is very important to be culturally aware of the differences within a multiethnic society. A denial of the obvious differences can lead to major tensions. But how does one group of people come to believe that it belongs to a specific culture? Since we are living in a culturally diverse society, how and when does a child start to believe of himself or herself as Haitian, or Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or African-American? Lustig and Koester (2005) tell us that “our culture identity—the self-concept of a person who belongs to a particular cultural group—has a powerful effect on our intercultural communication,” which is in itself the circumstance in which people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact with one another. Why should different people be interested in one another? Why should harmony and cooperation not come naturally between reasonable adults? It is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, for people to obtain what they need without reaching out to others whose ethnic and cultural backgrounds are different from their own. Poverty in underdeveloped and developing countries has created major migrations to industrialized countries of Europe and North America. Societies, especially in Northern Europe, that have been regarded for centuries as culturally homogenous are now becoming multicultural. Sweden is a good example.
So, to prevent what happened to me or even worse what is already occurring—ethnic tensions—in many cities major cities across America from developing into uncontrolled conflagrations, intercultural communication MUST be part of our core values, playing an integral part of curricular designs in the public school system.
Note: Julio Rodriguez is a multicultural consultant from suburban Atlanta. He wrote this piece, exclusively for CSMS Magazine.