SOLVING INTERCULTURAL PROBLEMS WITHIN A RELATIONSHIP

Heike Koutsaringas

In the last decades the world has come together due to the faster development of the so-called globalisation and furthermore thanks to the modern means of transportation that – also within the globalisation – are subject to competitiveness and have become cheaper than ever before, thus providing the possibility to a wider spectrum of customer to travel abroad and meet people of different cultures. Of course, the custom to travel abroad has a long tradition and even thousands of years before people used to look for business opportunities with different foreign countries. However, at this time the possibilities were limited and no trade union existed that assured the workers holidays every year together with the economical support to realize trips – no mention of the time you needed then to travel to and return home from abroad. Additional to this and maybe even more important is the virtual visit to the whole world by means of internet etc., thus providing us to travel around the world while sitting at home.

On the other hand more and more people of economically weak countries are trying to find a better life in the developed and economically stable countries of the Western world, or having been chased for their beliefs search for asylum in Democratic countries. As a result of this, melting pots have come into existence and the large cities show a huge variety of different cultures within shops with exotic accessories, food, clothes etc. The mixture of different cultures within a limited space automatically leads to an approach from both sides both in negative and positive ways. While the majority of the people remains in a temporary and cursory touch with the foreign cultures by tasting the exotic foods in restaurants, by falling in love with exotic cultures and for a certain time even up-to-date accessories or by travelling all over the world during their holiday, the younger generation is used to having non-native school-friends; and by making friends they also have the opportunity to get something more than just a glimpse of the unusual and sometimes strange cultural habits when sharing their daily problems. By calling foreigners or food and accessories of foreign countries exotic or at least unusual, we should, however, never forget that for the foreigners our food and habits are perhaps the same exotic and unusual – if not more. Thus the hesitation and at the same time the curiosity to approach the other culture is mutual.

The coexistence of different cultures, and thus belief systems, may enrich society in its development; however, the emergence of intercultural problems seems to be more likely, at least at the very beginning. The question is what exactly are these intercultural problems, how do they come into existence, if they can be solved within a relationship and what should this relationship look like.

 

Intercultural problems appear due to the confrontation of different cultures; therefore, we first need to define the word culture. According to the definition given in the encyclopaedia culture originally meant the diversification of nature with the use of tools and – based on this – the collectivity of the way of life of a group of human beings (people, class, rank); but with the development of the early civilisation out of which the highly developed civilisations came into existence, the meaning of the word culture moved to the wholeness of the social constitution, customs and life system. According to this definition, intercultural problems would arise due to the dissimilarity of customs and life systems and, not to be left out, the way of thinking, given that the former have an impact on the latter and vice versa. The way of thinking also defines our behaviour and thus the approach to a different culture requires the research of the background of our own culture. Therefore, by coming into contact with a different way of thinking one’s familiar, and until then, natural world view is faced with a conflicting view that challenges one’s own culture.

This is the moment when intercultural problems come into existence! The above mentioned differences in customs, behaviours and ways of thinking are more or less adopted unconsciously, because within one culture there is no need to question the particularities of it. By growing up within one particular culture we automatically adopt these systems that define it, thus integrating ourselves into society in a generally accepted way. Only by meeting someone of a different culture are we faced with a new definition of the way of life or thinking which challenges our experiences so far and causes either a rejection of the new belief systems etc., thus being labelled as foreign, or a personal revision of our own way of life and thinking. In the case of rejection, problems arise; mainly when the confrontation is of duration which means that people of different cultures are impelled to deal with each other due to e.g. work situation or private relationships. Therefore, the approach to a different culture involves scrutinising ourselves, which is naturally not quite simple or pleasant. The deepness of personal involvement and therefore the level of scrutinising oneself depend on the type of relationship we have, e.g. business, friendship, partnership, political, artistic or intellectual. In regard to solving intercultural problems and the contribution one has to make, I would suggest that we should divide the above mentioned relationships into two categories. The first category, business and political relationships, perceives the approach to the culture in an impersonal way, whereas in the second the category of friendship and partnership the involvement of one’s personal life is required. Artistic or intellectual relationships are beyond these categories, because they function on a different level.

In international and thus intercultural business relationships both partners are normally interested in keeping them strictly to the economic advantage of both. In a positive business relationship both parties will respect each other and will not take advantage of possible weaknesses of the one party. Such relationships can lead to mutual support and development of both parties and, through respect, to an improved understanding for each other. Unfortunately, nowadays interest in a joint-venture or a co-operation is often aimed at the economical enrichment of the stronger party, which would often intentionally misuse the weaker party, being aware of the latter’s dependency on the former. Economically weak countries are often chosen by companies of economically strong countries for the location of their production, due to cheaper labour costs and looser or non-existing laws for environmental protection. It is a battle of survival for both: The parent company has to survive in the more and more aggressive global market and the provider of services has to survive its daily battle. Fortunately, some unique projects do exist, where the buyer pays an appropriate price for goods and services that allows the people in the country of production to live and work with self-respect. These extraordinary examples are the outcome of mutual respect together with humanity. Nevertheless, this self-respect is not given within most joint-ventures, due to the fact that the workers often have to sacrifice their own environment as well as their personal health, only to earn enough money in order to barely survive. Cultural differences are experienced within business manners and habits that vary accordingly to the cultural background of the business associates. The business partners are confronted with the different culture only in limited ways because the interests of the parties don’t allow the presentation of any negative factors of their culture.

Relationships in regard to political interests exist either between governments, often combined with business deals, or between supporters of political interests and are often focused against government rulings or nowadays against globalization. These relationships originate in the common attitude towards or belief in a subject of global importance. Political and social problems of different cultures or countries are often superficially reported on, but the problems need to have a cross national and cross cultural character in order to receive the attention of a wide range of supporters, be it from the government or citizens’ side. It is very important though, to have these cross national connections concerning the fight for human rights or similar issues. These activities can support the implementation of political laws either on a global dimension or in regard to one particular country. Nevertheless, they will not solve intercultural problems, because the intention of this kind of relationship is to find common concerns that are acknowledged in many countries, but they can lead to mutual respect and to a feeling of belonging together, as well as to an amicable coexistence.

In order to discuss the next category of relationships it is necessary to realise the process that a foreigner undergoes when moving to a country with a different culture, due to the fact that intercultural friendships often and marriages (partnerships) always imply the presence of a foreigner.

 

Whenever somebody leaves his/her country in order to start a new life somewhere else, a strange and somewhat even schizophrenic development begins. On the one hand the person will try to absorb the life-style of his new country of abode and on the other hand he may fear the loss of his identity that he had come to know until then within the country and culture he was raised in. In the majority of cases as a result of this, the person automatically tries to keep a connection to his roots, but because of his absence in his country of origin the cultural development of this person in regard to his country will either be hindered or will even regress.

His roots are the only stable element in a totally new surrounding so the customs and habits are being cultivated up to obsession, while the population in the home country is developing. Like the roots of a plant that has been replanted after having been taken out of its soil; the person has to relocate and settle into and acclimatize to his new country of abode in order to be able to survive. There are different ways to realize this, however, with differing results according to the place: Put into a jar of its original earth, the plant will be limited in growing, whereas having been cleaned and replanted into the soil of its new surrounding its roots will be able to spread around and acclimatize to the new soil. But also the maintenance of the relocated plant plays a big role in its development. By using the already known fertilizers, without taking into account the composition of the new soil, the plant may not receive what it really needs because it refuses to become accustomed to the alien soil. Thus one has to learn anew how to maintain the plant in the new surrounding in order to have the best results for the development of it.

Maintaining the habits and the culture of the country of origin to the extent of being cut off from the internal development of it can lead to the preserved species of a certain culture with a lethal aftertaste. But sometimes it is not easy to let go of traditions or habits often based on belief and religious systems, due to the fact that it seems like a blasphemy with threatening repercussions. Therefore, most of the foreigners in a country are likely to initiate communities with people of the same culture or country allowing them to express and behave themselves in their habituated way.

 

We can now perhaps empathise better when considering the situation of a foreigner in one country and the conflicts he has to deal with. The next step is to socialise with the people of his new country of abode and to integrate himself into the new society. This step is not only hampered by the above mentioned inner conflicts of the foreigner; often the society of the new country of abode itself is not about to welcome the new immigrant with open arms. As long as the internal situation of a country or culture is stable, native inhabitants are disposed to accept foreigners in their homeland, but if the balance runs out of control due to for example recession or the feeling that their way of life is being threatened etc. the situation can change in no time. The uncertainty about their own prospects and the causation of it ask for the culprit – and this is the point when the immigrants anew are labelled as strange and unknown – as the sad examples of the Holocaust during the 2nd World War and the hunting and burning of immigrants in Germany show.

 

Approaching a diverse culture with the means of a friendship does not automatically require the permanent presence in the other country, because it can also be developed after a visit and cultivated over special distance and repeatedly effected mutual visits. A friendship between two or more people from different cultures can lead to a deep understanding of the attitudes and believe systems of the other without them being as involved on a personal or emotional level as within a marriage. Friendships should be based on mutual respect and tolerance for the personality and its surroundings of each other. But at the same time one is not as involved as in a partnership and can experience the different culture without being limited in one’s own life. One can choose how deep one wants to experience the other culture, because friendship does not have any conditions to change one’s life or attitudes, but has the opportunity to enrich horizons. Therefore, friendship is a way to objectively get to know different cultures and in turn giving us the possibility to experience the original taste within a private sphere. There are many possibilities to solve intercultural problems within a friendship, depending on whether or not the objectivity in a discussion about different attitudes remains within a reasonable context. This may indeed be personal, however, without directly effecting the person. How can we solve the problems here? As friends we can show the «foreigner» the difference in attitudes and behaviour so that he himself can begin to understand the strange reactions of the inhabitants of the country he is involved with either by visiting or living in it. As friends we do not have the expectations that he will change and we give him the status of a stranger who does not yet know the subtle characteristics that defines our culture. By giving the other time to smoothly go deeper into the other culture at his own pace, we provide him with the opportunity to become accustomed to the cultural traits of the country. Intercultural relationships within a friendship provide an excellent opportunity to approach the other cultures with tolerance and respect and these are two of the most important factors when trying to solve intercultural problems.

 

In case of a bi-national or bicultural marriage we do not only have to take into consideration the personalities etc. of the two individuals, but also the difficult situation of at least one of the two; if a native marries a foreigner or if they are both from different countries other than the host country.

 

While a partnership between two people of the same country is itself combined with many difficulties due to differences in personality, influences of the surrounding and the general short-lasting habits in regard to everything within our society today; a partnership between two people of different cultures has to stand additional difficulties of misunderstandings due to different culture, beliefs and habits, as well as ways of thinking that could simply begin with different tastes in food and end up in disagreements about parenting. Apart from the sometimes extremely harsh influences from the families of both partners, the couple might have to face general prejudices that occur due to the political or religious situation or because of the official attitude of their country towards the country of their partner. With this it is obvious that a bi-national couple has to face much more pressure than a couple with partners of the same country.  When we now compare the statistics and realize that divorces are increasing more and more even in homo-national relationships, we can perhaps imagine, how difficult the situation is for a bi-national relationship.

 

Nevertheless, and even in spite of the above, bi-national relationships and marriages are more and more common. The question is if and how a couple can solve the, in the most cases, arising or existing intercultural problems within their relationship. Is it possible at all and what does this require of the involved – the couple? In regard to the world we are living in, and that is split into different cultural regions and classes, with the numerous wars and riots that are going on everywhere, it seems ridiculous that a bi-national partnership should be able to contribute to the solution of intercultural problems. The truth is that the people involved in a bi-cultural relationship have to face many obstacles on their way, but irrespective of the outcome, they have been sensitised and opened and thus the crossing of the mental frontier has begun. Children of a bi-cultural relationship are in the promising situation of being confronted with at least two cultures from the very first moment of their lives and potentially carry hope on their shoulders for future intercultural understanding and development.

 

Often it is a fight of pique that people of different cultures decide to get into a relationship. The first romantic attachment would often disappear as suddenly as it had appeared, if it was not for the immediate interference of the parents, who pretend to protect their child from a big mistake. As a result the involved even tend to vindicate attitudes that do not correspond with their own view of life. So the ambition to convince their parents and society that they are able to overcome the obvious obstacles of a bi-national relationship is in the beginning a good motive to iron out differences. But often it is not enough to establish a long-lasting relationship, because it is only superficial. The pressure not to fail includes the doubt within itself.

 

The first obstacle in a bi-national relationship is the different understanding and attitude towards the meaning of relationships and the expectations of both the partners and their families in the background and the roles they have to play. Despite our wish to be or even belief of being people with a free will to choose, we are still bound to the habits and schemes with which we have unconsciously been raised. Therefore, our reactions and feelings are often predestined by attuned behaviour pattern that we normally do not realize. This, together with the individuality of our character is, of course, the general way we react to everything surrounding us. Under normal circumstances we do not have to question our reactions either because they are normal and thus accepted by the people of our surrounding – this happens mostly in the society we grow up in – or because we are up to a fanatic point convinced of our behaviour, so nothing and nobody can weaken our opinion. In regard to a bicultural relationship, these unconsciously executed reactions can cause severe problems, especially when the partner has a different way of thinking and understanding coupled with a strong self-conviction and believes. Then the situation is ready to explode unless the partners are able to find a solution. The search for a solution differs according to the character and the level of beliefs. The weaker of the two will probably just give in due to the fear of being unable to fight for and express their beliefs. This doubtlessly, sooner or later, leads to resignation and is not a solution. Not only is one’s true self hidden behind a masque, which means that you betray not only your partner but also yourself in order to keep things calm, but resignation animates to the establishing of the wrong conclusion that the issue in question has been agreed on and been accepted and understood. The discontent that the weaker person will feel during this time and the nearly impossible withdrawal of this act will bring forth a long-lasting problem.

 

It is not easy to avoid a situation like this. Both sides need to approach the other culture with an open mind and should avoid judging, at least at the beginning – until they get an understanding of the meaning for the other’s behaviour. In order to get to know the other culture one should avoid entering it by thinking rather than by feeling – feeling without judging. Judging is rooted in the feeling of being superior to others and includes a taste of arrogance as well. The belief of being superior can exist due to traditions, belief systems, economical advantage, industrial development, as well as history. Bi-cultural relationships can overcome this barrier by providing the possibility to enter deeply into the thought world of the other and thus allowing the involved to sensitise their mutual understanding. Both partners could recognize their confined views and, if necessary, expand their perception by leaving behind the cultural bounds. The newly achieved understanding could then be passed onto the family, the circle of friends or even a business domain and consequently contribute to avoiding prejudices, as well as prevent the superficial dispraise of culturally conditioned reactions or mentalities. Naturally, this process calls for an opening within the relationship and a certain confine in regard to the perception towards one’s own culture, a procedure that mostly happens anyway at the beginning of a relationship. By scrutinising one’s own way of thinking due to the dissimilarity of the partner, one obtains the possibility to recognise the deadlocked patterns in one’s own mindset, and thus the chance to identify, understand and potentially change or expand the collective opinion.

 

It is very interesting to experience, how a culture judges the automatic and culturally conditioned reactions and feelings of a foreigner that, until then, have been beyond question and therefore have hardly ever been consciously executed or assimilated. What seemed rational and normal yesterday can appear absurd and dogged today.

 

A further cause of problems is the diversity of the moral concepts. Moral concepts are defined by the evaluations of life, fellow men, behaviour and our surrounding and are determined by the culture or belief systems. Which place in the range of virtues each of them takes, depends mainly on the history, culture, religion etc. of a country. Not only moral concepts like the role of the woman etc. are of concern, but also the evaluation of our behaviour and thus the control over it. Virtues are also code of honours and often similar to the belief maxims of a culture. Thus it is possible that various virtues are cross cultural, if for example a huge religious community that is established in more than one continent, has devotees of dissimilar cultures, however, the code of honour is similar due to the same religion. Thereby the role of the religious community within a particular culture and the degree up to which it can cover the virtues of the culture is of great importance. By taking a look at the origin of moral concepts and their erstwhile meaning we have the possibility to give them the importance they deserve and overcome the sometimes fanatic or disproportionate meaning they have obtained over the years.

 

Through a bi-cultural partnership one is able to quickly lose the fear of the unknown because the partners get to know each other by mutual interest and are open to strange, new experiences. The strange content attracts and is exotic until we get to know the banality through which we become acquainted with the other culture in its daily routine and the unknown turns into something familiar. Prejudices and distrust can be released better and deeper within a relationship since the distrust towards the unknown finds an explanation by discussion and turns from prejudices into experienced estimation and from distrust into trust. Of course, this modification is not always easy, because our initial reactions are unconsciously controlled by the predominating opinions. But if we are lucky enough to use a different perspective for the things we feel distrust, which itself is rooted in the body of thought of society, we may then transcend the prevalent ideas and come to an own (mental) attitude. This attitude will naturally not always be positive, because it depends on the kind of relationship one has, as well as on the character of the persons concerned. Thus it can happen that through a failed relationship the prevalent ideas will even be strengthened and the temptation to transfer the experienced estimation to the majority of the people of one particular culture group is on hand.

 

I would like to mention another kind of relationship that in my opinion is very important for intercultural sympathy and fortunately tends to be ever present around the world. Intercultural relationships based on artistic or intellectual interests allow the involved to communicate with other cultures on a different level that doesn’t include the problems one has to face on a daily basis. Music for example is a language beyond words and can bring together people with different cultural backgrounds in the name of mutual interest and devotion. It is of interest, though, that musicians can develop an understanding of the different culture by the way the music is played. The same can be experienced between artists of different subjects such as painters etc. or within an intellectual approach of people out of different cultures, e. g. philosophers or authors. The positive side-effect of such intercultural relationships is that music, paintings, books or philosophies are made for a wide range of people which can thereby be sensitised in such a nice way for the diversity of cultures. 

 

Every form of intercultural relationship can contribute in its own way to a better understanding between different cultures, but regrettably this opportunity is used insufficiently. One reason may be that it is namely combined with dealing with oneself and another that it is about personal responsibility, the responsibility of one’s personal thoughts and judgements with or without only minor preconceptions. Despite their impression of being individuals, people in general are no mavericks and therefore the adherence to already existing opinions is much easier and does not displease. But if we realize that intercultural understanding does not mean change but rather interchange and awareness of our attitudes, then perhaps we would be more willing to approach other cultures. The intention of intercultural relationships should not be to convince other cultures of the assumed superiority of one’s own culture, like in former times (e. g. crusades, missions, conquests and colonisations) and with this the attempt to change the culture or beliefs of the others, but rather to get to know and accept the varieties of different cultures. It is through these diversities that we can become conscious of the worthiness and the essence of our own culture. We should not perceive the confrontation with other cultures as a threat but rather as an opportunity to investigate our own cultural background and the validity of it, and with this to investigate ourselves. This could lead to the development of responsible people that operate free of behaviour patterns and a perhaps more peaceful coexistence of different cultures.