Ever engage in what should have been a straight forward interaction but instead felt more like a confrontation? You may have gotten what you needed but the exchange came with the unexpected price of being annoyed and irritated. While the root of such transactional misfires can often be the result of the other person simply being a jerk, sometimes it’s more complicated. This can particularly be the case when dealing with strangers. And what if that person is of a different culture? How much greater is the chance for misinterpretation of intent?
Folks who travel to the Midwest often comment on a so-called ‘Michigan politeness.’ This affable nature can be so inherent in residents that we mostly are not even aware of it – sort of like how many of us don’t notice our Midwestern accent when we speak.
Cultural traditions across the country can be as different as the geographic landscape that distinguishes each region. Down south, there exists a general sense of ‘casualness,’ with customs that reinforce a more relaxed manner. Contrast this with the northeast, especially metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston or Philadelphia. There, you tend to find more of an urgent, ‘on-the-dot’ culture. Meanwhile, Washington, DC, can be largely defined by its ‘button down’ tradition, particularly when it comes to fashion appropriateness. Southern California (think L.A.), in contrast, is accented by a sense of residents being more ‘laid back.’ And Hawaii? Well, sometimes it can feel like everybody there wears flip-flops.
In most cases, being helpful and friendly can be recognized and appreciated. Other times, sincere actions can be interpreted by outsiders in unintended ways. New Yorkers who are short and abrupt might be deemed impolite by Midwestern or Southern standards. Yet in most cases, from an East Coaster’s perspective, all they could be trying to do is save time and be efficient. Fast walking, fast talking, to-the-point conversation – it’s their culture. Conversely, many New Yorkers might believe his time is being wasted if a Midwesterner attempts ice-breaking small talk.
The same can be true from person to person in the same region. One individual’s attempt at ‘polite conversation’ might be regarded as ‘superficial nonsense’ to her next-door neighbor. Some store clerk’s ‘direct approach’ might be a specific customer’s ‘pushy attitude.’ In some cultures (or even families), loud talk and hand-waving is considered normal and appropriate. In others, it might be considered rude or even aggressive.
Levels of eye contact, tone of voice, slaps on the back, casual hugs - they are all important means of nonverbal communication. Two people may both be on the same page with the big picture but if they are not in tune with how each other is being received, quarrels can result – or worse. Next time you find yourself in what should be a simple conversation that is unexpectedly escalating toward drama, take a moment and try to evaluate the other person’s intent. You may find there’s a cultural disconnect happening that, if addressed the right way, can help get things back on track.