What does respect mean to you?
In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?
You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.
This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.
What do you do?
I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.
She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.
Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.
Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.
A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.
Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain
According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:
“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”
Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.
In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.
Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.
As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”
Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.
Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.
These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.
But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.