The Simplest Way to Clear Up Cultural Conflicts: Ask a Local

My wife and I moved to Spain in my early days as a CEO.

We wanted to bond with locals to better understand the culture, ease our integration, and, of course, make friends.

Sharing time with local friends will allow you to learn about both the visible and invisible parts of the cultural baobab.

Whether it’s local cuisine, festivals, customs and rituals, greetings, dress codes, body language, taboos, etc., a local friend will always be better able to explain to you the values and norms of their culture, often better than any textbook can.

This is what my wife and I were looking for – a respectful and open encounter between two cultures.

And Spain seemed the perfect place for just such an encounter, as the culture is warm and open, easy to connect with, especially in comparison to my more reserved native Swiss culture.

The Invitation

So, we decided to throw a dinner party, and we invited friends over to our place.

We prepared everything; cooked an elaborate meal, arranged our table, and watched the clock, waiting for our special guests to arrive.

The time came and went. Nothing.

No one showed up.

We double checked the date to see if there was some sort of misunderstanding. Nothing seemed out of line.

After debating what might have happened, we chalked it up to forgetfulness on their part and, later, invited another group of friends over.

They didn’t show up either.

And a third time. Again, no one.

Were we social pariahs?

Cultural Etiquette

Fortunately, we weren’t. We just didn’t know what social etiquette in Spain commonly dictated of a host.

On the third no-show, we finally did what we should have done the first time: we asked one of the invitees why he didn’t come.

His response?

“You didn’t call to confirm the day before, so I assumed dinner was canceled.”

This baffled us. 

It’s typical in Switzerland for plans to be made far in advance without necessitating a confirmation.

You could set up a dinner date half a year in advance with friends, and the guests would show up right on time.

We had assumed sameness and the result was crossed wires.

This is the missing link in most cross-cultural conflicts: a piece of social etiquette that you weren’t aware of or didn’t quite understand.

We learned a lesson that day.

If faced with any cultural conflict, simply ask (the first time) when you are confused by something.

Usually, the conflict will be cleared up straight away with no hard feelings…that is, if you can dredge up a bit of cross-cultural understanding. 

Learn History to Learn Culture: Hungarian Toasting Customs

“Here’s to joint success in our current venture!” you say cheerfully to your Hungarian colleagues, as you hold up your beer pint for a clink at a Budapest bar.

Instead of getting a “here, here!” or the expected return, you are on the receiving end of blank stares.

You’re oblivious to the fact that you’ve just made yourself the monkey.

If you’d done a little research into the history of the culture and its traditions prior to being relocated to Budapest, you may have avoided this “monkey moment.” 

You may have learned how to toast in proper Hungarian fashion.

Learn History to Learn Culture

As we’ve discussed over the past couple months, learning language and religion inherently teaches you about culture.

The last of the trio – history – tells an important story about the beginnings, the evolution, and the present reality of any great nation.

Activist and journalist, Marcu Garvey, once said: 

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

The roots of cultural baobabs – aka, the invisible parts of culture – impact the behaviors and norms that we do see aboveground.

History is a major part of these roots. 

It defines us – our customs, mentalities, and traditions; it shapes our identity.

Nearly every modern country teaches its history in schools. It’s often a watered-down version, but it’s a historical framework nonetheless. 

Data indicates how institutions, subcultures, and entire nations are created and how they evolve. Such data allows us to infer how cultural norms and values are formed.

Hungarian Tradition

Back in Budapest, you’ve read up on your Hungarian history.

You learn that, according to legend, during the rule of the Habsburg Empire, Austrian executioners shared in a clink of their pints whenever a Hungarian general was killed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

When the revolution was defeated, it is said that this is how the Austrians celebrated in Vienna.

This has led to the Hungarian no-clinking tradition during toasts with beer, which strays from most other European countries’ cultural toasting customs.

While you might have just accepted the norm at face value and abstained from clinking in the future, taking the extra step of educating yourself about your monkey moment did you a favor.

Understanding helps clear up cultural ambiguity and uncertainty and gives you a solid footing in a foreign culture.

This is just one bit of proof that learning a little history goes a long way to learning a culture. We’ll offer more next week.