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. 

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.