When I first met my husband (Shanton) he thought that I must have secretly worked for ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). He also thought that I stared at him a lot. I didn’t find this out until much later, and at the time he told me, I thought this was hilarious and when I share this story to people in workshops or in life, they also find it funny.
Whenever I talk to friends, family and clients and deliver courses, the topic of conversation inevitably turns to culture – this includes many aspects of cultural differences as well as how to show respect and build rapport, and since meeting Shanton nine years ago these are subjects I have learnt a lot about and continue to learn more about as time goes on.
I have written in a previous post about how we do cross cultural marriage, so if you want to read a bit of a back story of how two very different people met, fell in love and make it work, feel free to check that article out here.
So, back to ASIO. The reason he thought this was because of the fact I asked so many questions. I have always been a curious cat, curious in the extreme really, just ask any of my school teachers since the beginning of time and anyone who knows me. I ask a LOT of questions.
In Shanton’s culture however, questions are considered rude. They can’t ask questions of people who are senior to them, they can’t ask questions such as what a person does for a living, how old someone is (this is particularly important if the person is senior to you) you can’t ask about marital status, and the biggest taboo question of all is when a woman is pregnant to ask when her baby is due. I met countless people who Shanton introduced me to as his wife and I never got the name of most of them either and I didn’t ask. One day I asked Shanton what our neighbour James’ mum’s name was, so I could address her properly, he looked at me curiously and said, ‘It’s James’ mum’.
I could fill a dictionary of all the things you don’t ask, so it’s easier to just summarise by saying – don’t ask. My best advice when dealing with anyone from a culture you aren’t familiar with is to be guided by how the person engages with you. Questions such as ‘how are you?’ ‘how is your family?’ and ‘how is your health?’ are usually ok across most cultures. My Mum often laughs when recalling Shanton coming home to bring a friend to introduce to her and mostly he didn’t know their name, so he would say ‘Mum, this is my good, good friend’.
Somehow, in Ghana they get to know enough about each other to not need to ask questions like we do. It boggles the mind of people like us in Australia, because that’s how we get to know people right? Maybe it gets back to the fact that people mostly live in a community setting and already know enough about each other to not need to ask too much? I don’t know, even after all these years it puzzles me, but one of the things I learnt about living in another country myself and with a person from another culture is to be guided by them when it comes to relating to other people. Showing respect is paramount and if a person feels disrespected you can forget about building any kind of relationship, no matter the culture.
Now the staring thing. In the West, we show respect by making eye contact when someone is talking to us or we are talking with another person. However, in many cultures direct eye contact is seen as threatening, rude and inappropriate. This has variations from culture to culture and there are subtleties about eye contact that can vary between married to single, junior to senior, male to female etc. When it gets down to it eye contact in developing countries and some of our more traditional cultures is more often than not seen as inappropriate. Shanton really felt I stared at him, I saw it as gazing lovingly into his eyes of course. He initially saw it as strange and rude and didn’t know how to respond. We had an interesting conversation about this just today which has led to this post. After so many years in Australia he now appreciates, and values eye contact and it has become the norm for him.
When he visits Ghana however, he is now seen as odd, and people often ask him why he is staring at them, one man asked ‘Sorry do I know you? Why are you staring at me like that?’. Today he told me something that he hadn’t shared or perhaps realised before. He recently returned from a visit to Ghana, and he told me that his uncle has been unhappy with him, although he didn’t tell him directly. Shanton was told it was because he no longer showed him the respect he previously had. Other people have also commented that he no longer respects his senior family members. The difference between the past and now is one thing – eye contact.
I found this fascinating. The fact that he was in his newfound way showing respect, was in fact having the opposite and unwanted effect with his family and friendship groups back in Ghana.
These are just two of the myriad of cultural differences that I find so interesting. I could write a book there are so many, but these are particularly important, as showing respect and building rapport are the building blocks of establishing a relationship of any kind. It is even more critical when you are supporting someone in a counselling or therapeutic relationship or informally when checking in to see how they are going, perhaps when offering Mental Health First Aid.
Here are a few ideas I have found helpful so far in terms of building the initial relationship with someone if you are unsure of how to engage and to ensure you are showing respect.
- Be guided by the way the other person engages with you, and follow suit. For instance if they make brief eye contact and look down or away, don’t take offence. They may be showing you deep respect. This is hard to get used to, as we have been taught the importance of eye contact but it can be quite confronting for some.
- Don’t assume physical contact is ok, for instance don’t shake hands if the person doesn’t initiate it. Better to greet warmly without reaching out unless the person reaches out first. For some people shaking hands is just not ok, and especially between men and women.
- Be careful with the use of humour, particularly sarcasm. This is a particularly Western way of interacting but it’s usually lost on someone not accustomed to it. Humour varies greatly and it is tricky to navigate, so tread lightly. My husband still doesn’t get my dry sarcastic wit sometimes, although he now proudly states “this – is going straight to the poolroom” when he gets a gift. Over time he has become a huge fan of some of our iconic Aussie comedy films.
- Approach sensitive topics gently and gauge the response before probing too deep. Observe the person’s non-verbal reaction to your question or comment before continuing along that line of conversation.
- If you inadvertently do something that seems inappropriate, don’t be afraid to apologise, we are all human, and showing vulnerability and genuine concern is always appreciated.
- If you do ask questions, consider the motivation behind them. Before he got used to being bombarded with a gazillion questions, Shanton occasionally asked me ‘what are you going to do with this information?’ a response I found intriguing. When you are working in a supporting role, it is always helpful to check yourself before enquiring and consider ‘for whose benefit am I asking this question?’. We often ask questions out of our own personal interest, especially when faced with something different to us, but in fact when helping someone, questions should largely be for the benefit of the client or person you are talking with. Questions should assist an individual to find the answers within themselves, unlock what they already know or assist them to move forward.
Lastly, and most importantly, enjoy living, laughing and learning from the incredibly diverse, wonderfully rich and beautiful blend of cultures we are blessed to call family, friends, colleagues and community in this great big delicious melting pot we call home.
My life is certainly richer for the experience.