Can You Tell Me About Your Culture?

December 15, 2020

In day-to-day life, some questions remain better un asked, or at least left to a time when the relationship is more established.

“Hey Carl, how did you get that scar?”,
“Shiv, why did your dad leave your mum?”,
“So, Andrea, why didn’t you invite me?”

If you’re anything like me, the thought of asking/being asked these questions makes you wince. These are just not okay and rightly deserve the response, “frankly, it’s none of your business.” Things become more complicated, however, when we begin to think about questions regarding someone’s culture. What is an okay question? And at what point in the relationship is it okay to ask such questions? Will they think I am nosey for asking a certain type of question? Could the wrong question at the wrong time end our relationship? What an emotional minefield! Hopefully, this article gives you a better idea of what to ask and how to ask it.

First of all, you have to complete the most difficult step – asking yourself about your own culture and understanding what that actually is. The classic phrase of the last thing the fish notices is the water is nowhere more apt than here. Through our own research, we have found this to be one of the most perplexing questions and a helping hand may be needed. Here are some examples of some areas and questions you can explore alone or with a friend to begin this journey of discovery:

Beliefs and Ethics:
• How do I treat strangers in day-to-day life?
• How do I feel about my relationship with my family?
• What do I owe to my friends?

Traditions and History:
• When I think of ‘celebration’, what comes to mind?
• What emotions do I feel when I think about discussions of politics?
• How much has the history of my country impacted my life today, and in what ways?

Local/general life:
• How do I typically move around my local area? Is it by car, bike, train, subway etc? Why?
• How do I explain my relationship with social media and the internet?
• When giving feedback to someone, am I more direct or indirect?
*More questions can be suggested upon request

Great! So now that you have a place to start from with regards to cultural understanding, now you can start thinking about the other person. Where are they from and what do you know about the general culture of their home country/region/town? Have you ever spoken with someone from that general culture before? What went well and what could have gone better? Past experience and immersive access to cultural education are invaluable at this point, but if neither of those two things are available, here are some general rules to go by.

Number 1: Suspend judgement: At this point, a lot of people will begin by saying “But I already suspend judgement! When I was on my gap year in Bali…” but you must think deeper than this. It is crucial that you don’t underestimate how attached you are to your emotions when thinking about culture and how someone’s individual experience can appear to be the exact opposite of what you deemed ‘acceptable’ when answering the questions above. Some useful ways to structure questions based on your experience can be:
• I appreciate this isn’t the only way to do this, but in my culture, we do…what about you?
• I don’t know much about…but I’m really interested in improving my knowledge in this area, would it be okay for me to ask you about your experiences?

Number 2: Learn to read the air: Emotional intelligence is so valuable in conversations like these. Even if you’ve suspended judgement and avoided all stereotypes, discomfort can still occur. Furthermore, this discomfort can be expressed in very different ways based on the culture someone is from. More high-context cultures (a term coined by Edward T. Hall in his book The Silent Language to explain cultures who are less explicit in speech) such as those found in Asia may avoid direct “feedback” with regards to their emotions during the conversation. In which case, it is important to read the air and pay close attention to nonverbal communication. If you notice your interlocutor becoming uncomfortable, here are some ways to end the conversation/move on whilst preserving everyones emotions and giving your partner an opportunity to control the conversation.
• I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with me, do let me know if there’s anything else you want to share.
• I’m sorry, I’ve taken up quite a lot of your time! Let’s stop for now and come back to each other later on.

Number 3: Do not correct people on their experiences: So you’ve just read a book on the general culture of Germany and are now talking with your German friend about their culture. They’re being kind enough to open up to you on a subject that can be quite sensitive – therefore this is not the time to tell them about something you read and probe them intensely on how it differs from what they’ve said. Remember, you are there to learn – not educate. Asking questions based on what they say is OK, but asking questions phrased as you telling them what they know is not. There is power in your silence and your ability to truly listen to what is being said – this will be how you get the most out of your conversations. With all these points in mind, it is difficult to suggest certain questions which work for all cultures and all people. However, below are a few questions which can help if you’re lost for words or just
looking to get a conversation started.
• What does culture mean to you?
• What does a typical day in your life look like?
• How would you like to be greeted by strangers in day-to-day life?
• What does success look like at the end of the day?
• What does time mean to you? Is it really important or not so much?