Can You Be An Intercultural Expert? Start With Your Heart!

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2017-04-03 cd Can You Be An Intercultural Expert? Start With Your Heart!

It all starts with the heart.

Understanding others who differ from us – across cultures, ethnicities, race, religion and any number of other potential “divides” –  is often a function of how well we know and understand ourselves first.

Only through a close acquaintance with our own attitudes, values and behaviors – and deep discernment of why we choose them – will we ever be in a place to grasp the why behind the thinking and actions of others.

Case in point. Presenting an array of choices to a Japanese houseguest can be tantamount to torture. In our individualistic, choice-driven culture, we view it as the polite way to welcome.

But for a Japanese, presenting a bewildering array of choices is confusing and burdensome. The thinking here would be, “Don’t they care enough to at least anticipate what I would want?” That would be the best way to communicate care.

In Japanese culture, an intuitive sense of understanding at the deepest levels – sometimes referred to as hara-gei, or “gut talk,” – means we know one another so well it means we don’t even have to ask what the other wants.

So, why do we do what we do?

First, we really need to start with the heart. Turning the lens on our roots is a good place to start – but not a place where we should become entangled to the point of dysfunction.

What was the atmosphere like in our home growing up? Loud? Kind? Loving? Abrasive? Was there fighting? Or indifference? Did your parents communicate love to one another? To you?

Looking back on these times may bring a bit of pain. Parenting is such a crucial job and, in truth, so many do it poorly.

But, if you are an adult reading this, you owe it to your own mental and spiritual health – and to the relationships around you – to come to terms with what it was. To confront the good, bad and ugly. To process.

So, start with the heart – your heart. Examine it well. Understanding the influences there will help you gain traction in the journey of relating with others.

Of course, for some, this process takes years, and it can be a haunting specter throughout life. I pray this is not true for you.

For me, my parents always communicated love and affirmation to me. But I detected quite a bit of disagreement between my parents growing up. They had very different styles and approaches to life, and continue to up till this day. The disconnect in how they related to one another affected me a lot, particularly in my early adult years.

But I am grateful because Mom and Dad rode the storms out. They remained committed to each other. This has had a profound impact on my own values and lifestyle. For that, I am immeasurably grateful.

We all have to work through those parental influences, good and bad (including abandonment and abuse), when coming to terms with what and why we think and behave the way we do.

And sometimes we need to change. And we can!

Other influences on our attitudes, values and behaviors

No question, a myriad of other influences are at play here. School experiences (bullied or not, good at school or not, sick or not?), social influences (often connected with school), other relatives, circumstances, joyful and traumatic experiences, opportunities.

Taking some time to inventory our years 0–18 can produces great insights. If you haven’t done it, simply set aside a few hours on a weekend to carry out this exercise. Walk yourself through the years and try to remember as many details and feelings as possible. Write them down freehand. Review later. And try to see the thread.

A Necessary Question To Ask

Too many people react to other people’s behaviors with judgment. We tend to judge the person – i.e., “He was a jerk!” or “She was so cold.” But we fail to contemplate and consider the why behind the behavior or reaction we received.

In these instances – and they happen daily – we must remember to ask ourselves, why might this person be acting this way? Again, start with the heart. What factors may have influenced him/her to behave this way?

This is not a pass for bad behavior, of course. Rather, it’s an attempt to better deal with that unfavorable behavior and turn it around.

The Intercultural Twist

This is difficult enough if the people involved all come from a similar cultural background. But it gets trickier when people come from cultural and value frameworks that differ from our own.

Whenever possible, we should try to study the culture (or ethnic group, etc.) of that person to try to understand them from a more wholistic perspective. We need to start with the heart.

For example, it’s likely that Italians and Mainland Chinese, who often speak quite loudly in public, are completely oblivious to the decibel tolerance level (or expectations) of their Northern European or other East Asian neighbors. Don’t hold it against them; it’s what they grew up in. Rather, get yourself some earplugs (if you’re in their countries). Or put up with it. Or move away from the conversation. It won’t last forever!

Learning to live together on this swiftly turning planet is hard work! But the benefits of greater understanding – often by starting with yourself – far outweigh the costs.

Let’s get to work!


Can you make that time this week or weekend – just a couple hours – to examine well your earlier years, to start with the heart? This will help you grow in your relationships with others.

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Caroline DePalatis

Founder & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
Caroline DePalatis has worked in the field of international education and service for over 20 years. A graduate of Stanford University and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, she's still doing much of what she was trained in: bringing people of the world together. A committed Christ-follower, Caroline longs to shine the Master Designer's awesome creativity expressed through the cultures, languages, peoples and places of our world. And then there's dark chocolate. Definitely a channel for intercultural communications!
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Caroline DePalatis has worked in the field of international education and service for over 20 years. A graduate of Stanford University and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, she’s still doing much of what she was trained in: bringing people of the world together. A committed Christ-follower, Caroline longs to shine the Master Designer’s awesome creativity expressed through the cultures, languages, peoples and places of our world. And then there’s dark chocolate. Definitely a channel for intercultural communications!