In Praise of Cultural Brokers

By formal definition a “cultural broker” is “a person who bridges, links, or mediates between groups or persons of differing cultural backgrounds for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change” It is someone who acts as a liaison or more simply, a go between to advocate for another person. A more practical definition could be  someone who can help a foreigner or someone from a different cultural background understand the unwritten cultural rules  and all the complexity of the world that surrounds them.

Anyone who has lived overseas or identifies with the immigrant experience  knows the importance of cultural brokers. They are the people who gently guide, pointing out that the idiom we are using daily is not “Power for the course!” Instead “It’s par for the course. It’s a golf term”. They are the ones that let us know mustard is not yellow ketchup; complimenting oneself is simply not done; and that root beer will not make us drunk so we can feel free to drink it during work hours.  The cultural broker stands by us when we cry, and laughs with us when we tell of a time when we were mortified about a faux pas, and still feel our cheeks grow hot from the embarrassment. The cultural broker helps ease the pain of broken relationships as they explain to another person, “She didn’t realize that it would offend you so much that she arrived so late and no, she didn’t think to call.”

Third culture kids often need cultural brokers both sides of the globe. They don’t fully understand either culture and so need the assistance of those who can stand in the gap in both passport country, and country of residence.

I have had several cultural brokers in my life. There are those who have walked beside me and helped me to negotiate life in Pakistan and Egypt, but more importantly I have needed a cultural broker in the United States.

To look at me you would never guess that I have lived most of my formative years, and a good bit of my adult life in countries vastly different from the U.S. My skin is light to medium in tone, my English has no accent, my eyes are hazel and my hair is brown. I am, in census terms, Caucasian. Because of my looks the assumption is made that if I have traveled at all, it is to the Bahamas or Bermuda to escape those dreadful New England winters. It always takes people by surprise when they find out that my upbringing was thousands of miles across the ocean in a country that differs in every way possible from the U.S. The first question is always: “So, is your husband Pakistani?”. And no he is not.

As humans we have to find a way to make sense of that which doesn’t fit into our neat categories.  Neither I nor my husband fit into those neat categories which is why we relate with Rudolph s “Island of Misfit toys“. Because of the outward similarities, and therefore expectations of cultural knowledge and cues, my cultural brokers have been vital to me at every level.

One of the women who has informally served in this capacity for me is my friend Cathy. Cathy’s upbringing is polar opposite to mine. She grew up in the Boston area in an Irish Immigrant family in the middle of an Italian neighborhood. The only thing they shared in common with their neighbors was their faith, and that was Catholicism. Cathy learned early on in life that the food of her Italian neighbors was superior to that of her families. She would eat up and down the street savoring thick tomato sauces, pasta, and olive oil. All of her neighbors said to her “When you grow up, you have to marry an Italian!” and so she did. Throughout her life she has lived in the greater Boston area surrounded by her large extended family. Her ability to cross cultural boundaries is far bigger than the geographic borders of her life. She has an innate curiosity and delight in learning more about the worlds from which her friends and colleagues come.  She has an ability to hear both sides of a story, putting aside the boxes and stereotypes that most people can’t help but use in figuring out why a person does what they do.

Cathy is my cultural broker par excellence. Cathy knows when I am about to get angry at someone for blind assumption and judgment of the world that was home to me for so long – Pakistan. Cathy helps get me through the moments of loss when I can’t find my words because my feelings come from a deep place in my being. Cathy guides me through my mistakes with humor and tact.

It’s people like Cathy who help immigrants or outsiders, many who have a disconnect with the world around them, connect and move forward to function wholly and happily in their new surroundings and communities.

19 thoughts on “In Praise of Cultural Brokers

  1. Well, I guess we (myself and 5 siblings) have been cultural brokers for our immigrant parents.

    But yes, for our friends. There are also 4 half-Chinese white nieces and nephews who have us as cultural brokers or more importantly, linguistic brokers.

    Love your blog, by way.

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    1. Right? It makes complete sense. I think language teachers in adopted countries often play that informal role…but when you speak the same language it can be even harder.

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  2. Marilyn, I’ve been trying to remember some of my cultural brokers and I think early on in Pakistan the main ones were our language teachers. There is so much of culture bound up in language and I’m sure they saved us from many faux pas. And altho we had no older missionaries in our mission, and learned far too much by just blundering on, Kath Taylor stands out in my mind. She was far more than just our Doctor in those first years. Later we became cultural brokers for the young newcomers we oriented and supervised in language study. One of my greatest satisfactions now is acting in that role in tutoring my ESL students. I think I lived too long in Pakistan, and I am far more comfortable interacting with internationals, especially Asians than most Americans.

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  3. Hey Marilyn!
    Thanks so much for your posts! My name is Gretchen.. I am an interracially adopted TCK who grew up in Albania, Japan and the Philippines.. and I cannot tell you how comforting it is read about your experiences as a “grown up” TCK.. I just started university in the US and.. well, it’s been everything from bliss to “I-will-put-my-4-years-in-and-then-I’m-getting-out” .. So it’s really nice to know that someone else has gone through this and made it ;) But yes.. Cultural brokers are absolute blessings.. I remember trying to make my resume for the first time this year and just being completely lost about what to write. Growing up bragging about oneself was totally despicable and so when it came to trying to sell myself as a potential employee- I was just having a really hard time.. but then my cultural brokers stepped in.. and my confidence soared as they encouraged me, telling me all about what a great person I am.. haha.. I’m not sure I believe everything they said, but it was really nice to hear their support and recognize the friendships I’ve made so far. :) To all you cultural brokers out there.. You rock!

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    1. What an interesting background Gretchen! You state well the polar opposite feelings that come into play when making the transition from the countries you came from to university in the US. Your example of your resume is great! Just two years ago I met with a TCK who grew up in Cairo and Lebanon. As we talked about her resume the whole “feeling like you’re bragging” thing came up and the cultural view of “confidence”.
      Ultimately I think many TCK’s make amazing cultural brokers once the difficulty with identity has moved into an acceptance of who we are and what we bring to the conversation. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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  4. Most of my family is Scottish but I’m English and there are far more cultural difference than people realize. I remember having to translate to my friends a lot when my family members visited from Glasgow or Edinburgh. One such example is that one of my Scottish cousins asks `How?’ when he means `Why? or How Come?’ Also they call children `wee un’s’ meaning `little ones.’ and pronounce it as Waynes/Wains. Great post!

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    1. This is a great example of cultural difference between families. You must go crazy when people lump the UK into one bucket! I would love to hear more about how this plays out in your family. Thanks so much for reading!

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  5. Thank you very much for visiting our blog. We invite you to visit and to share with us your opinions, points of view and ideas. The Cultural Diplomacy News Team is also running 3 more blogs dedicated to the rise of Africa (www.riseofafrica.wordpress.com), the cultural diplomacy in Europe (www.colorsofeurope.wordpress.com) and the art as tool of cultural diplomacy (artsasculturaldiplomacy.wordpress.com).

    Sincerely yours,
    the CD-News Team

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