Offending and Mending

At one point while living in Cairo we were hunting for a flat on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching, walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

We had just walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest – this was the ugliest flat we had seen. My husband and I were getting increasingly more frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat, so when the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it,  my husband looked at him and said clearly“No. This flat is the ugliest flat I have ever seen” (With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards and a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, it was) Quickly we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that he had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all.” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other and burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times where we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

The reality of living cross culturally is that there are times when, despite our best intentions, we offend.  Sometimes its pure ignorance, other times it’s because we are tired, and still other times we are in a cultural conflict and don’t even care that we are offending. If we have never offended, then I would suggest that we have not crossed over those important relationship boundaries and are spending too much time with those who are exactly like us, rather than boldly engaging those who are different.

These moments can be great for a couple of reasons.   One is that we learn from them; they are our most teachable moments in cross-cultural living and communication.  The other is that once we heal from the discomfort and sometimes painful residual effects, they are great moments of humor.

In a recent workshop I used the phrase “Offending and Mending”. I made it up on the spot and I like it. It recognizes the reality: We will offend. But the phrase goes further, also recognizing the importance of knowing the culturally appropriate way to mend the offense in order to move forward in relationship.

Mending is often as simple as being willing to admit I am wrong and taking extra care and effort with the relationship in the future.  Other times it’s as complicated as paying a visit and sitting in discomfort until the atmosphere thaws and we suddenly feel like all is made right.

I believe cross cultural adjustment is analogous to language learning. There are supposedly two types of language learners; those that immediately begin practicing with the little they know, despite making mistakes, and those that wait until they have the perfect sentence structure and then go and try it out. Supposedly the first group learns far quicker. I would say the same is true in cross-cultural communication. There are those that go out and build relationships without knowing everything, making mistakes and learning in the process; and those that study until they think they have it all correct, determined to make no mistakes. I would argue that there is no way they can get it 100% right all the time and that they lose a lot in relationship building in the process.

What do you think? What are your stories of offending and mending? This is a great topic to learn from each other so please share your stories!

15 thoughts on “Offending and Mending

  1. Oh gosh, I could tell you SO many stories! Some of my friends say I have a “broken awkward-meter” – I am not very good at sensing social awkwardness, or I sense it but do not feel uncomfortable myself. So I just bumble through life feeling very little social embarrassment, but I imagine I have probably offended many people and not realised it!

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  2. I have not lived in another country, but Canada is very multi-cultural and as a Banker, I would have to assist clients with Mortgages and Investments and be sensitive to their cultural roots.
    I love your story of the apartment hunt… I can see you laughing on the street. I am surprised you were able to hold the laughter when you saw the toilet seat.

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    1. The toilet seat was a hard one – so ugly. The bedroom? Even worse! I’ve heard that Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world and a city where global nomads love to live!

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  3. Loved reading this story of you and dad apartment hunting and LOVE the last paragraph on trial and error in the department of cross-cultural interactions/relationships!

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    1. I think that’s the only way to do it – trial and error – when it comes to cross -cultural living. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, something comes up and you’re clueless! Can’t wait to hear about hunger games.

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  4. I like this topic, and I have to agree with Bruce. It can happen to anyone, anywhere. I believe at my age I am much more cognizant of offending, and certainly am quick to find a way to mend. I’m not too proud to admit my ignorance, and I do want to have understanding and compassion as a result of the experience!

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  5. I don’t think one needs to live cross culturally to live this, one only needs to have a friend, or for the immersion experience, be married.

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    1. While you’re right about not needing to live cross-culturally to experience this, there is no doubt that cultural conflicts come up far more when you are working across cultural boundaries. In a business meeting with only Americans, while you of course have to take into account various personalities, you don’t have to take into account the myriad of cultural ways of conducting business, greeting people, addressing people by first name or title….the list can go on an on. So that’s what my point here was – that just as I think I’ve crossed cultural barriers, I’ll find out something that I had no clue and have to adjust my behavior.

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  6. wow, I think it’s funny you wrote this post today. Just yesterday evening, I was sitting in the home of my Nepali friends, trying to communicate … when I realized that they were trying to offer me something … and I wasn’t getting it. And the awkward silence left me – and my friends – squirming. Thankfully the little girls started wrestling and tumbling on the couch, and we laughed together – and forgot about the previous situation. Sometimes it just takes persistence when crossing cultures – persistence in loving, sharing, caring. Even if language is insufficient, caring & loving speaks way beyond those limitations! Our friends feel our love, even if we offend by our lack of skill in language or understanding of their culture.

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  7. Through the years of trying very hard to grow old gracefully and with daily prayer, I am becoming less offensive. It is one of the hardest reforms I have attempted since I have always been opinionated and outspoken. Now I resist the urge and repeat to myself to “put my brain in gear before I put my mouth in motion.” It helps. Having been on the receiving end of offensive remarks – and I do mean offensive and hurtful – I do not want to offend anyone. If we practice this, the only mending we will have to do will be those socks and jeans with holes in them.

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    1. Love the “growing old gracefully!” Such a prayer of mine. And I think you’re so right about learning to think before we speak. But in cross-cultural situations, even when I think, I may get it wrong because I don’t know the cultural cues. Thanks so much for the input.

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  8. A deck of cards toilet seat cover? Really? Did you make that up??!
    Oh my…. how hilarious! Did you ever find an apartment on the island? Did you ever get a chance to mend with Card Seat Man?
    Thanks for admitting your own mistakes…

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    1. I kid you not Robynn….a deck of cards… unbelievable. The bedroom had a ceiling made of mirrors with dark wood paneling on the walls….the living room was so terrible. But one thing it had…an amazing view. It was on the 8th floor so you could see all over the island. And no….we never did “mend” with him……..We have however picked up some excellent tips on apartment hunting in the Middle East that served us well the rest of the time.

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