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.