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Adventures in Cross-Cultural Communication

Are your cultural assumptions creating friction in relationships?

One afternoon, while I and a group of coworkers were huddled around our laptops feverishly laboring to meet a deadline, I heard a chuckle next to me. "You're so impatient!" my coworker said. Startled out of a deep focus, I was confused. Where did that come from? "See," she said, pointing to my right hand, "You're even snapping your fingers at the computer to make it go faster!" I looked down at my hand, and sure enough, I was snapping. But not for the reason she thought.

It was amazing how quick that conclusion had come to her — and it was understandable, considering social norms — but there was something she didn't know and really couldn't know. For me, snapping is a stim (otherwise known as self-stimulating behavior). It's something I do absent mindedly, especially when agitated. When I'm in public situations I usually try to suppress it, for exactly the reasons I had just encountered. It was a mark of stress that I had failed to do so now.

Though the outcome was nothing more than a minor misunderstanding — nonetheless I found it disquieting. It was an uncomfortable reminder of how frequently, and unexpectedly, little differences like this can cause big trouble. Communication, for even the most able on the autism spectrum, really is cross-cultural communication. And it carries all the same pitfalls.

Through much of my teen and early adult years the study of languages was my main special interest (and still remains a secondary one). Through those studies, I learned never to underestimate the cultural side of communication. It's something many don't think of, but as anyone who's spent a lot of time interacting across cultural and language barriers has likely experienced, it can make or break an interaction.

When I connected with other language learners, we often traded stories about the various ways in which these things went wrong - sometimes with painful results, but other times very funny results. They were common, even between speakers who shared the same language. The most innocuous sounding words to one may have deeply different meanings to another. A student in England, for example, will get a vastly different response when asking a teacher for a "rubber" than they will in the United States. And, for goodness sake, do not walk into an Australian store asking for a "Fanny Pack!"

These same principles apply to non-verbal communication. Everything from gestures to personal space may vary across cultures - which can cause serious issues. You may think nothing of flashing the "OK" sign to a coworker, but if they come from another country, you may actually be sending them a very different messagea vulgar one.

In Oliver Sacks' famous profile of Temple Grandin, he quotes her as saying that her experience of living in the neurotypical world is similar to be an "Anthropologist on Mars." It's a quote that resonated with me a great deal (as you may expect from my previous references to it), and it does so for precisely the reasons I've mentioned here. Even among those who share a similar background, language, etc., I still have a considerable culture barrier. It was one that I did not know about for many years — which I finally found a name for in Asperger's.

Coming from a family in which my traits were more the norm than the exception, going out on my own was a bit of a shock. So much didn't make sense to me...but the worst was the tumult and pain I encountered in relationships with well-meaning neurotypical people who were as unaware of the culture gap as I was. The smallest misstep could derail things quickly...imagine, for example, if a new employee flashes you the middle finger. Would you hesitate to fire them? Now, what if they don't know the significance of that gesture? If, for them, it means something entirely different? That's an unfortunately experience for all involved — especially if it is too late when you discover this.

Such experiences can leave you feeling like you've ventured into an alternate reality — a "bizarro-world" where all the rules that you've learned in your life are somehow not applicable. It can be an uncomfortable experience.

Of course, I upped the ante by marrying a neurotypical man...and it has taken many years for us to fully come to grips with the role cultural differences played in our interactions, and difficulties. It's very easy to become polarized - and believe that you, and only you, are right...but I've found time and again that the reality is something in between.

In the early years, it was not uncommon to find ourselves at odds over the strangest things — with each of us having our own "bizarro-world" experiences. For example, we would be getting ready in the morning, chatting as many often do...when he would bring up a subject I found particularly engaging.

Now, in situations such as this, my mental energies are often engaged in activities that require skills that are a little more difficult for me, such as proprioception (making sure I don't bump into him, or a wall), fine motor skills (putting in earrings, brushing teeth), etc. Because of this, I'm probably more superficially "autistic" at these times than at others, but I frequently don't realize this.

So when I would engage him, I'd sometimes forget to apply the social veneer that I've learned to use in interactions with others. Without a knowledge of the differences between us — this was often an issue. In my more natural state — engagement is communicated through greater volume and intensity, but the inflection and body language is less sophisticated. To an untrained neurotypical eye — this often seems like aggression. This was when the detour to the "bizarro-world" would begin.

I was excited, and had opinions that I was eager to share...but my husband would quickly begin feeling shut down. "Why do you get angry and go on the attack whenever we have a difference of opinion?" He'd ask in frustration.

I'd be hurt and mystified. "I'm not angry!" I'd say, "I'm just trying to share my opinion." His response, an attempt to be diplomatic, would be, "Well, I disagree."

Couple Fighting

We both wound up frustrated, angry, and hurt. He'd be thinking, "Why can't she just let me have my opinion! She just goes on the attack to try to shut me down, and she won't even admit she's doing it!"

Meanwhile, I was thinking, "Why does he say I'm angry? I told him I'm not. What kind of arrogant person truly believes they know my emotions better than me!? How dare he dictate to me what MY feelings are!!"

We were both right, and we were both wrong. From my husband's neurotypical perspective, my non-verbal communication meant aggression, pure and simple. I knew that I didn't feel aggression — and I wouldn't admit to an emotion I didn't feel. It was only through recognizing our differences, that we began to see the root of the problem. It wasn't the behavior that was at issue. It was the meaning we each assigned to it.

We have learned from long experience to deal with each other differently. As much as we might like to believe it, body language is NOT universal — and assuming so is dangerous. It can be easy to react badly to another who's "being rude" to you but, especially when dealing with someone who is different than you, it's important to question our own assumptions. What we take for granted in communication is not always as it seems.

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