Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

Cultural Misunderstandings

A British woman told me, "I'll knock you up in the morning."

Posted May 25, 2010

At a psychology conference in England years ago, a woman said to me, "I'll knock you up in the morning."

I was initially taken aback by her bizarre suggestion, but it did occur to me that I might not understand her intent. Eventually, it turned out that what she meant was: "I'll knock on your door in the morning so that we can meet for breakfast to discuss the panel we're on."

This example of a dialect difference in the meaning of "knock you up" between British and American English illustrates the complications that can arise from a cultural misunderstanding. A cultural misunderstanding occurs when something—a word, gesture, object, social context, almost anything you can think of—has different meanings in two cultures. Sometimes the misunderstandings get resolved, sometimes they lead nowhere, and sometimes they can escalate to anything from love to war.

Consider the "Latin Lover." It is not a concept you come across in Latin America. It seems to be an American stereotype—perhaps shared by some other non-Latin cultures. One possible origin of the concept is in a cultural misunderstanding regarding personal space. While there are variations throughout Latin America, and in the United States as well, in general, Latin Americans stand closer to one another when speaking than do Americans.

When a Latin American man is talking to an American woman, from her point of view, he is entering her personal space. There are several reasons an American man might do so, one of which is erotic interest. If she finds him attractive and interprets his proximity as a sign of interest—even though he had no such intent—she may reciprocate.

Cultures differ in how men respond to unsolicited expressions of interest from a woman, and machismo varies from place to place in Latin America, but in general, it is quite likely that the man will respond in turn, leading to an escalation of sexual interest, and providing "evidence" for the Latin Lover stereotype.

Race is another area where cultural misunderstandings are common. Because we Americans tend to assume that racial categories are biological rather than social, it may not occur to us that people from other cultures have a different set of racial concepts and classify themselves and us differently.

For example, some African Americans complain that certain immigrants from other countries—such as Haiti or Jamaica—"act as if they aren't black." The cultural misunderstanding is that, in the immigrants' countries of origin, they may well not be black.

But that doesn't mean that they think they are white. It just means that their cultures have more categories—like marabou or grimaud in Haiti, or fair or brown in Jamaica—than are used in the United States. Meanwhile, American whites, unaware of the cultural diversity, might blithely assume that the immigrants are black without even realizing that an issue existed.

Resolving cultural misunderstandings can clear the air, or even lead to laughter. Sometimes, though, when it comes to race, unidentified cultural misunderstandings can also lead to festering resentments.