I remember a long while ago now a discussion with an Iranian brother. It went something along these lines:
Him: Why have you never come to my home for tea?
Me: Because you’ve never asked me to come to your home for tea?
Him: But you’ve never asked to come to my home for tea and that seems rude
Me: But you’ve never asked me to come to your home for tea and that seems rude. I have, however, invited you to my home for tea and you came
Him: Exactly! I’ve been to your home. You’ve not been to my home. That seems rude of you.
Me: Yes, because I invited you to my home; you have not invited me to your home. It would be rude of me to invite myself to your home.
Him: No it wouldn’t. I’d love you to come my home.
Me: Is that an invite? Because I’d love to come if it is.
What we have here is your classic cross-cultural misunderstanding. A misunderstanding both my brother and I laughed about afterwards.
He thought I was being rude expecting him to come to my house but I never went to his. I thought it would be rude to just invite myself to his house and (though I was never offended by it) thought maybe he didn’t want to meet up again. Both of us were actually trying NOT to be rude and offend the other by the way we were acting.
The whole thing was cleared up when I explained it is (usually) considered rude in British culture to just show up at someone’s home who you don’t know very well and expect them to feed you, welcome you and show you hospitality. He realised I wasn’t actually being rude but trying not to put him in an awkward position. At which point, he duly invited us over and we gladly accepted.
Another cross-cultural misunderstanding we regularly hit on is inviting people over for tea. It’s a particular problem if you’re working class and your main meal is your tea. I have, numerous times because I keep forgetting the issue of translation, invited people over to our home for tea. They come and my wife presents a load of food for them. They look at the food, then each other, then gently poke some bits of it and leave most of it. Seems pretty rude. They then sheepishly admit, with some embarrassment, that they have already eaten a fairly big lunch and aren’t very hungry. It turns out that when we invited them over for tea, they were expecting a hot drink and maybe a biscuit. Tea did not translate as an evening meal. This isn’t unique to foreigners either. If you’re posh you might struggle with this one and need to sub tea for supper.
These are just a couple of examples of the many and various cross-cultural misunderstandings we hit upon in our community. I share them partly just to show the kind of thing that can happen unexpectedly because we’ve miscommunicated or misunderstood each other. But all the more because the solution to these issues is almost never to pretend they aren’t a problem or they haven’t really happened. The solution, almost always, is more talking.
Had my brother not told me he thought I was being rude for not coming to his home, I would never have known. Had I not told him that unless he invites me to his home, I am probably never going to just show up, he would never have known that either. Had neither said anything, both of us would think the other one was being rude whilst thinking we were being particularly considerate. All it took was a little bit of talking and an admission we might have been talking past each other to work out what was going on.
The same is true for when our friends turned up expecting hot drinks rather than an evening meal. Had they not said what they did, we would have carried on inviting people for tea and either force feeding people food they didn’t want or wondering why nobody ate anything we ever made for them. It was only when they said that we had any clue about it. Only then could we do anything about it and figure out that, though it comes naturally to me, I need to stop inviting people for tea and make sure they know I am inviting them for a meal.
Many of us realise these things are likely to come up at some point when we are talking to people from different countries. But few of us seem to realise that we might be talking cross-culturally with people from our own nation who happen to speak the same language. Not only might we be talking across class-cultures, but we are going to have to contend with speaking across regional cultural divides. Beyond this, growing up in a family means we have different family cultures to contend with. Many of these things play into our personalities as well and we can end up talking at cross-purposes just because someone thinks somewhat differently to us too.
The answer, when we hit upon these things, is almost never to just bottle these things up. Rather, the solution to these things is to say something. The answer is almost always more talking. Making known what the confusion is. Making known why you are put out. Being clear what the problem is.
If you say nothing, the other person may have no idea there is any sort of problem. If you say nothing, but are unhappy, you may well treat the other person poorly because you assume they should know something that they clearly do not know. If you say nothing, it is likely that the problem will persist with you and others. In the end, the answer has to be more talking.
Who’d have thunk, talking to people might actually resolve misunderstandings? Maybe we should try it more. I think Jesus says something about it in Matthew 18.