One of my colleagues has a neat little trick.
Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation—especially if things are heated or tense or confusing—they’ll pause, and they’ll say something like:
“I’m sorry, but—look. In my culture…”
…and then they’ll go on to explain something that one might easily mistake for a rule, or a request, or the enforcement of a social norm, but which is actually (as far as I can tell) just a statement about the version of the world they carry around inside their head.
Because none of us quite have the same culture, after all. We all differ in different ways from the Basic Package—even those of us who’ve lived in the same towns, gone to the same schools, worked in the same industries, played the same sports, read the same books, watched the same shows—we’ve all got our own unique little takes, built up out of the odd quirks of our parents, tiny traumas and formative experiences, countless accumulated musings about how Things Could Be So Much Better If Everyone Would Just _________!
And so Your Culture, though it might match mine at a thousand different points, will also be noticeably different at a thousand others. You and I would found different churches, write different constitutions, build different schools and startups—
—and we would recognize different things as trespasses or offenses, and react to those trespasses and offenses in different ways.
“They must talk to each other directly, Ender, mind to mind. What one thinks, another can also think; what one remembers, another can also remember. Why would they ever develop language? Why would they ever learn to read and write? How would they know what reading and writing were if they saw them? Or signals? Or numbers? Or anything that we use to communicate? This isn’t just a matter of translating from one language to another. They don’t have a language at all. We used every means we could think of to communicate with them, but they don’t even have the machinery to know we’re signaling. And maybe they’ve been trying to think to us, and they can’t understand why we don’t respond.”
“So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”
“If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.”
There’s a particular school of therapy called Internal Family Systems, which was founded on the basic insight that a lot of the stuff we’d come up with for mediating conflicts between family members could also be used for handling disagreements within oneself. Identify conflicting impulses, goals, and restraints, loosely anthropomorphize them as child-figures or parent-figures or spouse-figures or sibling-figures, and treat them with the same sort of respect you’d offer real quarreling humans, and voilà—suddenly a bunch of interpersonal tools and skills can be used to make personal therapeutic progress.
In a similar fashion, my colleague has been doing something like adapting the tools of international diplomacy for use in difficult conversations between family and friends and coworkers. Not by demanding that everyone follow their rules, and not by asserting any one culture’s superiority over another, but simply by acknowledging the fact that their culture meaningfully differs from everyone else’s. By taking that fact seriously, the same way that diplomats do, and putting forth conscious effort to work sensibly around it.
I don’t claim to know what’s going on in my colleague’s head, but from the outside, the process I see looks something like this:
- Someone will make a move that’s generally known to be okay in the broader context culture, but which would be recognized as mildly offensive or blasphemous if everyone were on the exact same cultural page as my colleague (like offering a handshake to a business partner from Thailand).
- They’ll pause, and do their best to make that aspect of their culture transparent and accessible and comprehensible—“in my culture, if someone is in the middle of a thought the way I just was, and somebody else interrupts in the fashion that just happened, this is generally interpreted to mean X, Y, and Z about what was going on in both our heads and what our relative positions are and so forth, and it has such-and-such ripples through the social fabric of the conversation, and as a side note I get the sense that you expect me to be able to just pick back up in the middle of the sentence but actually this isn’t a reasonable expectation because in my culture thoughts don’t quite work like that.” The emphasis is always on clarifying the sort of Rube Goldberg causal structure of the culture—if you push button A, you’ll get effect B, and if you want effect C, you should push button D, and here’s why those specific if-then relationships make sense in context.
- If necessary, they’ll ask for clarification about the other person’s culture. If, say, it wasn’t entirely clear how the other person might have thought their actions were good and correct, or if there’s any lingering resentment about the trespass that might be cleared up by a richer understanding of where the other person was coming from.
- Occasionally, there’ll be a negotiation about which norms should be adopted in the larger context—whether side A’s norms, or side B’s norms, or a specific compromise between the two, or a set of triggers for distinguishing when to do A versus when to do B. More often, though, it’s simply left up to everyone to do what makes sense, given both the knowledge that things-will-sometimes-land-this-way and the knowledge that this doesn’t compel anyone to change their behavior in any particular way.
(It happens to be a part of this particular conversational culture that sharing something about yourself is distinct from making a request of others; i.e. you can say “X results in me being sad” without implying “if you continue to do X, you’re bad/will be interpreted as intentionally trying to harm me.”)