Everyday across the world people of various cultures are interacting with each other. People are getting to know more about each other and about their different customs and how they relate to each other. With every culture there are the dos and don'ts embedded in the individual cultures. If we closely look at instances in which these cultures conflicted with each other we are bound to know more about how a certain culture perceives certain elements in society.
Everyday there are cross-cultural mishaps in which either one or all of the people involved are either shocked or offended. In America alone these mishaps are numerous and should be avoided if at all interactions between people from different cultures are to all communicate smoothly. This paper thus seeks to review the American cultures and customs with comparisons being made with those from other countries.
The main basis of study for this paper is Norrine Dresser's book, Multicultural manners: essential rules of etiquette for the 21st century. This paper analyses Dresser's views on cross-cultural interactions and mishaps and seeks to make comparisons on her views of American culture with those of others.
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Norrine Dresser illustrates various cultures both American and non-American and gives insights and comparisons into how these cultures are related to each other. She starts by giving an illustration of American reporters confusing cross-cultural encounter in Albania. She mentions that as Americans they assumed the yes/no agreement and took it to mean the same way as their culture. However, this ought to not have been the thing. She says that in Albania the nodding of the head meant no and the shaking of the head meant yes. From this we garner that if the Americans were more careful and asked what the shaking of the head meant instead of assuming it, they would saved much more time. She further illustrates using the example of an American husband taking his visiting Albanian in-laws to the airport.
The airline attendant was notably frustrated when she asked the usual questions such as did someone ask them to carry something onboard, as the Albanians nodded their heads up and down. The airline attendant assumed this was a "yes" gesture and thus it seemed to her that they were threats to the flight. Were it not for the American in-law who explained their culture who knows what could have happened. In such a situation, according to American culture and laws, the Albanians would have been arrested on suspicion of being terrorists. Other illustrated examples of the reversal of the yes/No agreement are also given e.g. Bulgarian culture.
Norrine Dresser further shows how ignoring or assuming one's culture can be detrimental to a relationship between the two people. Using the example of the cross-cultural encounter between Karl, an African American and Henry, a white chairperson she illustrates the hazards of assuming each others cultures. Henry out of ignorance assumed Karl's culture and began conversing with him in mock African American dialect and gave Karl a high five. However, Henry did not consider that due to his social and educational upbringing Karl was not allowed to do such. He did not consider that Karl may consider his actions to be an insult though not intended. Thereby Karl may have lost an important business contact. Through this illustration, Dresser shows that stacking up someone with his culture may not be the wisest way of building up a conversation with them.
We are able to learn that it is much better to ask the people we encounter more on their cultural background than to assume it so as to avoid the risk of insulting them; thereby we avoid ruining the chance of a fruitful relationship forming.
When we compare Dresser's accounts and illustrations of Mexican culture against other culture as a whole, we note large distinctions emerging between the two. In South-East Asia many people do not touch their heads as they believe that this would in someway harm them. However, according to American behavior the common practice is to pat their children's head as a show of affection.
As a further illustration, Dresser notes that body contact in general is a common taboo amongst most Asian cultures. While in American, pecks on the cheek may be the norm, it certain cultures particularly the Vietnamese and the Chinese it is punishable. Often due to such social-cultural blunders the non-American people often react with shock. She also notes that while in America public body contact may be allowed in certain other culture, such as in Japan, public body contact is frowned upon. Using the analogy of an author who writes books on such issues, she illustrates a situation in which the writer is ignored by the Japanese visitors. The Japanese visitors find the book vulgar and offensive because the title of her book depicted such behavior. She mentions that in Japanese culture, touching a member of the opposite sex was repulsive to them. In general Asian countries frown upon Americans who depict such behavior in their countries. To them it depicts a woman as "easy".
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She further illustrates that while in Japan it is very common for men and women of the same sex to hold hands in public as a sign of friendship, in American culture it is a sign of homosexuality and is greeted with shock.
Dresser also notes that gestures though taken to have a universal meaning to most people may not have the same universal meaning to other cultures. In fact it may have completely different meanings. Using the conventional thumbs up sign which according to American culture shows approval or doing well, in some cultures, it has a sexual connotation. People from Asian countries view pointing to someone with the index finger as rude. However, in American culture it is completely acceptable. Furthermore, in Asian countries the American "bye bye" gesture calls for people to come closer. This though may apply to only a few cultures should not men that one should not consider the weight of such a gesture. Thus in order to ensure harmonious communication, one should take particular care of the weight of gestures in the cultures in question.
Across American culture people view lack of eye contact as disrespectful or devious. They react with anger and suspicion to those who avoid eye contact. However, across some cultures avoiding eye contact shows respect towards authority figures. When comparison is made between white American and African American ways of communication, a sparked contrast is observed. The African American custom is to look at the audience intently while speaking and to look away when listening. In the white American customs, it is the inverse. Thus the white American may deem African American behavior as attention lacking or insubordinate while this may not be the case.
Other texts such as Cross-cultural and intercultural communication (Gudykunst, 2003), further serve to enforce what Dresser states on customs relating to non-verbal communication. According to Gudykunst, there are those cultures that display closeness with their non-verbal communication. These cultures display cultures whereby people stand closer to each other and touch each other more openly than other people in low-contact cultures (Hall, 1966). It states that though a North American may feel anxious and violated by an Arab's spatial closeness, the more distant style of American may alienate the Arab (Almancy and Alwan, 1982; Cohen 1987).
Americans are seen to be very particular about their rules for queuing. The tradition is by "first come, first served" rule. As children they learn this custom by heart and thus find it very offensive when people from other cultures end up cutting the queue. In socialist countries such as Armenia, this is socially acceptable. It is not uncommon for people to hold the queue for several other people who are not in the queue at the time. In America this may be greeted with hostility and sometimes violence.
If we continue analyze the American custom of first come, first serve it can be seen that American custom dictates that customers be served in sequential order that is one after the other. They find it very offensive and not very courteous if during service, the attendant leaves them to attend to new customers. However, in Latin American countries, it this form of service does not apply and attendants should serve as many people as possible and is considered to be very courteous behavior.
When referring to customs relating to child-rearing practices, American culture dictates that every one's child is their own individual responsibility. In some Asian countries, on the other hand, it is seen that as a requirement the child is pampered by the other family members. American culture views this as negative behavior and may not seem understandable while in fact it has roots in Asian customs. Still relating to child-rearing customs in many Latin American customs it is common for family members to share the bed as this resembles family closeness. Americans frown upon this custom as it collides with their customs relating to individuality and independence. According to this customs, each person, child included should have their own private room. The form of parents cuddling up with their children is confined to special occasions.
When relating American customs and those of other countries pertaining to the practice of breast-fielding, there are large numbers of misconceptions. Latin American mothers have a general negative attitude towards breast-milk having the notion that baby formula is better for the baby. The younger mothers are more reluctant than the older women when it comes to breast-feeding. Americans are usually shocked by the pre-conceived notions that women from other cultures bear in mind about breast-feeding especially when it comes to re-educating these women on the importance of breast-milk.
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There are large contrasts between Latin American culture and American culture regarding social interactions. Latin Americans view girls who go out at night without a chaperone as loose and this damages the mother's reputation. They prefer that the girl's family should accompany her wherever she may want to go. Americans look down upon this behavior. According to Dresser, the child is considered to be of age and should be responsible for his or her own self. They regard the Latin American concepts on this particular topic as being overbearing.
There are large differences in the American culture and those of other countries. While American culture is seen to be more open, those of other cultures that we have reviewed in this paper are seen to be more closed and private. We have also seen that due to the assumptions made about other people's culture there have been many varied cross-cultural mishaps, some with more detrimental results than others. Research that has been done by Dresser indicates that a better understanding of other people's culture can be achieved if the people involved learn to avoid assumptions and ask questions about their cultures.