Intercultural competence: A strange situation – the resolution

A strange situation: The resolution + how to use this lesson

Last week I presented to you the following strange situation and asked you to imagine that you are the main character.

 

A short story

You are going out for dinner alone in Detroit, Michigan, United States, a city you are visiting for the first time.

You sit down at your table and the waitress comes over and offers the soup of the day. You say, “That sounds very good.” She brings you the soup. You laugh.

After you have finished your main course and asked for the bill, the waitress brings it, together with four sweets. You wonder why she is so rude.

You pay and get ready to leave. The waitress gives you a hostile stare. You are convinced she hates you.

 

Reflection

I then asked you to consider the following questions:

Is there anything about this story that seems strange to you? Why does it seem strange? Can you explain the two people’s behaviour? How does the behaviour of the two people in this story make you feel? What emotions do you think the two characters in the story experienced? Have you been in a cross-cultural situation that made you feel this way? How did you react? What happened then? Were there longer-term consequences? What did you learn?

 

Explanation

Now I will explain the two people’s behaviour. Imagine that you are a first-time Japanese visitor to Detroit.

 

You sit down at your table and the waitress comes over and offers the soup of the day. You say, “That sounds very good.” She brings you the soup. You laugh.

Explanation: You, the Japanese person, did not want soup. However, it would be impolite in your culture to say so, so instead you said that it sounds very good. When the waitress brings you soup you did not order, you laugh to conceal your embarrassment, as some Japanese might do in such a situation.

 

After you have finished your main course and asked for the bill, the waitress brings it, together with four sweets. You wonder why she is so rude.

Explanation: In Japan, giving anyone four of anything is a serious faux pas (social mistake). The Japanese word for four sounds like the word for death. You give four items of anything only to an enemy, as doing so is usually interpreted as wishing for the other person’s death.

 

You pay and get ready to leave. The waitress gives you a hostile stare. You are convinced she hates you.

Explanation: In Japan, tipping is uncommon and may even be perceived as offensive. You, the Japanese visitor, did not leave a tip, which is why you got the hostile stare from the waitress, who expected to get a tip.

 

Now consider again the questions above. Are your responses different now? How are they different?

 

Let’s think about why this story probably seemed strange to us (if we’re not Japanese). Here are some ideas — you can add your own.

– An important piece of information was missing from the story.

– We, the Japanese visitor, and the waitress all made assumptions that weren’t correct because our assumptions came from our own cultural norms and expectations.

– The communication between the two people in the story didn’t work. (Why didn’t it work?)

 

Here are some final questions for you to consider to help you in better understanding and managing your own cross-cultural interactions.

> What situations have you been in that involved a cultural conflict, frustration, or misunderstanding? What happened and what did you learn as a result?

> What are some important lessons to remember in working through cross-cultural conflict?

> What can you take from this lesson and apply in other situations in the future?

 

You can think about these questions alone, you can discuss them with others, and you can also email me your responses if you’d like to discuss them with me. Email me at jane@beccacademy.com.

 

Story adapted from Lothar Katz, “Strange Situations”, in Building Cultural Competence, eds. K. Berardo and D. K. Deardorff (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2012), 91–97.

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