Patty Lane, in her helpful book A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multi-Cultural World, says the biggest problem in multicultural relationships [or, could it be, all relationships?] is something she calls “misattribution.”
Misattribution is our habit of attributing meaning or intention to someone else’s behavior based on our own culture or experience. Basically, we think we “get each other,” but we’re really getting each other wrong. It is especially common, when two cultures interact, for the dominant culture to misattribute the actions of the minority culture, because members of the dominant culture have little incentive to discover alternate explanations. But it often goes both ways.
Misattribution can be nearly impossible to recognize at times, she says, for two reasons.
1. First, because our own assumptions about what things mean are typically so ingrained that they appear to be universal or common sense.
2. Secondly, because we tend to react emotionally without questioning how accurate our interpretations may be.
The fact is that two cultures may not only hold different values but may even express the same values in opposite ways. So, people may have a great deal of common ground and not realize it. Or, people may assume they are on common ground and not realize they aren’t.
Lane gives an example about two women, Sue and Jo, getting together to talk about working with one another on a project.
1. Jo, a Native American, comes out of the conversation feeling cautiously optimistic. She thinks Sue presented some good ideas, though she wishes Sue wouldn’t talk so fast; she’s not sure she got it all. There might be some drawbacks, but time would tell, and Jo was willing to move ahead.
2. Sue, an Anglo, came out of the conversation frustrated. The whole time she noticed that Jo was just sitting quietly with her arms crossed - obviously resisting what was being said, and saying little if anything. Sue thinks there is no hope that Jo will agree to pursue the project.
If it weren’t for misattribution, Jo might realize that Sue’s rate of speech might not mean she is pushy or domineering, but have to do with where she grew up. She might also realize that Sue would expect some kind of commitment from her when the conversation ended, since Sue comes from a more results-oriented culture. For her part, Sue did not realize that where Jo comes from culture it is respectful to sit quietly while someone is speaking, and unwise to make a commitment too quickly.
So, obviously this factor is significant for us when we work or travel in countries other than our own, and equally important when we are dealing with people from other cultures or subcultures, closer to home.
And… well, isn’t every relationship with another human being to some extent cross-cultural?
One of my favorite books that explores this theme is Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. (Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow does as well, and I'd recommend it too though it is more disturbing.) Science fiction is great for asking big philosophical questions. This book, in particular, deals with how much we want to be heard and how deeply we can misunderstand one another.