‘CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION’ By Mercy Karumba

I recently participated in a leadership exchange program and one big lesson I learned was on how much cultural differences have an impact on how...


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I recently participated in a leadership exchange program and one big lesson I learned was on how much cultural differences have an impact on how we relate as human beings.

There was one particular day when I was having a phone-call that lasted a long time. After the call ended, one of my friends asked, “who was that you were speaking to?” Imagine the shock on my face, as I struggled to explain that phone calls were actually a personal matter and that I owed no one an explanation about who I was speaking to or what the conversation was about. It actually took some time for me to understand and embrace the fact that she was trying to be friendly and not nosy as many would have assumed. 

Another incident was when a fellow Kenyan tried to discuss weight issues with someone in public and it came out as offensive, indeed, the other party was hurt. For someone like me, as long as it is not a personal “attack”, discussing matters of weight has never been a big deal. But we learned better. The other issue was when it came to sharing. Where some of us who cannot eat without sharing with those close by, to others, what they have (be it a snack or candy), is theirs and they are not obligated to share it.

The same can be replicated in our relationships even when we are from the same cultural background but have been brought up in different families. I will use myself as an example.

I have been brought up in a family where we celebrate birthdays with cake even if this is just amongst a small gathering of family members. To top it all off, I really love birthdays and enjoy appreciating someone with gifts or just a treat. The downside to this however, is that I have carried this expectation into relationships where I have come to expect the same i.e.  that when it’s mine or my friend’s birthday, that the day be celebrated in a special way. This has caused me a lot of agony whenever I felt that we were not doing it right or, that I wasn’t being treated like the birthday girl I was (lol). Interestingly, I was just angry and bitter but didn’t understand why, until it was pointed out to me.

In the same way when we often feel offended by the small things that someone is doing, without realizing that often, it is our ‘background differences’ at play. Perhaps s/he wears shoes in the house when for you, shoes should be worn outside as your mum taught you, and this gets on your nerves. Perhaps s/he piles dishes in the sink to wash them in the morning but you were taught by your mum, that dirty dishes should not be left overnight. Perhaps for him, watching the news is a must every evening, while for you, it has never been a priority, so you keep distracting him when he really wants to concentrate. Perhaps for you, meal-times are family times where you switch off the TV and update one another about your day, while for her meal-times are a time to watch the telly together, and you keep getting frustrated each time s/he wants you to watch the soap opera together instead of catching up on the day’s activities. Perhaps she was brought up in a family where they update one another on everything and everywhere they go, and yet for you, everyone minds their own business and this makes you feel like s/he is being too open about your lives. Perhaps she was brought up in a family where they speak loudly when addressing one another, and you were brought up in one where you walk up to the person and whisper, then you keep wondering why s/he seems to raise his/her voice when replying.

I don’t know the kind of situation between you and your spouse or with that friend. I don’t know what you feel so offended or hurt about. But what I do know is that you need to talk about it! It is not until we address our discomfort in a polite way, that we shall be able to feel at peace and understood. It’s not that the other person is trying to be annoying, it could be what they are used to and have grown up knowing as right. 

What are some of these things that you have felt are offensive to you and have created a barrier between you and that close person? Let’s address them and look at the difference, and let’s be ready to compromise and accommodate one another.

Be sure to catch up with us next week as we discuss the ‘Value of sacrifice’. Meanwhile, to get a male perspective on Cultural Differences, check out Mitch’s post HERE

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