“I can’t believe how manipulative you are! You tried to fool me, but I know exactly what your plan was!”
“What just happened? Why are you making up stories again? You always accuse me of having secret plans and hiding my true intention from you, why do you keep making up stories?!”
This was probably the gist of one of the recent fights between me and my husband. Not only that, it is actually the way many of our fights have gone in the past. He accuses me of having had a certain thought process, I never had, and I just stand there completely clueless and enraged that I’m being wrongfully made out to be some horrible, scheming witch. When what’s really happened, even after five years of being a couple, is we still fall prey to the occasional cultural misunderstanding.
This time it all started with a pair of shoes.
Here are the facts – as far as you can call them that. He was starting to pack to take some items back to his hometown. We are not sure when he will be back next. A friend of ours is coming to stay with us for a while and so she will need space in the wardrobe of our second bedroom, a.k.a. my wardrobe. So, I was keen for him to take as many clothes as possible from his wardrobe, so I could in turn make space for her. He had other plans in mind and quickly started dumping a large number of books he wouldn’t need in his suitcase. He did take one or two items of clothing after my repeated nagging, but the wardrobe space was still completely full with items he hadn’t worn or used in months. This made me a little irritated.
A few hours later I am sitting on the sofa and see him picking up a pair of shoes out of the corner of my eye, and the big suitcase standing right next to him. I have already forgotten the suitcase is full and, after I realize that the shoe cabinet is also packed and our friend will have nowhere to put her shoes, I say in a spur of the moment: “Oh, yes take some of the shoes.”
He replies: “No, there’s no need.”
To which I let out a cranky “hrmpf” and screw up my face, after my suggestion has been shot down yet again, worried about where our friend will leave her shoes. After all, he won’t be here most of the time anyway.
Suddenly my husband explodes, which brings us to the beginning of the story; his outrage at my alleged grand plan of manipulation and my outrage at being, in my opinion, falsely accused.
Decoding the Message
So, what actually happened? Well, a lot of shouting and half an hour of discussion later it emerged that once again, we both had made the mistake of forgetting who our partner is. He took my suggestion to take shoes to mean that I wanted to express my love and care for him, in the way Chinese people often do, e.g. by saying things such as “Wear more clothes”, “Eat more”, “Drink more hot water”. When he noticed that my actual intention was for him to make room for our friend, his emotional state went quickly from feeling touched to feeling disappointed (and probably a little unloved). However, to make matters worse, he was sure that I was aware that the way I phrased the sentence seemed like I was expressing care, and that I purposefully failed to mention the reason for the statement being the friend’s impending visit. He thought I wrapped up my real intention – make room for friend – in a fake expression of care and concern for him. He then felt utterly betrayed when he realized that this was not the case, made worse by my grumpy reaction, which he took to mean frustration that my cunning plan had failed.
High Context Meets Low Context
On this occasion, I finally managed to get through to him that I would never consider telling someone to “take shoes” as an expression of love. However, in many of our previous altercations, both of us have struggled to get to the bottom of these arguments brought on by the fact that he is from a high context culture, whereas I am from a low context culture. That means I say what I mean, A means A, B means B, without too much deeper thought. Whereas my husband grew up in an environment where being direct is considered inappropriate and one’s true feelings, motives and desires are almost never expressed directly. So rather than asking someone straight on if they can do something for you, you might do something for them first. To show your love and concern, actions speak louder than words, and words of affection are masked in some cases as simple requests such as “Don’t get sick”, which in some cases people with Western backgrounds might find patronizing or just strange.
Communication is the Key
As a result, my husband will look for the “true meaning” behind my words, reading behind the lines at a pro level so to speak. The problem is that there really aren’t any lines to be read in most cases and so he ends up interpreting my actions in what to me seems like the most fantastical ways.
The only way to solve this is communication. In a cross-cultural relationship, more than ever, the key is talking and explaining your thought processes and feelings. This is really where the challenge begins. Both of you are coming from a place where you are certain that your partner sees the world the exact same way as you, and you will have to open your mind to the idea that your assumptions of how the world works aren’t necessarily your partners. You will have to have that conversation about whether “take your shoes” means just that, or instead a host of other things, again and again. If you do, you might just end up with a breakthrough, even after five, ten, or 20 years.