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Several weeks ago, I attended a presentation about community development work in rural Vietnam. The couple giving the presentation – a woman from New Zealand and her Vietnamese husband – has worked for years in rural Vietnam to improve people’s quality of life.

The couple’s approach so encouraged me – a jaded, worn out development worker – that during the question and answer time, I lauded their work.

When others left, I approached the Kiwi woman with excitement. After just a moment of talking, she backed up nearly a foot, sending me the message that I had spoken too eagerly or forthrightly. The conversation became stilted as I sought to understand what I had done wrong. Thinking my harmless enthusiasm had either offended or overwhelmed her, I curtailed my feedback and prematurely ended the conversation.

Soon afterwards, I wrote an unrelated blog post on cultural differences in personal space. Even though I’ve interacted with a wide assortment of cultures, I didn’t consciously realize until I wrote the piece that perhaps the Kiwi woman simply had a different comfort level for proximity. Perhaps I had done nothing wrong after all.

Though I educate others on such cultural differences, I struggle to accept them in my personal life. I internalized this woman’s response and, frankly, remain unconvinced that she would welcome further conversation.

I’ve internalized other personal differences based on feedback as well – feedback from superiors who define variances from their norm as right or wrong, culturally acceptable or unacceptable. Only recently have I begun to question who determines the cultural rules that should govern general conduct.

Nonetheless, whether or not I agree with cultural norms, understanding them can increase the effectiveness of my communication. “Get a Clue” explains some means I’ve learned for communicating indirectly, while “Bad Breath Isn’t Always Too Close for Comfort” delves into the spatial differences I encountered with the Kiwi mentioned above.

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