I come from a country that most people I meet in the United States think is very conservative. People here like to ask me questions about my country, such as how women are viewed there and if they are less important than men. Although some of the points they mention are facts, they tend to be very much exaggerated.
I have a difficult time deciding how to respond in these sorts of conversations. While I want to explain more about my country’s customs and reasons for doing things, I don’t want to come across as defensive of the country from which come. While I’m critical of some of my home country’s practices, I don’t feel like I can freely express these sentiments to Americans, who are already too aware of my home country’s flaws.
I want to be open and honest, but explaining the culture of a vastly misunderstood country feels like a big job to take on in small, day to day encounters. How do you suggest I handle this complex and delicate information?
–Student Turned Accidental Diplomat
It sounds like you are in a great position to be a diplomat for your country. Many people are curious, and really want an insider’s viewpoint. Comparing and contrasting the strengths of the cultures in the U.S. and your country of origin as they emerge in day to day encounters can be a way to focus on the positives of each culture.
Also, as others get to know you, they will experience first-hand some of the strengths of your culture as expressed through your personality and behavior. This will help to increase their ability to assimilate and accommodate their thinking to include the perspective you have to share.
–Dr. Diane Nash-McFeron, Psychologist, Seattle, WA
It sounds to me like students’ preconceived notions of what your country stands for are getting in the way of what they could learn from you as a peer from another country. American students are often so ethnocentric because we are educated to believe that ours is the best country in the world. What we don’t often learn until adulthood, and sometimes not at all, is that nearly everyone around the world is raised with great national pride and that often other countries do things better than we do.
Cultural relativism is rightly critiqued for not being an effective overarching moral theory, but in your case it can be applied. The students with whom you’re communicating need to be aware that the American Way is not the only way, and often it’s the wrong way. I hesitate to encourage you to point out America’s numerous flaws in each of these conversations, but I do think that emphasizing cultural diversity and iterating your pride in your nation for its successes would be well-taken.
–Cortney Holles, Faculty, Liberal Arts and International Studies, CSM
I can relate to this particular dilemma since I also come from a country that is very different from the United States. My friends always ask me about my culture and tell me their understanding of it. In most cases, I agree with them, in others, I don’t. When I don’t agree with their assumptions, I argue until I get my points across. I do this because I highly value my culture. As a result, many of my friends understand my culture better and respect it as I respect theirs.
Being foreign myself, I am aware that Americans love stereotyping. However, I think you are doing the right thing by trying to explain your culture to them. This way they will understand that what they hear in the media or on stand-up comedy shows may not be true.
I’m sorry if any of my fellow Americans make you feel uncomfortable because of where you’re from. We do tend to be extremely curious and can come across as intrusive. My advice to you would simply to be open. Honesty is always the best option.
My favorite part about America is being able to tell anyone what you believe without worrying about getting in a serious bind. You will always find people who you enjoy and who enjoy you. Honesty will be useful in making friends, even if it turns away a few ignorant people.
As long as you’re clear about what situations make you uncomfortable, you’ll be fine. Just tell it like it is.
Sometimes the best thing to do when you want to give someone a piece of your mind is to, instead, give them a piece of your heart. Instead of focusing on the negatives about your country, emphasize the positives. While I don’t mean completely ignoring their misconceptions, guide them to the truth of things that make you proud or happy to be from your country. Take their misconceptions and break them but not to the point of overexerting yourself.
I think you should tell people who ask you these questions that, while some of what they think is true, the situation is not so extreme. Though it might seem like a large task to change a society’s opinion of a place, it may be much easier than you may think.
The people who are asking the questions are probably not the people who are set in their beliefs or society’s beliefs about your country. In fact, these are most likely people who are looking for you to discredit false views.
So, tell them about your country proudly and leave out the parts you don’t want to tell. Remember, everyone has a pet peeve about his or her mom, but we don’t talk about that when telling friends about her.
Next Week’s Dilemma
I work for a company whose clients are property owners. It is my job to advise our clients about their options regarding property damage claims and their potential to recover any damages as a result of poor building, soil damage, or other factors.
I often find myself choosing certain points to emphasize, based on what the client wants to hear, regardless of whether or not the points I emphasize are the most relevant to the situation. Since I work so closely with these clients, I find that omitting or deemphasizing the negative is better than upsetting them about the unknown. It also helps me keep a better working relationship with the client. Is this ethical behavior?
— Little Gray Lies
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