Cooper Thompson

 
     

        Coaching, Counseling, and Supervision in Nürnberg

 
         
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Being in a relationship with someone from a different culture or background

Each ethnic group, society, country, and even community has a set of values and beliefs about what is important and what is “true.”  People will usually  “carry” these cultural values with them, even when they live in another place and have decided to reject their old cultural identity or “take on” the values of the new society or country.

When a person from one culture is in a relationship with someone from a different culture, it is likely that these cultural differences will “show up” in the relationship.   These differences might be something that a couple appreciates in each other; or the couple notices them but doesn’t care one way or another;  or the couple might not notice them at all;  or the differences could be a source of conflict.

I want to give some examples of cultural differences I’ve seen in relationships, and suggest how they could lead to conflict.  Some are significant, some are minor.  But each one has been a source of conflict.    I’ll start with my relationship with my wife, and then share some examples from friends and clients.

My wife comes from a farming village in Germany.  I grew up in a suburb of New York City and have almost always lived in big cities.  When we first lived together, and would shop for food, my wife would usually buy the same food that she would eat on the farm, depending on the season.  So, she would never buy salad in the winter;  that’s something that you eat in summer.  And oranges or bananas?  Never.  They don’t grow in Germany.  On the other hand, I would buy whatever I thought might taste good.  I’d bring it home and she won’t eat it.  And I was bored with what she brought home. 

She, like many Germans, has a sense that it is important to follow rules, and that there is a certain way to do things.  I, like many people from the US, believe that anything is possible and we follow the rules when we want to.  I’ve gotten frustrated with her when I think her perspective is too narrow;  she has gotten nervous when I want to do things that aren’t “allowed” in Germany. 

 

»  All these names are pseudonyms. I changed names and some details for confidentiality.

 

Ulrike was born and raised in Germany and Vikas, her husband, comes from India.  For Ulrike, sharing her feelings, and talking about some painful things that have happened in her life are important. It is way for her to communicate to her husband why she sometimes needs time to herself and may appear like she doesn’t want to be with him.  Vikas grew up in a small village and always had family around him.  He believes that it is important to find happiness in the present and “put away” the painfulness of the past.  This is a strategy that has worked well for him in his life.  He gets impatient when she wants to share her feelings and experiences;  she feels discounted that he doesn’t want to know about this part of her.

 

 

 

Julia is also from Germany and her husband, Ngama, comes from Tanzania.  Ngama, like Vikas, comes from a very communal, collective society.  That means that family is always nearby, and the idea of being alone is strange, and maybe an indication that something is wrong with the person who wants to be alone.  Also, everything is shared in his family;  since he has a good job in Germany, he is expected to support family members back home (who number about 75) and they feel free to ask him, “what do you have for me?”  Julia comes from a very individualistic society – Germany – and likes and needs time alone.  When she visits Ngama’s family, it’s stressful for her to always be around people. And, she believes that saving money is important.  Ngama gives money away and thinks, “there will be more tomorrow.”  Julia thinks, “if we don’t save money, we won’t have any.”  She said to me one time, “I’m sort of a pessimist, and Ngama is an optimist.  And I think that’s typical of Germans and many Africans.”

 

 

 

 

 

Richard and Esmeralda have the same issue with money, although he is English and she is from Brazil.   For her, money is something that you share with friends, and if you need some money, you ask your friends.   Richard likes the idea of her generosity, but he worries that he and Esmeralda won’t have enough for themselves.  She doesn’t worry about that;   what she does worry about is getting attacked by skin heads because of her dark skin.  Richard has white skin and looks like a “typical German,” and he doesn’t worry about skin heads.  He thinks that she is being paranoid;  she thinks that he is blind to German hostility against immigrants.

 

 

 

Kristina and Susan recently married in Germany a year ago;  Susan comes from Canada, Kristina from Germany.  Susan is trying to learn German, but she’s never had much success at learning a second language.  She tried French as a student in Canada, but always got failing grades.  Because she doesn’t speak much German,  it’s not much fun to spend time with Kristina’s friends, and she’s having a hard time finding a good job in Germany.  She’s flown back to Canada several times for consulting work, and while it pays well and is satisfying, she isn’t really creating a life for herself in Germany.  She’s beginning to wonder, “was it a good idea to marry Kristina and move to Germany?”

 

 

 

 

 

Günter has been married for 15 years to Consuela, a Latin American woman.  They speak English with each other, but because English is neither of their native languages, they frequently have communication problems.  And the style in which they speak is radically different:  he is serious, careful with his words, and formal;  she is expressive with her hands, repeats her statements to make a point, and cries and laughs frequently.  She has tried to learn German, but finds it really difficult.  Günter learns languages easily and tells her, “You just have to try harder.”

 

 

 

Miguel and Karin met in Peru and moved to Germany a year ago to be closer to Karin’s parents.  Miguel had a good job in Peru, but feels pretty lost in Germany:  he is struggling to learn German, he hasn’t found a job here, and he is dependent on Karin for money.  She thinks, “He left his home country for me, and I want him to be happy and successful here.  He isn’t, so what I am doing wrong?”  She also feels pressure from friends and family to get Miguel integrated quickly into German society.  For example, they say to her, “You should teach him German.”  She tries, but he resents it.  “I want to enjoy our relationship and be partners,” he says. “I don’t want to be your student.”

 

 

 

 

 

Lilly and Jürgen have been dating for a couple of years.  She was born in China, grew up in Germany, and considers herself both Chinese and German.  When she tries to talk with Jürgen about her Chinese heritage, he says, “That doesn’t matter to me.”  Like many Germans, he believes that everyone living in Germany should take on the values of German culture and “become German.”  But she thinks, “I am both German and Chinese.  I speak both languages, I’ve adjusted to German life, and being Chinese is very important to me.”

 

 

 

As you read these, you may have thought:  these are personality differences, not cultural differences.  While it is impossible to know exactly where these differences come from – some may be based in personality  --  my experience tells me that cultural differences are real, and that they can cause conflicts. 

When I’m meeting with couples who have conflicts like these, I encourage them to talk about their differences and try to understand each other without judging each others’ cultural values as “good” or “bad.”   I encourage them to learn about each others’ differences, and to understand why certain differences are so important to someone else.

With time, I believe that couples can and often do learn to appreciate and even “adopt” each others’ cultural values.

 

 
 

coopernuernbergcounseling.com

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