Connecting Across Cultures

By Beverlee Ludema, Psy.D.


I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.
I want the cultures of all the lands to 
be blown about my house as free as possible.
But I refuse 
to be blown off my feet by any.

— Mahatma Ghandhi

The United States’ cultural diversity in increasingly moving towards a multicultural future. According to a Pew Research Center study, if current population trends continue, by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will comprise 47% of the US population and one in five Americans will be a foreign-born immigrant.  While diversity brings new opportunities for the adventurous to experience new foods, clothing, and ideas, such rapid cultural shifts also increase confusion, fear, and anxiety. Conflict, anger, and defensive reactions between cultural groups within the United States have been cropping up more frequently. Developing "cultural intelligence," knowledge and skills to connect to others across cultural barriers, can decrease conflict, defuse tension, and create opportunities for understanding

A basic understanding of “culture” is: the integrated system of values and beliefs transmitted within an identifiable community. Every human being is deeply influenced by his or her cultural surroundings, and awareness of this influence is where connecting across cultures begins. Befriending people from other cultures reveals ways in which the unconscious absorption of ideas and beliefs about the world affects each individual. Awareness of the profound effects of culture on everyone can inspire respect for differences as well as increase openness to learning from and about other cultures. 

Attention to culture and its influence reveals many within-group differences, both large and small, that show variety within a culture, its subgroups, and their relationships to the broader culture in which they exist. Keeping this in mind helps move away from stereotypical interpretations and helps avoid overlooking the unique situations of minority groups. Issues of racial identity development (which spans several phases and can take years to complete) for members of minority groups also interact with the dominant culture. 

When connecting across cultural barriers with recent immigrants to the United States, the attitude towards acculturation (that is, adopting the behaviors and beliefs of the surrounding culture) is important to notice. Four basic attitudes towards acculturation are: assimilation (abandonment of original culture), separation (rejection of surrounding culture), marginalization (rejection of both cultures), and integration (acceptance of selected aspects of both cultures). The attitude toward the immigrant group by the resident group can influence this: ethnocentrism from either side can interfere with acculturation.

The willingness to trust within the cultural group is important to notice. The investment of trust tends to be faster in task-oriented cultures like the United States and slower in relationship-oriented cultures. The latter tend to more highly value qualities of integrity, ability, kindness, and benevolence.  

A related influence on adaptation is whether the individual or family is migrating from and into a low- or high-context culture. A high-context culture uses a communication style in which many things are left unsaid and assumed to be implicitly understood. Words are chosen carefully to communicate effectively to a small group of insiders, simultaneously excluding outsiders. In high context cultures, personal and professional dimensions of life often intertwine, and small, tight-knit groups that support each other are the norm. Low-context cultures, like the dominant culture in the United States, rely on more explicit verbal communication, expect more relationships but less intimate ones, and require more independence. Revealing tacit meanings and giving feedback are behaviors that are valued by low-context cultures and emerge from the belief that making the implicit explicit increases understanding. This requires personal qualities of openness, patience, and self-control. A person moving from a high-context to a low-context culture may ask questions of the same few people rather than work independently and may feel frustrated if others tire of giving assistance and do not seem to want to form relationships with them in expected ways.  

News stories about intercultural relationships tend to focus on conflicts, tensions and failures. There are, however, many stories of successful intercultural connections in many communities in the United States. Communities large and small, from Garden City, KS (pop. 26,747), to  Lincoln, NE (pop. 284,763), have decided to welcome immigrants to ensure their current and future economic prosperity. These communities have worked to develop higher cultural intelligence among residents. For example, children in Lincoln’s schools speak more than 50 languages and residents go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome. In a 2017 Net News article, journalist Jack Williams quoted Lincoln's Mayor Chris Buetler: "That pride in looking at people as individuals and not as good or bad by virtue of being a part of some culture I think has always been a strong point of our region, our state, and our community." 

Perhaps the intercultural empathy Mayor Buetler demonstrates here is the most important dimension of cultural intelligence to develop. Intercultural empathy allows us to realize we are all separate individuals shaped by a particular community culture, yet all experiencing a common humanity. Growth in this skill requires addressing the anxiety about difference that is part of the human condition. When experiencing distress or anxiety around intercultural differences, seeking support and wisdom from those with more intercultural experience and skill is essential for development to continue. 

"Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures."

– César Chávez


Return to Articles