I have been in an interracial relationship for almost six years: I am of Filipino descent and he is of Jamaican descent. We have always been aware of the difference in skin colour, in racial type, and in ethnic identification. When filling out a form of any nature, we knew we checked different boxes whenever asked what our ethnicity, our race, and/or our background was. I have always been aware of my involvement in an interracial relationship, but it was only recently I became fully aware of my involvement in an intercultural relationship. We were aware of the physical differences, but we were not quite aware of the impact those physical differences had on how we act, how we speak, how we think, and how we feel.Living in North America, it becomes easy to forget how much our skin colour, our racial type, or our ethnic identification directly affects our values, ideals, traditions, and customs. We live in a country that takes pride in the idea that it is a melting pot: we have created a culture that claims to celebrate our differences, yet aims to mask the things that make us truly different.
No matter what, each race creates a culture with a set of norms differing from each other. Some of these norms are conspicuous enough, such as the kinds of food we eat or the types of clothing we wear. It is easier to deal with such differences: we learn about them. But there are the differences that make up the unknown, causing tension without a clear path to reconciliation. They are enigmatic norms, harder to identify and understand, because they do not have signs making it clear they are cultural differences. These are the norms that we usually have the biggest arguments about because we just cannot fathom how our significant other does not understand where we are coming from.
My relationship of six years has seen its share of disagreements and discussions. Some of these disagreements are due to conspicuous norms, while others are due to more enigmatic norms. Although I’m sure these are not the only three aspects of our relationship affected by our respective cultures, we have noticed these three major things are directly affected by the culture of our race, creating norms we have had to carefully identify, discuss, and understand.
When bringing each other to our family gatherings, our respective family get-togethers generate two completely different experiences. A typical family gathering for me includes immediate family to extended family to friends who are close enough to be considered family, whereas, a typical family gathering for him includes only about five of his close cousins.
For those of you who are unaware of the typical Filipino family gathering, they are usually what other people refer to as parties, except we would have one for every small occasion. Someone graduated? Party. Someone got a job promotion? Party. Nothing to do on a Saturday night? Party. Sometimes these gatherings happen almost every weekend; sometimes it happens twice in one weekend. My idea of family assimilation involves bringing him around as much of my family as possible, allowing him to get to know as much of them as possible. These gatherings were energizing and exciting for me, but these gatherings were draining and tiring for him because he was constantly interacting with so many people so frequently.
If my boyfriend’s family were to have a get-together equivalent to my family gatherings, it would usually be for one very special occasion: Christmas. If he were to see his entire family, immediate and extended, more than once a year, he called it, “record-setting.” His idea of a family gathering is intimate and small-scale: a get-together with four or five of his cousins once in awhile in order to hang out and catch up. His idea of family assimilation involves bringing me around a few select family members, allowing me to get to know those closest to him as much as possible. These get-togethers are the perfect setting for him, but these get-togethers are a bit more awkward and nerve-wrecking for me.
After a year of communication studies, I began to understand the cultural impact on my family’s communication style. Asian culture is known to be a collectivist culture, meaning the ultimate priority is the harmony and well-being of the group.
According to Hofstede, collectivist cultures share four main characteristics:
- the views, needs, and goals of the group are more important than any individual views, needs, or goals
- the norm is an obligation to the group
- the self is defined in relation to others, not as distinct from others
- the focus is on cooperation rather than competition
As a result of these four characteristics, collectivist cultures tend to emphasize high context communication. In order to preserve harmony within the group, communication tends to be indirect, unspoken, and non-confrontational. The priority is the group and its well-being: everything you do and say must contribute to the harmony of the group. We practice “saving face”: when interacting with others, we aim to prevent humiliating or embarrassing the other person, in hopes of maintaining their dignity and preserving their reputation.
My family is not exempt from this cultural norm. There are two things my family tends to do when introduced to someone new: (1) avoid direct and blunt conversations in order to (2) avoid conflict. Our priority is to make that individual feel as comfortable as possible, refraining from speaking about things that may cause tensions and/or uneasiness. This can translate into small talk that other cultures may deem unnecessary or meaningless in the cultivation of a relationship.
My boyfriend has experienced the impact of our collectivist culture and high-context communication style, questioning the interest of my family in getting to know him as someone important in my life. He has been waiting for the direct and blunt interrogation of family members, only to be met with confusion and disappointment. I have had to explain to him that it has nothing to do with lack of interest and it has everything to do with the difference in our respective culture’s communication styles. After discussing it with my boyfriend and a few friends, we have agreed that for the most part, Caribbean culture is an individualistic culture, meaning the priority is the well-being of self.
According to Hofstede, individualistic cultures share four main characteristics:
- the individual is considered to be the most important entity in any social setting
- independence is stressed rather than dependence
- individual achievement is rewarded
- individual uniqueness is valued
As a result of these four characteristics, individualistic cultures tend to value low-context communication. There is an emphasis on direct and explicit conversation and discussion about things. The priority is self-expression, addressing things head-on in order to arrive at a solution: There is no beating around the bush or tip-toeing around an issue. This direct approach can sometimes lead to those from different cultures feeling attacked or offended at how bluntly things are stated. It can translate into confrontations or tensions that other cultures may deem unnecessary and harmful in the cultivation of a relationship.
So, you can imagine the obstacles we have to face in this particular cultural difference. You can read more about Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions to better understand some of the major differences in cultures.
Building a relationship with my family involves getting as much face-time as possible. Face-time leads to familiarity, which breeds comfort and intimacy, allowing for the small talk to disappear and deeper conversations to emerge.
Building a relationship with his family involves direct and forward conversations about intentions and goals. Direct conversation leads to familiarity, which breeds comfort and intimacy, allowing for any mysteries to disappear and a real understanding of each other to emerge.
Understanding the two key aforementioned cultural differences allows us to understand this third cultural difference. Understanding how to assimilate into each other’s families and how our families may possibly communicate teaches us how to build meaningful relationships with them.
Family assimilation, communication styles, and relationship building are three major differences influenced by culture. I have learned that being in an interracial relationship means I am also in an intercultural relationship. The physical differences we can notice immediately, such as skin colour or ancestry, are not the only differences between us. There are more subtle nuances requiring patience and compassion when unraveling them. Sometimes the reason why our significant other cannot understand us is because there is a cultural difference that, unless explained and explored, will never reveal itself on its own. It takes communication, patience, and a willingness to learn to begin to understand.