If you were a student abroad, does that mean you would like working abroad? And if you enjoy working abroad on a temporary basis, does that mean you could live overseas forever? And if you live overseas, does that mean you have automatically crossed the line between cultural competence and cultural empathy?
Cultural competence is the ability to interact comfortably in a foreign society. Cultural empathy is the ability to accept another cultural point of view, to think of the particular way in which the people in a foreign society think and interact as the right way.
In international education circles the conventional wisdom is that people go abroad to explore new cultures but the reality is much more complex. For some students time overseas is the perfect escape from the routine of American college classes or a stifling family atmosphere. Once they have proven their independence by living overseas and adapting to life elsewhere, living overseas no longer offers life benefits. Or rather those benefits are outweighed by opportunities back home. For others life overseas is liberating in a different way. They discover they can master another language. They realise that they are able to absorb part of the foreign culture which effectively makes them a new or at least a different person. People in this category are almost guaranteed to move overseas again because they want to go on exploring their ability to adapt not only to another culture but to added dimensions in themselves. In both instances individuals may achieve cultural competence.
Cultural empathy is most easily learned by those living in a foreign country without significant access to their own community or culture over a number of years but it can be attained anywhere. You begin to live life from another perspective. The neighbouring country you had no particular feelings about may seem menacing. If women appear more or less powerful in that society this information influences behaviour (for example with men becoming less or more protective of them). Cultural empathy is essential to feeling part of a society when you are working and living intensively in the host culture but unlike cultural competence it can backfire. The trick is to participate in the foreign culture without obliterating your personality or losing your own cultural perspective.
I met a wise Scottish woman married to a Gulf Arab living in the Emirates. She learned Arabic and fully enjoyed living as a member of Arab society. She told me the secret to her successful integration and those of her friends in the same situation was standing up for themselves. Early in her marriage she found that she was expected to clean up after her messy brothers in law as well as her husband. She told her mother-in-law that she was happy to help her clean the house and cook and of course to wash her own husband’s clothes but she expected her brothers-in-law as grown men to pick up after themselves. This was accepted and happily so because she was making an effort where it counted the most — learning to communicate with them. She knew who she was, so she never believed it was her obligation to accept every single habit or custom in order to fit in. She also gave them credit for the ability to adapt to her as a foreigner. It is important not to assume others are culturally rigid.
Sometimes people who are anxious to move towards cultural empathy can regard themselves as having failed when they discover limitations to their adaptability or their desire to adjust. Or they can turn against the culture they have tried to adopt. I witnessed a memorable example of this at a Christmas party in Paris. I found myself in a conversation with a Frenchman who asked if I liked France and French people. My answer was “yes, very much.” What about Paris? He wanted to know. Did I like Parisians? When I told him that Parisians were the reason I loved Paris, his face lit up. “You must meet my wife!” he said at once. I was then fairly dragged into the next room weaving in and out of groups of people until we found his American wife. She was very surprised that an American could like the French and especially Parisians. At first I thought I was speaking to someone who had not lived overseas before or who had lived in Asia or Africa and was not able to adjust to the more brusque Parisian personality. I was astonished to discover that she had lived in France much longer than I had – fourteen years! Not only that but she had studied French literature at a French university. It was evident that she had loved France and the French but after many years her attitudes had radically changed. “What is it you like about the French?” she challenged. With her husband looking on expectantly, I explained that I loved the way they interacted with one other. They were always debating and discussing and disputing. I found their society stimulating and their street arguments over small nothings downright funny. “But that’s what I hate about them” she replied. That was a powerful statement for someone who had spent years telling herself and probably every American that the French way was the right way. At these words her husband’s face fell for a moment then he looked up at me and said “I see. If you were a playwright, you would write comedies” then he turned to his wife and said “but you would write tragedies.” At that point I felt it wise to excuse myself.
I puzzled over this encounter for a long time. This woman had immersed herself in French culture, studying the language and literature and even marrying a French husband (albeit one who spoke excellent English). After so many years in France she was clearly very culturally competent but somewhere on the road to cultural empathy she had probably tried to sink her own personality in an attempt to “become French.” It was too much. I grew to understand and like the style of French conversation but I knew how to keep my distance. For example, every Monday morning I asked my French colleagues about their weekend. Their responses to this routine American courtesy was invariably a stream of negative comments about their weekends at their countryside cottages. It found it depressing on a Monday morning so I kept asking hoping the next weekend would be better, but it never was. As I learned more about France I realised that these complaints were a way of dealing with a class issue. If you are privileged enough to have a country cottage, you might grumble about the long drive and the amount of work involved in an attempt to stave off jealousy. I also realised that the “complaining” tone of voice was a cultural habit every bit as valid as my automatic Midwest cheeriness. As part of my cultural adaptation I followed suit and found that I fit right it in. I continued to ask about weekends but maintained my cultural distance by “translating” the negative comments. When I asked “how was your weekend” and they replied “Ahhhh, there was so much traffic…the place was a mess…” I heard “Fine! Thank you for asking!” That way we were both right.