How Much Are You Willing to Risk?

Have you ever noticed that developing relationships with those from other cultures demands risk? It’s not easy to “save face” and also build a deep relationship. To allow others into your life, and encourage them to do the same, means that you take the chance of appearing silly, ignorant, and, sometimes, even crazy. Although this risk is part of any new relationship, cross-cultural relationships raise the bar to a whole new level.

Thankfully, the risks are normally minor. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I started playing cricket. Now, MY playing cricket is filled with embarrassment all by itself! However, I also wasn’t sure what to wear. I’ve never seen one of my Indian friends wear shorts or sweat pants, the normal things that I’d wear for a sports activity. So, I asked a friend if I should wear salwar kameez (a typical outfit for Indian women), and she gave me the oddest look. Then she assured me that sweats and a t-shirt would be fine. However, I got the distinct impression that salwar kameez would NOT have been the right thing to wear. (I think she was holding back a laugh as we talked!)

In another instance, an Indian male friend asked if I thought it was appropriate to have a photographer attend when he asked his white, American girlfriend to marry him.  The poor guy was already nervous; he did not want to be embarrassed by an unknown etiquette rule when he proposed. Although I didn’t think it would be a problem, I still asked other Americans before I gave an answer. After all, I might have missed an unspoken American rule along the way. (It happens to us all.)

Then there was that same friend’s wedding. Before I attended, I asked someone if I could wear red. An Indian friend had given me a gorgeous, red salwar kameez, but I thought that red was worn by brides in India. (In the U.S., the bride typically wears white so everyone else refrains from wearing it.) I would have been extremely embarrassed if I showed up in red when only the bride was suppose to wear it! Lucky for me, this bride wore white so I got to wear my red salwar kameez. Nevertheless, I would still ask before attending another cross-cultural wedding since traditions vary.

The great news is that often good intentions go a long way when building cross-cultural relationships! If you truly want to connect with people and are willing to humble yourself, it’s amazing how much grace they will show you.

Take my marriage-proposing friend, for instance. How upset would his girlfriend truly have been if his inviting a photographer had broken an etiquette rule? I think she still would have married him, don’t you?

Or, what if I had worn salwar kameez to my cricket match? I undoubtedly would have been embarrassed, but the other players were thrilled that I was willing to play this “non-American” sport. I doubt they would have sent me away just because of my clothes!

Now the wedding situation might have proven interesting if I’d shown up wearing the same color as the bride. Since people often take weddings very seriously, I’m glad that I didn’t cross that cultural boundary. However, I doubt that I would have been tossed out since I had a relationship with both the bride and the groom. Indeed, I’d like to think that even if I couldn’t “save face” for myself at the wedding, my friends would have shown grace to me.

In the end, I think grace is the solution to the risks that we all take when we build relationships. None of us can learn everything we need to know to avoid every faux pas. No matter how hard we try, we fail sometimes and are embarrassed, or worse. That’s why grace is important! If we are going to take the risks necessary to build good relationships, we need grace to make the relationships last.

Photo by Oregon DOT