Sunday, January 24, 2016

On navigating culture clash

Today’s prompt:

It's Customary

It's a small world after all! What custom from another culture do you wish you could transplant into your own? Maybe you want siestas (Hola, Spain!) or Hygge from Denmark. Or maybe you want to create a new custom altogether?

By the time I met my husband, Julio, who was born and raised in Guatemala, he was pretty “Americanized.” He had spent a year in high school as an exchange student in Utah, and then later served a two year mission for the Mormon Church in San Bernardino, California.  He spoke English (with only the tiniest trace of an accent) and was comfortable navigating US culture and maneuvering through our various systems (school, government, etc.) In fact, when I first met him, I assumed he was from New York or something—somewhere distant from me (born and raised in the western States) but not foreign.

Still, he carried vestiges of his home culture, which took me some getting used to.  First, was the fact that he greeted EVERY female friend he met with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, calling them “mi amor” (my love.) I was scandalized by this behavior. I was raised to believe that any kind of kissing was reserved for romantic partners, and that terms of endearment were for sweethearts. (It didn’t help that “mi amor” just sounded so sexy rolling off his lips, no matter to whom he said it.  I was a jealous young thing, what can I say?)

julio and cousins

Julio and his stunningly beautiful aunt and cousins.

I didn’t know anyone else who kissed friends, female coworkers, older women, and young girls to say hello, even though I had friends from various cultural backgrounds and countries. (Turns out, lots of my friends did this, amongst their own people and folks from cultures that shared similar greeting customs, but they remained hands-and-lips-off the Americans.) It took me a long time to understand that a hug and a kiss in greeting didn’t imply romantic or sexual interest, and that calling someone “my love” in Spanish is the equivalent of the English “honey” or “hon,” (as in “What can I get you, hon?”) Now, however, greeting-hugs and kisses and endearments are among my favorite customs in Guatemalan culture. 

julio and rocio

Julio (center) leading his niece to her grandfather, at her Quinceanera.

Another thing that I struggled with was the circuitous communication style my husband displayed. Guatemalans are not a direct people. They will never plainly ask for anything, but hint and drop clues, expecting you to read between the lines and respond accordingly.  I am really, really bad at this kind of communication. My husband tells me that early in our relationship, he would “test” me on certain things by placing, what seemed to me, random things and offhand comments for me to decipher.  I didn’t know this, having no cultural context for this kind of communication---and I often found him baffling.


Our engagement photo. We were just babies!

After one particularly exasperating evening with him, he expressed his disappointment that I hadn’t responded how he was hoping and then he pointed out all the times he had left clues and dropped hints hoping I would “get” the message he was trying to send. He admitted he had been testing me and was disappointed that I wasn’t getting it. I don’t remember what the issue was, but my ineptitude was so much that he finally had to spell things out for me, one bald-faced letter at a time. It must have been excruciating for him to be so direct, but I was just upset that he was pussy-footing around the issue.  I probably yelled something about being a jerk and playing mind games, not realizing that making things plain was not part of his cultural skill set.

This experience led to an uncomfortable, if ultimately enlightening, discussion about our needs and wants and hopes, and also our communication styles.  Over the years, we’ve realized that his indirect approach to communication, and my “line drive down the center” approach are part culture, part personality, and that before we get all bent out of shape, it behooves us both to check ourselves against each other’s communication styles, and adjust accordingly!

us now

This is us now. How did we get this old?

Certainly any couple will have to deal with each others’ idosyncracies, but those are compounded when coming from different cultures. Fortunately, my husband is patient, I have learned that there is more to navigating the world than ploughing straight through, and we are both inclined to find humor in just about everything, so we’ve managed to bumble triumphantly through the inevitable culture clashes. 

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox.


  1. Great post Marissa - Love the line about bumbling triumphantly. :) Sure enjoyed your insights into cultural differences. I love that you have both worked hard to understand each other. That's what makes a great marriage.

  2. Bella historia "mi amor".
    Sigan amandoce cada dia mas y mas,son un ejemplo para muchas parejas,y son el uno paea el otro, los quiero mucho.
    "Para el amor no existen barreras ni fronteras", y hay que luchar por el cotra viento y marea...

    1. Gracias por tus lindas palabras, primita! Te quiero mucho, "mi amor!"

  3. I love your post and I relate to it even though my husband and I were both born and raised in Idaho.

    We talk a different language sometimes :)

  4. Been there, done that in my own marriage as well. Sometimes... culture shock is more about the people than the place.