More on Cultural Knowledge, Self-awareness and Intercultural Communication

Over the last 18 years I have come to the beautiful, Spanish colonial town of  Guanajuato, Mexico to teach in the Guanajuato Summer Law Institute fairly regularly.  For the last three years, I have directed the program.  Each time I come, I make more Mexican friends and I learn more about the Mexican culture (both in the anthropological sense and in the “difference” sense).  Many people assume because I am a Latina and speak Spanish that I am familiar with the culture and can communicate effectively.  While I agree that is it a tremendous advantage to speak Spanish, it is certainly not all you need to be effective in communicating and understanding Mexican people in their cultural context.  And, as a Latina raised in the United States whose family roots go back to the Tome Spanish land grant in New Mexico, I certainly have had a great deal to learn about Mexican people and their culture!  In my last post on this issue, I talked about using insights from best practices to develop teaching objectives in cultural knowledge, self awareness and intercultural communication.  Today, my post will focus on cultural knowledge and self awareness using insights from living in Mexico.

Mexican people, at least in Guanajuato, tend to greet friends very warmly with a hug and a kiss.  They also do it when introduced to a friend of a friend.  While many in the U.S. are huggers, it is definitely more prevalent and pronounced here in Guanajuato.  I absolutely love this cultural practice.   It feels so warm and comforting to me.  My 11 year old daughter hates it.  She has never been a demonstrative child.   Even a handshake is hard for her.  Here in Mexico, my adult friends lean over to her and reach out to hug her and plant a little kiss on her cheek.  Children in Mexico know that is expected and I find that when I am introduced to Mexican children, they usually hug and kiss me on the cheek.  It is a sign of respect.  My daughter,  instead, sort of leans over stiffly, allows the hug and does not return the kiss.   Her behavior makes her stand out here and also makes some raise their eyebrows because her behavior seems disrespectful.    I observed this once again just yesterday and started thinking about it in the context of my work on cultural knowledge and self awareness.  My daughter seems aware of the practice so she has the cultural knowledge.  She has observed it.  What she lacks is an understanding about how her behavior appears to Mexicans.  Now, all of us could definitely think more deeply about the impact of our words, actions and behavior on others, but it is challenging to think about that impact on others (i.e. improve our self-awareness) across cultural differences.   This is because the different behavior is viewed in an unexpected way.  We must have some knowledge about the different cultural context in order to think about the potential impact of different behavior on others.  Today I am going to be very explicit about this with my daughter to help her understand that learning a language isn’t all there is to developing intercultural communication skills.  I realize I am asking a lot of an 11 year old, but it is something that will be very valuable to her…  Another challenging self awareness issue is the question of which person in the cross-cultural interaction should adapt to the other’s cultural practice…hmmm, more food for thought for my next post from Guanajuato!

Hasta luego…

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