Communicating Across the Cultural Divide(s)


When I have a disagreement with my wife, Lisa–who is Hindu and was raised in South India–and resolution seems hopeless, I always ask myself: “Would we still be disagreeing if she were Jewish? Would we be able to communicate better on issues related to family or money or the amount of time each of us dedicates to work if we were the same religion and had the same cultural background?”

In college I dated one Jewish girl and we had disagreements. I have disagreed with my Jewish relatives over the course of my life, which leads me to believe that if Lisa were Jewish, or if I had married a Jewish woman, we would find plenty of issues to disagree about.

Miscommunication is a factor in all relationships, but with a former long-time girlfriend who was the daughter of a Protestant minister, interdating communication problems were based on religious differences. She grew up listening to her father’s sermons and formed a literal interpretation of heaven and hell. As she grew older, she struggled to reconcile how she would live her life according to where she might spend eternity, which obviously affected her life while we were together, the degree to which I completely underestimated. I, on the other hand, knew heaven and hell in a completely figurative framework, so there was a part of her values I never understood. It turns out it was a crucial difference.

During the course of our relationship we began living together, and did so for three years. For me, a child of divorced parents who each re-married and lived with their significant other before re-marrying, that was no problem. But my girlfriend believed she was living in sin. At first it was not a problem, since we were both rebellious 20-somethings, but over time she began indulging in behavior that could be considered sinful (coveting other men and spending time with them while I wasn’t there), to actual sinful behavior (cheating on me). In hindsight, I feel the way she treated me was a result of conflict with her religious upbringing and trying to reconcile her relationship with me. By already living in sin with me, it opened the door for more sinful behavior.

While our relationship ended with a number of sad revelations about her feelings for another man, the differences we experienced as a result of our different cultural backgrounds were very subtle compared to what I experienced with a Korean woman, Carol, whom I dated for six months. I was alerted to our differences from the very beginning when she told me she thought we would never make it as a couple because I ate too fast. Of course there’s nothing particularly Jewish about that, but the fact that she wanted to break up with me as a result, rather than just tell me to chew my food longer, was a very different reaction than I was used to. After we came to an agreement that I would chew my food more thoroughly, she was amazed that I was open to change. I did not chew much slower after that, and that did not really matter, because it was the fact that I was open to working with her that made the difference.

With Carol, who grew up in Korea, I was constantly reminded how selfish I was. When we went shopping with her friend and I stepped out of the store to people watch, I was told I was selfish for not staying in the store with her. At dinner when I ordered what I wanted from the menu without consulting the group, I was considered rude. I felt like I was being a respectful mate who listened to her and tried to be generous, but from her perspective I was thinking of myself most of the time.

What I learned from Carol paved the way for better communication with my Hindu wife Lisa later on, because I had been initiated into some core concepts in Asian culture relating to hospitality, common courtesy and expectations. But I still had many interdating issues resulting from, once again, inadequate communication and cultural differences, as opposed to religious ones.

When visiting her family in India for the first time, I underestimated the quantity and quality of gifts it is necessary to buy for relatives in order to show the correct level of respect, and felt embarrassed. Quite often, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about what I wanted. If I wanted something specific, whether it was dinner at a certain restaurant or to go to a specific place, I would always get my way because I was an honored guest and in her culture it is important to meet the needs of a guest (where possible). Of course, I would learn later, I put people out while they met my needs silently.

Also, when Lisa and I were first dating, I was never sure if it was okay to offer to pay for dinner. Would dinner mean I wanted something from her beyond a kiss goodnight? Before dating Lisa, I always expected to go Dutch so my date did not feel I was expecting something from her. With Lisa, she appreciated that I paid.

Lisa and I did not solve our interdating issues before we were married (read: I still can’t keep my mouth shut much of the time!), but seven years into our marriage we are dedicated to accepting them as part of the dynamic in our relationship.