Reasons Why Intercultural Couples Argue Differently

All couples have communication problems but intercultural couples may have unique reasons that contribute to the hows and whys of them arguing differently. When two people come together, they bring their distinct personalities, temperaments, coping styles, and life experiences. Even the most similar individuals within the same culture will have very different frames of reference, perceptions, and interpretations of the meaning of their interactions. Now add cultural differences to that blend and stir…

Studies in mainstream psychology that are related to couples’ communication nearly always rely on individuals from the same cultural background. Yet these interactions are embedded in cultural assumptions and rules of engagement–assumptions and rules that are often invisible and beyond the awareness of both the sender and receiver.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Intercultural couples can experience double jeopardy: they experience the same misunderstandings that all couples do, based on individual differences, and also they can experience miscommunication based on divergent cultural norms and rules.[/perfectpullquote]

Reasons Why Intercultural Couples Argue Differently

High-Context and Low-Context Communication Styles

The most frequently cited example of this type of cultural norm guiding communication patterns is high- versus low-context styles, characterized by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1976 [note]Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor.[/note], 1998 [note]Hall, E. T. (1998)) The power of hidden differences. In M. J. Bennett (ed.), Basic concepts of intercultural communication (pp. 53-67). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.[/note]).

A low-context communication style emphasizes direct verbal messages and explicit meaning whereas a high-context style relies on non-verbal cues, implicit meaning, and an understanding of the social roles, position, and context of the exchange.

Intercultural couple face a double jeopardy: individual differences and cultural miscommunication Click To Tweet

When couples are from the same cultural background, their conversations are based on a shared style of communication. However, communication can break down when it is a cross-cultural interaction with individuals interpreting the message based on their own cultural code rather than those of the sender.

Arguing intercultural couples will interpret messages based on their own cultural code. Click To Tweet

For example, Samantha (American, from a low-context culture) was frustrated with her ongoing misunderstanding of her Spanish husband Antonio’s high-context communication style:

I think we were nine or ten years into our marriage until I realized that there was a subtext. The ‘I don’t like turkey’ translated as ‘I don’t like the holiday celebration, do we have to get together with your family?’”

Personal versus Cultural Attributions

The example above is compounded because Samantha and Antonio did not perceive that a miscommunication has occurred, and they respond based on an interpretation of the interaction from their own cultural assumptions. Samantha assumed that Antonio didn’t like the traditional food associated with Thanksgiving, a holiday not celebrated in his native Spain.

She attempted to accommodate him every year with alternative meals, and was annoyed that he remained disconnected at the family gatherings. Antonio was using food as a deflection of his discomfort for large family gatherings with his American in-laws, but Samantha was misinterpreting his message because she was focused on the content rather than the subtext of his communication.

If a cultural translator had been available to deconstruct the sequence of this communication breakdown, it is probable that Samantha and Antonio would assign the misunderstanding to a personal rather than cultural attribute.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Low-context speakers are frustrated that high-context speakers don’t “say what they mean,” and likewise high-context speakers are confused that low-context speakers don’t “mean what they say.”[/perfectpullquote]
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To their partners, low-context speakers can be seen as rude and patronizing while high-context speakers can be considered vague and off-topic. For example, Jackie (White American, low-context communication style) attributed the high-context communication style of her husband’s family’s as being evasive or avoidant:

“In Trinh’s [Vietnamese] family, you don’t necessarily talk about everything. You just kind of…sweep it under the rug and you just put on this happy face and you go about your day.”

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Opportunities for Intercultural Couples

Although intercultural couples have an increased potential to experience double jeopardy in their communication, they also have the opportunity to become more attuned to each other based on an awareness of these differences.

Most intercultural couples have an increased awareness of their diversity, because of their uniqueness and perception of being an outsider. For example:

Solomon [British]: At first I felt uncomfortable being the only white person…and still I don’t feel totally comfortable around my wife’s [Congolese] friends and family because it’s still very different and it’s hard to connect.

Marie [White American]: They would see me [as a blond American woman] and not expect to understand me…I always felt different because I didn’t have any of those shared experiences.

Christine [British]: It’s like I didn’t really have a place in Nigeria…the family treats me as a guest or an apprentice, or someone pretty useless.

Juan [Spain]: It’s hard, but the discomfort with being different, being seen as an outsider, but this gets less and less as I learn the rules.

For many couples, this awareness leads to more focused discussions about their cultural differences and “tuning into” each other, including style of communication.

For example, Katherine (5th generation White American) married to Daniel (3rd generation Japanese-American) described this process of awareness of their cultural diversity as a couple, and how this understanding led to more conversations about their differences:

Katherine: I think we have had to discuss more because of our differences than if we were both Japanese or both white because I guess we would have just assumed that we were going to do things a certain way.

This increased awareness of their diversity and the role of culture in the way they communicate led them to experience greater emotional attunement in their relationship, and to make various adaptations in the way they relate to one another:

Daniel: Sometimes I think even when Katherine wouldn’t be saying something, I would make the assumption that she is mad or she is trying to communicate something she doesn’t want to say…I am used to it being more indirect and I will think there is something behind it because I guess I am just tuned into the underlying message, but I have learned to ask her rather than just assume.

Katherine: [my husband’s] Japanese culture is very indirect…If Daniel was doing something that was bugging me, like leaving his bag right by the door, in my culture it’s OK just to say, “Would you not leave your bag right there by the door?” But that is so direct for Daniel; that implies that I am really angry about it. So, I’ve learned to say it more indirectly, “Does it help you to have your bag right there by the door so you remember it?” And, he’ll come back and say, “well, I don’t have to have it there…I’ll move it.”

Challenges create space for opportunities. My upcoming columns will focus on common conflicts facing intercultural couples, and the strategies we use to navigate this diversity.

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Also read:  Parenting Challenges across Cultures: Roles, Rules, and Resistance


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