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East vs. West

by Gale V. LaFreniere

Saccharine is an artificial sweetener which when used to describe a person implies that the person is sweet but artificial, *while sarcasm is defined to be a form of humor that uses irony or mockery with the purpose of indirect criticism. In my opinion, this comparison embodies the basic differences in my own intercultural relationship, and has been the source of many conflicts, arguments and deep divide.

On my return from an extended trip, my son proceeded to tell me of all the things he had done and seen while I was away. Most notably, he said he and his brother were practicing “sarcasm” with their father. That instilled fear in me, a portend of my future living with individuals that were so different from me. Their father and I have been managing the impact of coming from two different cultures, and learning, on a daily basis, how to cope with our differences. Throughout all our married life, one major difference was his penchant for sarcasm which seemed to come at the most inopportune times, especially when I was very angry and annoyed. It sometimes happens as well that when he became sarcastic, it pushed me over the edge and I became annoyed and angry instead of just being mildly irritated. In the meantime, from his perspective, he often told me that communication was key, and he felt that my silence about things that bothered me meant that I was unwilling to discuss issues lest I had to admit fault. In addition he also took my “silence” as being “fake” and insincere. Needless to say, this was a problem and very much a daily threat.

In my work as a Marriage and Family therapist, I work with couples who try to navigate intercultural relationships and they often complain of seemingly innocuous issues but when experienced on a daily basis, pile up and become this insurmountable factor. I often talk about the role of culture which is not just limited to ethnicity but also the family culture, the culture of the generation, and culture of the gender. While I can talk about ways to manage these differences, i.e. teach listening skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, problem solving skills, negotiation skills, etc. what I have found to have equal impact with provoking insight is teaching the role of one’s culture in the relationship.

I have strived to understand at the least, and at the most, to manage the cultural differences effectively in my own relationship. More importantly, I now realize how my culture manifests in my interactions and reactions within the relationship. I see my reaction of defensiveness as a response to his sarcasm, and being defensive means that I have personalized his sarcasm and have perceived it as a personal attack. However, if I am to accept the premise that sarcasm is part of his Western humor and a manifestation of wit and intelligence, then it takes away the personal aspect of it and it becomes easier to change my reaction to a more positive one. In addition, if he could accept that politeness and being non-confrontational has been taught to me as the epitome of good behavior, he could then agree that I was not being insincere or “fake” or unwilling to discuss issues. Regardless of the rationale however, he and I will need to decide, as adults, that we will need to change our responses to each other as part of respect and compromise, with the goal of lessening our conflicts and managing our differences.

One cannot underestimate the impact of culture in our relationships. Our culture is an integral part of us and therefore a major part of our interactions. Learning about our culture and its impact is essential in learning to have more effective and fuller relationships.

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