Navigating differences for me has always been the exploration of how we move beyond our cultural differences to our human commonalities. This journey began for me many years ago – in the cotton fields of West Texas where I first encountered (what I would later call culture bumps). The Aguilar family lived next to our cousin in our small town and in the Fall of the year, when we butchered hogs, I would accompany my father when he carried the severed heads to Mrs. Aguilar and return with him to pick up the packages of amazing pork tamales wrapped in corn husks – that she had made for her family and ours. The smell, the taste, the texture was totally different from the mashed potatoes and roast that my mother cooked on Sundays. And their home with the multi-colored serapes draped over sofas, the candles with pictures of saints and the musical sound of Spanish language was so different from our small farmhouse. It was all so different and (probably because the tamales were so good,) very intriguing to me.
Years later, when I left the United States for Argentina, I carried that positive expectation that had emerged from Dona Aguilar’s amazing tamales with me. However, the reality of living in Argentina was far different, and I discovered I had few or no skills for “navigating the differences”. From my encounter with a bidet in Buenas Aires to friends greeting one another with kisses to torrid tangos – I culture bumped everywhere! I returned to the USA and tucked these culture bumps away and if anybody asked me, I lied and said I had no problems in Argentina.
But several years later, when I moved to Algeria in North Africa, the differences were so huge and, in many cases, so difficult to face, that I could no longer ignore them. It made no difference that I knew Algerians and Americans have a very different orientation to space – when I went to buy stamps and there was no line, simply a crowd of 30 people – all speaking at once – very loudly – I experienced multiple culture bumps. When I sat in a restaurant and several Algerian young men sat in front of me and looked at me (I was quite interesting to see), Edward Hall’s groundbreaking work on proxemics meant little. I simply wanted to (a) hit them or (b) slink under the table. When these incidents were multiplied by the 100s on a daily basis, I was overwhelmed. And upon my return to the USA, when I attempted to sort through my experience, the best advice of “respect differences” and have an open mind” offered me very little guidance. I sadly concluded that there was something terribly wrong with me because I didn’t know how to respect differences and I seemed to have no control whatsoever on opening or closing my mind. I finally surrendered to my failure with other cultures.
And it was out of this despair and surrender that the culture bump was born. I had reluctantly decided to leave the field of education – in fact, I was mentally composing my letter of resignation in October of 1978 walking out of the Roy Cullen building on the University of Houston campus under a gorgeous blue Houston sky when I had an epiphany. I suddenly intuitively knew that there was nothing wrong with the Algerians and even more importantly, there was nothing wrong with me – that I had simply had millions of culture bumps. And the image of two large bubbles gently bouncing off of one another appeared in my mind’s eye. Furthermore, I understood that those culture bumps were actually the key to my comprehending – not only the Algerians – but ESPECIALLY my own cultural being – and ultimately my own humanity. I have spent the last 37 years exploring every facet of that amazing revelation under that blue Houston sky. I have further had the privilege of sharing this with thousands of people from around the globe.
What I have discovered and what I would like to leave with you – is my absolute certainty that we human beings can connect with one another authentically and consistently – no matter how different we are – no matter if we agree with one another or not – no matter if we even like one another! We can still connect as human beings – we can move beyond our differences WITHOUT resolving the differences. In fact this has happened to many people – it happened to me with the Aguilar family, but because I could did not understand the process by which it occurred, I could not replicate it in Argentina or Algeria.
My work suggests that there is an observable process by which this happens. And because it is observable it is teachable. We can learn to connect. There are four specific skills that are necessary for connecting – (1) managing our emotional response to culture bumps (2) recognizing and articulating our own and another’s expectations of behavior (3) defining the meaning for having our expectations met (4) having a conversation with “the other” about those meanings. Our human connection emerges from that particular type of conversation. And amazingly – that conversation cannot happen without our differences.
The differences are the key – the passage to our connection.