The Art of Communicating with Different Cultures


‘Who are you ?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I..I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’ ~ Lewis Carroll , Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass

As an empathetic, educated adult, you might think you understand a few things. Like who you are, for instance, and what you believe. I know there are many unsure souls in their twenties wandering about and finding themselves, but I have always, mas o menos, been confident at least in what kind of person I am. I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was twelve years old. I have known, since I can remember, that I like to read, that I prefer dogs as a whole over people, and that I value kindness above all else.

Having lived in Peru for more than two months now has not changed any of these things.

In fact, I believe many of my beliefs have been further solidified and strengthened. However, teaching and learning in another country and living immersed in another culture and language has granted me an unparalleled opportunity to examine and understand myself, my language, and my culture through a new perspective.

That said, who you think you are, and who you are in your own country and language, may not transfer over to your host country. In America, I am of average height. In Peru, I am tall. In the grand diversity of California, everyone blends in; in Peru, I find myself standing out. My liberal ideology often feels at odds with the culture and beliefs here. My communication style sometimes clashes with that of Peruvians.

Suddenly, I am very different.

If you are in another country for very long, interacting with locals whose culture and customs and language are different from yours, it seems inevitable that someone, ultimately, will be offended. Hopefully it will be only a minor offense with a quick solution. In my almost three months in Peru, there have been several moments of miscommunication between my homestay family and me. Some can be chocked up to my still developing Spanish, but most have been because of cultural differences.


Some of these incidents were handled well by both parties, and some were learning experiences.

My most recent experience of this occurred just this week. Throughout the program, I have been teaching the college age daughter of my Peruvian homestay family. We often go out walking together, shopping, or running errands.


Nearly every time we have gone out, my homestay sister has asked me to borrow something from my ever-stocked purse. These have included: my cellphone, a pen, paper, toilet paper, tissues, spare change, etc. The first several times, I thought nothing of it. However, after awhile, I began to feel annoyed.

Finally, as I offered over my stash of toilet paper once again (yes, you need to carry your own TP in Peru), I tried to casually suggest she bring her own next time. I could see she was offended by this suggestion just as I was offended by having to tell her so. After a few moments of annoyance between us, we communicated and discovered the problem: cultural difference.

I, as an American, am used to adults having to be more or less prepared and self-reliant. She, as a Peruvian, is accustomed to happily relying on friends and family. This is one incident of many that are just part of a cultural exchange. My host family and I are learning from each other. We are discovering the differences and similarities in our languages, cultures, and individual ways of living and thinking.

We have learned that what is “right” for us may be “wrong” for another. But really, it’s not “right” and “wrong” — just different.

‘…I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’
`Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.
`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very
queer to me .’~


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