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This culture bump occurred as Miguel, age 28 from Venezuela, was having a conversation with Karen, age 48 from the United States. I was videotaping their conversation as part of a research project. I hypothesized that they would have culture bumps in the course of their conversation which I could then analyze. However, this was my own culture bump with Miguel. It happened approximately 15 minutes into their conversation. Miguel had asked Karen if she had a boyfriend (she had previously told him that she was divorced with two adult children). After a brief pause, she said, “Actually, I have four boyfriends.” As they discussed her dating situation, she told him that the men did not know about one another and that one of them lived in Chicago, one lived in Boston, one lived in Cincinnati and one lived in Houston. At that, Miguel replied, “So you are an international girlfriend.” He, Karen and I all three laughed at his comment.

Later, I recounted his comment to four other North Americans and they all felt that Miguel’s comment about Karen’s being an international girlfriend was out of the range of behaviors that they would expect from an American in the same situation.

After I met with the North Americans, I then presented the same scenario to four Venezuelan informants to determine whether it was in the range of behaviors that they would expect from Venezuelan young men in a similar situation. All four informants felt that Miguel’s comment about Karen’s being an international girlfriend was definitely in the range of behaviors that they would expect from a Venezuelan in the same situation. They explained that the purpose in joking was to make Karen feel comfortable and to express empathy for her. They pointed out that teasing and joking were ways of connecting or of feeling close for Venezuelans.

This answered my question of “Why Miguel said what he had said.” I now began to process of understanding “How Miguel/Venezuelans are the same as I am.”

When I recalled that incident, I remembered feeling surprised, relieved, tickled, and uncertain when Miguel said that.

Surprised, relived, tickled and uncertain are merely listing my feelings about the bump—this is necessary to “unhook” myself emotionally from the incident so that I can continue with the analysis.

When I analyzed these feelings, I realized that they emanated from my expectations of the things that a 28-year-old American man would choose to say to a 48-year-old woman who had revealed sensitive information about herself in the early stages of forming a relationship in an artificial situation such as a research project. I was surprised that Miguel used the word “international” and felt relief that he joked about Karen’s situation rather than criticizing her. I also found his choice of words very humorous. In addition, I had a feeling of uncertainty that resulted from not being exactly sure of what he meant by the use of the word international. This uncertainty caused a certain amount of tension, which probably prompted at least some of the laughter.

After identifying the culture bump and my feelings associated with it, I attempted to identify those behaviors that I would expect a 28-year-old American man to use when trying to connect or feel close to someone who has revealed potentially damaging or sensitive information about herself.

NOTE: Trying to connect or feel close to someone who has revealed potentially damaging or sensitive information about themselves is the universal situation—how people in different cultures do this, however, covers a wide range of behaviors.

I determined that while I might expect an American to joke in order to make someone feel better, a more common expectation for me would be for someone to reveal similar information either about themselves or about someone close to them. Furthermore, if an American were to make the same “joke” that Miguel made with Karen, I would expect him to say something like ”Boy you sure get around” or “You’re quite the playgirl.” The joking would be double-edged in that it would allude to the darker side of the action while not exactly criticizing it. To truly connect or attempt to alleviate the discomfort of someone who has self-revealed, I would expect someone to self-reveal in return.

I have now identified my own expectations

After determining what my expectations were, I looked at what it means to me to have those expectations met. Of the two patterns, the joking behavior connotes a sense of separation and possibly even disapproval of the behavior. The revealing of similar information about oneself connotes empathy or sensitivity to the other’s feelings. Therefore, if a young American acts in the way outlined above, I would characterize him as someone who is sensitive and thoughtful while I would characterize an American who joked about the behavior as someone who is somewhat “unsafe” when it comes to making potentially dangerous self-revelations. I would feel they are less trustworthy.

I have now identified the meaning of having my expectations met

Having realized this about my own reasoning, I looked at my experience with Venezuelans and asked myself if I could determine which Venezuelans were sensitive and thoughtful and which were less trustworthy. I realized that while I might be able to recognize these characteristics in their grosser forms, I really did not have available to me the underlying criteria that Venezuelans use to make those evaluations. While their criteria might be the same as I mine, I simply did not know. In summary, I became aware of my blind spots in relation to Venezuelan culture.

I am now ready to have a conversation with a Venezuelan (or anyone else) about how we each know when someone is sensitive, thoughtful and trustworthy. My “culture bump” has revealed a human layer of awareness.

Miguel said, “So you are an international, international girlfriend.”

American Interpretation

He is joking because it is a sensitive situation.

Venezuelan Interpretation

He is joking because it is a sensitive situation.

American evaluation

He is possibly critical of her.

Venezuelan evaluation

He is probably empathetic with her.

Possible American perception of “him”

He is sarcastic

Possible Venezuelan perception of “him”

He is sensitive


Step1: Pinpoint the culture bump

When Miguel talked about international girlfriend

Step 2: Describe what he/she did description (not judgement)

He laughed and said,”So you are an international girlfriend”. I laughed and looked at them through the lens of the camera.

Step 4: List your emotions when it happened

I felt surprised, relieved, tickled and uncertain

Step 5: Find the universal situation in the incident

How people respond when someone has revealed sensitive information about themselves.

Step 6: List your expectations for that situation

I would either joke about it or self-reveal in turn

Step 7: Find the meaning for you when your expectations are met

Joking for me alludes to the darker side of the action while not exactly criticizing while self-revealing shows empathy

Step 8: Have a conversation with “them” about how they find that meaning

Have a conversation with Venezuelans about how they show expectations are met empathy for one another or allude to the darker side.

(December 19, 2011)

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