Conversations With Our Couples: Communicating Across Cultures

This post is part of a series highlighting the unique experiences and insights of couples in our community. From interracial and interfaith households to LGBTQ couples and those with blended families, we’re excited to share their wisdom about what makes relationships work.

Let’s be frank: in the United States, we’re bad at talking about race. Whether it’s because we’re worried it will be offensive or insensitive or simply because it’s the way many of us were raised, we’re especially bad at talking about race in mixed-race groups. So what happens when two people in a relationship come from different backgrounds? Navigating those differences can demand some serious conversations and openness, but with 17% of U.S. newlyweds married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, there are a lot of incredible people doing the hard work of communicating across cultural barriers.

The Many Shades Of Communication

Among interracial and intercultural couples, linguistic barriers are to be expected, particularly among those who weren’t raised speaking the same language. But while it’s relatively easy to accommodate for such barriers, many of the couples we spoke to highlighted more subtle, yet equally pressing concerns, such as use of sarcasm, interrupting in conversation, and directness of speech.

In discussing differences in their communication styles, Ginna and Jill discussed their struggles with Jill’s tendency to interrupt. What helped them sort things out? Linguistics! Ginna, who is an Alaskan Native, saw interrupting as an extreme form of rudeness and was interested to learn that interrupting among American Jews, especially those from New York, is a sign of engagement. 

On the other hand, Jennifer, who is white, struggles with the blunt nature of much Korean communication. Though her husband came to the United States as an infant and doesn’t actually speak much Korean, he’s naturally adopted many of these communication norms. That can mean things come across a little harsher than they’re meant to. What just about every couple said, though, was that whatever the communication differences, what matters is that it’s happening. Ginna even advocates for what some might call over-communicating because it can prevent more serious misunderstandings.

Family Matters

Clear lines of communication can make a huge difference in how close couples feel and how able they are to navigate conflict, but while we may want to think of relationships as happening between two people, extended family – especially parents – play a huge role in the life of the couple. Jennifer described difficulty with her husband’s deference to his parents, which in Korean culture is an expected part of respecting one’s elders, and particular one’s parents, to whom you’re indebted for your very existence. 

Of course, family tensions go both ways; Jennifer’s husband expressed concern that patriarchal Korean culture can be offensive from a Western perspective. And as another couple, Oscar and Sarah noted, the intersection of Western feminism and more traditional expectations of women can quickly become complicated. Sarah often feels ashamed that she’s chosen to take on more domestic roles – her choice, but one made within the context of her marriage to a Hispanic man whose family expects that from her. Of course, we don’t make any of our choices outside a complex system of cultural and social expectations, and making the right choices for yourself and your relationship means negotiating a lot of competing claims on your loyalty and affections.

A World Of Wealth

All of the couples we spoke to about their experiences as interracial and intercultural relationships saw clear challenges to coming from different backgrounds, but perhaps more importantly, they felt that their relationship opened them to a rich world of experiences and traditions they wouldn’t have exposure to otherwise. 

June and Mike, who are Japanese and American citizens, respectively, noted that knowing there are significant gaps makes them more tolerant of each other’s differences, whether those stem from culture or from personality. For couples who share a background, on the other hand, it’s easy to assume you also share a life philosophy or past experiences, even when that isn’t true. That can create conflict in its own way when those assumptions suddenly prove false. But for these couples, being open to differences, talking about the hard stuff, and advocating for each other in a world that doesn’t always take difference in stride has made them stronger.