Last update on December 17, 2018

Is true integration possible? We explain how different cultural habits can leave expats feeling offended, and how to overcome this.

My husband and I were on our way to South Africa to attend my sister’s wedding. On the first flight to Frankfurt I was seated next to a Dutch guy who was flying home to his German wife and children. When he learned that I had moved from Brussels to Amsterdam we chatted awhile about what living in a foreign country is like and discussed life in the Netherlands.

We agreed that the best Dutch traits are their enthusiasm and humour, as well as their audacity. On the other hand he admitted that his compatriots are also opinionated, and sometimes offensive due to a seemingly lack of empathy. That lack of empathy even caused my airplane friend and his German wife to move away from Amsterdam. He told me how that happened.

In a maternity class in Amsterdam his wife made a Dutch local friend. They continued to see each other and became good friends, until her Dutch friend emailed her to say that given her busy social life she could not continue the friendship. She stated that even though they got along really well, she preferred to dedicate her scarce free time to her long-time friends and was ending all contact.

Yep, brutal Dutch honesty. And the sudden end of a friendship. The Dutch call it refreshing honesty but some non-Dutch can be left offended and hurt.

Wherever you end up living abroad, it might be a local friend defriending you or perhaps not really letting you into their inner circle, or even a wedding invitation mentioning you shouldn’t bring your children.

Many foreigners who move to another country will find themselves in similar situations – at least at some point – where their own values or habits come into conflict with the unexpected customs they encounter. It might be something they find positive, such as warmly greeting everyone with kisses on both cheeks, or something they find confronting, such as different approaches to customer service. Whatever the situation, this conflict or incompatibility can be unsettling.

Refreshing or offensive?

Professor Geert Hofstede was the first to study the simultaneity of cultural adaptability and distress on a broad scale. His graphic shows clearly why values (for example, ‘brutal’ honesty or the concept of politeness) are not flexible.

The diagram developed by Hofstede represents humans as onions. The outer layers (symbols, heroes, rituals) reflect external practices. Those are modifiable. To explain, wearing orange on Dutch holidays (symbols/rituals) or admiring the Dutch soccer players (heroes) are external practices that are fairly easy for expats to adapt to.

Hofstede discovered that values and etiquette, on the other hand, are programmed according to one’s own culture. To come back to the onion-comparison: values are at the core and thus internal. They cannot be seen and they are not prone to change. If they do change, that will only happen after an individual has already adapted to the foreign external practices.

That’s why if expats internalise foreign values at all, it is usually due to a very long exposure to that culture.

Personal values and interpersonal conflict

A lack of compatibility in values or etiquette can often lead to conflicts, but because these things are not visible to the eye, the collision is often difficult to detect.

It takes a skilled intercultural mediator to determine that either conflicting values are at the heart of a conflict, or that an existing conflict escalated out of proportion when etiquette or other values weren’t met on either or both sides.

If you don’t want your intercultural relationships (whether professional or private) to end because of a non-compatibility of values, it is very important that you realise that values are hidden from the eye and are specific to every culture.

How to deal with intercultural conflicts

One way to deal with such a conflict should it arise is to let the other person know how what he or she does is different with your value or idea of etiquette.

Be conscious of your values
When you tell someone how you are feeling, be aware that these are your values you are expressing, predicted by your culture. There are no universal rules of politeness, or any other values, that could be considered the ‘correct’ ways.

Give precise feedback
It’s best to start your feedback by saying, “I feel…” and to stick to your observation. In other words, describe what you heard or saw the other person do and describe how that made you feel.

Be specific: the other person may not know your cultural background well and is probably not aware of the depth of your feelings.

Stay calm
Make sure to cool down before you start such a conversation. Only then will you be able to educate the other person about your feelings and values, while at the same time staying away from either moral judgement or an attempt to persuade the other person to agree with your values.

Agree to disagree

Having this conversation is not to enable you to change the other person’s values, because as the above diagram shows, values don’t change easily, and often not at all. What you will achieve by having this conversation is that you’ll be able to agree to disagree in a way that does not leave you feeling hurt or frustrated.