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5.1: Relationships

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this chapter, readers should:

    • Identify the benefits and challenges of intercultural relationships.
    • Understand the foundations of intercultural relationships.
    • Describe the different types of intercultural relationships.
    • Identify cultural differences within the relationship context.
    • Describe competent and incompetent relationships.

    Establishing relationships with people from cultures different than your own can be challenging. How do you get to know them? Should you treat those relationships differently than same culture relationships? Does society influence these new relationships? Learning new customs and traditions can be fun and exciting, but also force us to identify what we think that we know about ourselves along with our prejudices and fears. This chapter will help you gain a better understanding of what to expect when interacting with people that are culturally different from yourself. We will explore the benefits and challenges of intercultural relationships, discuss the different kinds of intercultural relationships, and encourage you with strategies to build solid intercultural relationships.

    We establish and maintain relationships through our communication with each other. Although the term “relationship” is often associated with romance, intercultural relationships can be as varied as the people within them. Colleagues performing a work-related task can develop a friendship. Marrying into a family creates strong familial ties. Eating at the same family-run restaurant each week builds loyalty. Good friends are always treasured.

    Benefits of Intercultural Relationships

    The benefits of intercultural relationships span differences in gender, age, ethnicity, race, class, nationality, religion, and much more. The moment you begin an intercultural relationship, is the moment you begin to learn more about the world. You will start experiencing new foods, listen to new music, learn a new game, practice a new sport, acquire new words or a new dialect, or read new literature that you might never had access to before. In some ways you gain a new “history” as you learn what it means to belong to a new cultural group. Hearing a friend or family member describing their lived experience or stories is often much more compelling or “real” than knowledge gained in school or on television.

    The difficulties involved in intercultural relationships may help you acquire new skills. According to Docan-Morgan(2015), the skills we develop in all relationships are exaggerated in intercultural relationships. Our diverse friends and loved ones teach us much about the world that we have yet to explore. Docan-Morgan postulates that our newfound understanding of one culture will likely make it easier to relate and to feel close to people from many different walks of life. In other words, our intercultural relationships result in new insights and new ways of thinking that we can apply to every relationship.

    Intercultural relationships also help us rethink stereotypes we might hold. Martin and Nakayama (2014) point out that the differences we perceive with our partners tend to be more noticeable in the early stages of the relationship. Because these differences can seem overwhelming, the challenge is to discover the things both partners and in common and build on those similarities to strengthen the relationship. The suffering that one or both partners have gone through at the hands of prejudice can be addressed, and a healing effect can grow and thrive as relational partners learn that their prejudices have little to do with the thriving relationship being built.

    Challenges in Intercultural Relationships

    While intercultural relationships can enrich our lives and provide life-changing benefits, they can also present several challenges. In order to build a relationship across cultural boundaries, there has to be motivation. Much about this relationship will be different than same culture relationships, and take time to explore. It’s much easier to build a relationship where you understand the rules, behaviors and worldviews of your partner. Intercultural relationships are characterized by differences. Differences occur in values, perceptions, and communication styles. These differences have been discussed in greater depth in the cultural foundation and verbal chapters, but once commonality is established, and the relationship develops, the differences won’t seem to be as insurmountable.

    Another challenge is negative stereotypes. Stereotypes are powerful, and often take a conscious effort to detect. Pathstone Mental Health (2017) suggests seven important things we can do to reduce stereotyping and discrimination within relationships.

    • Know the facts.
    • Be aware of your attitudes and behavior.
    • Choose your words carefully.
    • Educate others.
    • Focus on the positive.
    • Support people.
    • Include everyone.

    Anxiety or fear about the possible negative consequences because of our actions or being uncertain how to act towards a person from a different culture is another challenge. Some form of anxiety always exists in the early stages of any relationship, but being worried about looking incompetent or offending someone is more pronounced in intercultural relationships. The level of anxiety may even be higher if people have previous negative experiences.

    The fifth challenge is affirming another person’s cultural identity. We need to recognize that the other person might have different values, beliefs, and behaviors which form both their individual and cultural identities. The principle of ethnocentrism encourages a tendency for members of the majority culture to view their own values, beliefs, and behaviors to be the norm and that the minority culture should adapt to them. Lastly, the need for explanations is a huge challenge. Intercultural relationships can be more work that intracultural relationships because of the need for explanations. One must explain values, beliefs and behaviors to ourselves, to each other, and to our communities. Every difference, and similarity, must be explored. What does a friendship look like? What are the expectations? What does a romantic relationship look like? Who must approve the relationship? Why would we want to be friends? What taboos exist within the culture? It’s not impossible for an intercultural relationship to work out. All it requires is being open-minded, being interested, being respectful, realizing the similarities, avoiding making assumptions, and celebrating the differences. Intercultural relationships have real challenges, but if things work out, they can be amazing.

    Foundations of Relationships

    Every day you meet and interact with new people while going about your daily life, yet few of these people will make a lasting impression. Have you ever wondered what draws you to these special few? It is not a mystery. The factors include physical attractiveness, similarity, complementarity, proximity, reciprocal liking, and resources (Aron et al., 2008). It’s not a secret that many people feel drawn those that they perceive as physically attractive, but we also need to remember that the idea of attractiveness is not always the most stunningly beautiful or stunningly handsome person in the area. Attractiveness can also be what is familiar to us. Most of us do find physical beauty attractive to us, but we tend to form long-term romantic relationships with people we judge as similar to ourselves in physical attractiveness (Feingold, 1988; White, 1980).

    Undoubtedly you’ve heard the common saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” This is the same for relationships. Scientific evidence suggests that we are attracted to those we perceive as similar to ourselves (Miller, 2014). One explanation for this is that people we view as similar to ourselves are less likely to cause uncertainty. They seem easier to predict, and we feel more comfortable with them (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). Similarity is more than physical attractiveness through, it means sharing personalities, values, and preferences (Markey & Markey, 2007).

    Another common saying that you have probably heard is that “opposites attract.” Complementarity has been debated for a long time, and so far the research is inconclusive. Based on the 1950s research of sociologist Robert Winch, we would say that we are naturally attracted to people who are different from ourselves, and therefore, somewhat exciting ( It was believed to be a natural quest for completion. Unfortunately, more current research from Markey & Markey (2007) found the opposite. What is not in question is when it comes to work colleagues and friends. On the job or with friends, we are not particularly interested in dealing with people who are unlike ourselves. Generally, we are most interested in dealing with people who are like ourselves and don’t display a lot of patience or motivation for dealing with our opposites (Ickes, 1999).

    The simple fact of proximity, or often being around each other, exerts far more impact on relationships than generally acknowledged. The idea is that you are more likely to feel attracted to people with whom you have frequent contact with and are less attracted to those with whom you rarely interact. Another often overlooked determinant of attraction is reciprocal liking (Aron et al., 2008). The idea is quite simple, we tend to be attracted to people who are attracted to us. Studies examining stories about “falling in love” have found that reciprocal liking is the most commonly mentioned factor leading to love (Riela, Rodriguez, Aron, Xu, and Acevedo, 2010). mAnd lastly, the final attraction foundation is called resources. Resources include such qualities as sense of humor, intelligence, kindness, supportiveness, and more (Felmlee et al., 2010). Social exchange theory proposed that you will feel drawn to people that you see as offering benefits (things that you want) with few associated costs (things demanded from you in return) (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). In other words, you’re attracted to people who can give you what you want and who offer better rewards than others.

    Common Types of Relationships

    In this era of globalization, people are traveling across geographical, national, and cultural boundaries as never before. For many, establishing relationships with persons different from ourselves can be challenging and rewarding. Although each intercultural relationship will differ based on the cultures and people involved, the following brief exploration of relationship types will begin to help you understand the plethora of intercultural relationships.


    Friendship is a unique and important type of interpersonal relationship that constitutes a significant portion of a person’s social life from early childhood all the way through to late adulthood (Rawlins, 1992). Friendship is distinguished from other types of relationships by its “voluntary” nature. In other words, friendship occurs when individuals are relatively free from obligatory ties, duties, and other expectations (Fischer (1975). One can begin or end a friendship as desired.

    These different notions about friendship are a function of variations in values as well as individualism and collectivism. People who tend to be individualistic often view friendship as a voluntary decision that is more spontaneous and focused on individual goals that might be gained by befriending a particular person. Such goals might include practicing language skills or learning to cook culinary specialties. On the other hand, collectivists may have more obligatory views of friendship. They may see it as a long-term obligation that involves mutual gain such as help with gaining a visa or somewhere to stay during vacations (Wahl & Scholl, 2014).

    The idea of what constitutes a friendship certainly varies from culture to culture. In the United States, the term “friend” is a fairly broad term that applies to many different kinds of relationships. In Eastern European countries, for example, the term “friend” is used in a much more narrow context. What many cultures in the world consider a “friend,” an American would consider a “close friend” (Martin & Nakayama, 2014). Americans often form relationships quickly, and can come across as informal, forward, intrusive, and superficial (Triandis, 1995). Asian cultures place more emphasis on indirect communication patterns and more stress on maintaining social relationships, sincerity and spirituality (Barnlund, 1989; Yum, 1988).

    Intercultural friendship can be difficult to initiate, develop, and maintain, but that is not to say that different cultures cannot have similar views on friendship. Various cultures can value the same things, such as honesty and trustworthiness, but simply prioritize them differently (Barnlund, 1989). Researchers have found a wide range of important friendship variables such as values, interest, personality traits, network patterns, communication styles, cultural knowledge, relational competence, and intergroup attitudes that impact intercultural friendship formation (Aberson, Shoemaker & Tomolillo, 2004; Collier & Mahoney, 1996; Gareis, 1995; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1979; Mcdermott, 1992; Olanrian, 1996; Yamaguchi & Wiseman, 2003; Zimmermann, 1995).

    Intriguing research from Sias et al. (2008) indicate that cultural differences can enhance, rather than hinder, friendship development. Cultural differences enhanced friendship development because the participants found those differences interesting and exciting. Those who overcame the challenges of language differences were able to develop rich friendships often with a unique vocabulary that included words created from a mixture of both languages. An example of this could be “Spanglish” which is a mixture of Spanish and English or “Chinglish” which is a mixture of Chinese and English. This idiosyncratic language seemed to strengthen the bond between the friends (Sias et al., 2008; Casmir, 1999; Imahori & Cupach, 2005).

    There are also similarities and differences between how romantic relationships are perceived in different cultures. When two various cultures come together, there may be significant challenges they have to face, but it is important to remember that like any relationship, intercultural romantic relationships are all different. In general, romantic relationships are “voluntary,” and most cultures stress the importance of openness, mutual involvement, shared nonverbal meanings, and relationship assessment (Martin & Nakayama, 2014). Individualism and collectivism play a role in romantic relationships as well. In individualistic cultures such as the United States, togetherness is important as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with one’s individual autonomy. Physical attraction, passion, and love are often initiators of romantic relationships in individualistic cultures. Being open, talking things out, and retaining a sense of self are maintenance strategies.

    Collectivistic cultures often value acceptance and “fitting in” as the most important values for romantic partners. Family approval can make or break a romantic relationship. Family members are expected to align with, and support, the dominant values, beliefs, and behavioral expectations of the family hierarchy. Individual happiness is important, but thought only to be fully realized within the family system. Intercultural marriages and couplings are growing at an increasing rate. What once might have seemed unusual or exotic is becoming more accepted and common place. Finding an intercultural love relationship might be getting easier, but negotiating through the unique challenges inherent to these relationships can still be difficult.

    Romano (2008) found four distinct conflict styles that reflect how intercultural couples negotiate their way through the differences. The submission style is the most common and involves one partner abdicating power to the other partner’s culture or cultural preferences. Sometimes the submission is only seen as a display for the public, whereas the relationship may be more balance in private. Even though it is the most popular style, this approach rarely works because submission often involves denying certain aspect’s of one’s own culture. Although the compromise style might seem to be the most desirable, it really means that both people must sacrifice some aspect of their life. Each partner gives up some culturally bound habit or value to accommodate the other. Game theorists would call this a lose-lose or no-win situation.

    Some couples will try the obliteration style. In this case, both partners try to erase or obliterate their original cultures, and create a new “culture” with new beliefs, values, and behaviors. This can be extremely difficult and create problems with other family members, but more likely if the couple lives in country that is “home” to neither of them. The ideal solution is the consensus style. As it is based on negotiation and mutual agreement, neither person has to assume that they must abandon their own culture. This style is related to compromise because of the give-and-take, but it is not a trade-off. Game theorists call this a win-win proposition.

    In a survey on intercultural marriages (Prokopchak, 1994), couples were asked to respond about the positives and negatives of intercultural marriage. This survey resulted in four cautions to be considered during intercultural conflict. First, know each other’s culture. Don’t think that all families and all cultures operate in a certain way. Second, be accountable. There is a tendency not to listen to others. Weigh their concerns. Third, know what both cultures value. There is a tendency to value things, but people should be of primary concern. And last, identify adaptation versus core value changes. Be aware of the differences between behavior modification or adaptation and core value changes.

    Gay & Lesbian Relationships

    There has been much more research done on heterosexual or cisgender intercultural friendships and romantic relationships than gay or same-sex intercultural relationships. Although there are many similarities between gay and cisgender relationships, Martin and Nakayama (2014) believe that such relationships differ in at least four areas. These areas include the importance of close friendships, conflict management, intimacy, and the role of sexuality. Close relationships and friendships might be more important to gays and lesbians who often rely on these ties in the face of social stigma, family ostracism, and discrimination. Researchers Gottman and Levenson (2004) have found some positive differences in the area of conflict management for gay and lesbian couples. Gay relationships often start with sexual attraction, but often persist after sexual involvement has ceased (Martin & Nakayama, 2014).

    Although homosexuality has existed throughout human history, cultures can have vast differences in how they support, accept, and categorize attraction and sexual relations between persons of the same gender. Two-Spirit, a pre-contact pan-Indian term, has been adopted by some modern indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities (Medicine, 2002; Enos, 2017). Not all tribes or nations have rigid gender roles, but among those that do, some consider there to be at least four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, and masculine man (Estrada, 2010). Many East and Southeast Asian languages, including Chinese, do not contain grammatical gender, and also have histories of cultural tolerance.

    Communicating in Intercultural Relationships

    Intercultural relationships and intracultural or same culture relationships may hold many similarities, but also many differences. All relationships take time to develop, but it is especially important to give intercultural relationships time to develop. As previously discussed, there are many challenges within intercultural relationships that take time to explain, negotiate, and work through. We need to be involved through interaction and shared friendship networks. There are often significant events, or turning points, that move the relationship forward or backward. Perceived similarities can help relationships to develop whereas perceived differences can lead to roadblocks or failure to thrive.

    Relationships are hard work, and require constant upkeep to combat the challenges that threaten them. It’s no exaggeration to say that we develop, and maintain relationships through communication. What you say and what you do becomes part of the relationship. Incorrect interpretations of messages can lead to misunderstanding, uncertainty, frustration, and conflict, but the potential rewards include gaining new cultural knowledge, broadening one’s worldview, and breaking stereotypes (Sias et al., 2008).

    People who have developed good communication skills are often described as having communication competence. Communicating effectively, along with writing and critical thinking, is often considered one of the key skills of gaining a college education. A previous chapter has already defined communication, and to be competent at something means that you are good at it. To have communication competence means that “we have knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts” (Cooley & Roach, 1984). Researcher Owen Hargie (2011) proposed that there were four levels of competence based on competence and incompetent communication as well as conscious or unconscious communication.

    Unconscious incompetence is the “be yourself” approach. This person may not have a strong knowledge of cultural differences and does not see any need to accommodate differences in communication styles or culture. They may not even be aware they are communicating in an incompetent manner. Once people learn more about culture and communication, they may become conscious incompetent. This is where they have the vocabulary to identify the concepts, and know what they should be doing, but realize they are not communicating as well as they could. Many of us have experiences the feeling that something isn’t quite right, yet we can’t quite figure out what went wrong. As communication skills increase, and the focus is on cultural concepts and communication styles, you become a conscious competent communicator. You know that you are communicating well in the moment, and you can add this memory to your growing bank of successful intercultural interactions. Reaching this level is important, but not the pinnacle of competent communication.

    Unconscious competence is the level to achieve. Unconscious competence means that you can communicate successfully without straining to be competent. At this point all the knowledge and previous experiences have been put into practice, and you rarely have to intently focus on your intercultural interactions because it has become second nature. You have developed the skills needed to be competent.

    The National Communication Association (NCA) has developed guidelines for what it means to be a competent communicator (1999). They include:

    1. State ideas clearly.
    2. Communicate ethically.
    3. Recognize when it is appropriate to communicate.
    4. Identify their communication goals.
    5. Select the most appropriate and effective medium for communicating.
    6. Demonstrate credibility.
    7. Identify and manage misunderstandings.
    8. Manage conflict.
    9. Be open-minded about another’s point of view.
    10. Listen attentively.

    Communication competence is an important component in developing positive intercultural relationships, but it is also important to consider the societies in which these relationships develop. Contact hypothesis or Intergroup Contact Theory should be applied to intercultural communication. The contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954) suggests that under appropriate conditions intergroup contact will lessen stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination leading to better intergroup contact. Although the complexities of contact hypothesis are still being heavily researched today, with new focus on electronic communication, the general idea is that intercultural relationships occur when the political and societal conditions of the communication encounter promote friendly interaction. When people meet and interact in a cooperative environment, enjoy equal status, and share common goals, all of humanity wins.

    Key Vocabulary

    • intercultural relationships
    • motivation
    • difference
    • negative stereotypes
    • anxiety
    • ethnocentrism
    • need for explanations
    • similarity
    • complementarity
    • physically attractive
    • proximity
    • resources
    • Social Exchange Theory
    • friendship
    • romantic relationships
    • collectivist
    • conflict styles
    • submission
    • compromise
    • obliteration
    • consensus
    • two-spirit
    • turning point
    • unconscious incompetence
    • conscious competence
    • conscious incompetence
    • unconscious competence
    • Contact Hypothesis
    • Intergroup Contact Theory


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