The walls demarcating cultures are not made of brick; rather they are like a slow-moving wall of water. Like the objects at the bottom of a river, a person on one side can hazily see people on the other side, they can even put part of their body through to experience it, but to completely move to the other side would require some kind of death and rebirth.
This past weekend I traveled down to central Serbia with four women to attend an annual Balkan women’s conference. Although my Croatian language capabilities are far from adequate, my current level allowed some cultural osmosis to occur during the four days.
My learning began even in the seven hour drive down to the conference. For example, after we had successfully crossed the Serbian-Croatian border, the women breathed a sigh of relief and uttered prayers of thanksgiving. I was confused, since my experience has shown that crossing the American-Canadian border is more difficult than this particular border crossing. I was informed that there were boxes of Christian books in the trunk we were bringing to the conference. Had the trunk been searched, we would have been in trouble—not because Christian books are illegal in Serbia, but because we should have declared them to customs and had the proper paperwork for them. This struck me as a rather ironic smuggling feat—but probably not-so-unusual here in the Balkans.
The second time we were pulled over by the Serbian police proved to be more serious than the first when the police just wanted to check paperwork. The second time, the policeman accused us of running through a yellow light—but had we really done so or was it our foreign plates (Croatian) that enticed him to pull us over? I watched in admiration as the two women in the front seat pulled out every trick in the book to beg, plead, and cajole the policeman into giving us grace.
“Forgive us, have mercy on us,” one woman kept repeating in response to the police man’s arguments. “We are going to a Christian conference.”
“This is my first time driving in this town, I am a woman,” the driver said. The women’s pleading must have made the policeman uncomfortable, because eventually he stopped looking at us while continuing to argue. Eventually, he waved us on, still without meeting our eyes. Did he decide that it wasn’t worth the trouble? Had he been hoping for some easy cash from a ticket? Did he feel sorry for us? His motivation remains a mystery, but afterward in the car, there was much celebrating and laughter.
These events made me consider the cultural issue of motive. What I ascribe as people’s motives for their actions will differ from others’ assessments from another cultural context. I was surprised at the immediacy to which the women questioned the policeman’s motive in his claim that they had broken the law. But when I think about the region’s history— the past stories of corruption in the form of bribes and using the “magical power of who you know” to obtain what you need or want—their response makes sense.
Wrongly assigning motives to actions happens even within our own cultures, so one can only multiply the negative effects of doing so when you are in a different culture. Attributing motive based on your own cultural paradigm may have the illusion of calming the rapids in the cultural wall— after all, it can be a huge mental relief to understand why people do what they do. However, under the calm is a strong current that will surreptitiously sweep you away in ignorance and misplaced assumptions.
A few years ago, I was visiting an expat in Eastern Europe who told me about an encounter with a contractor who exploded in anger upon finding out that the contract had been offered to someone else. “I didn’t know why the response would have been that extreme since it was just business—the other guy offered us a lower price. But then I realized that this is just a more emotional culture, whilst in my culture, we are more rational and logical,” the expat told me.
I have a feeling every culture thinks they are “more rational” as they look with confusion and surprise at others’ reactions.
But how to move past a simplistic take on cultural motive? Understanding a place’s history and getting a grasp on language are certainly ways of beginning to find the porous openings through the wall. Asking questions, reserving judgements, questioning your own motives can also add to your repertoire of knowledge.
The last day of the conference, I saw some women taking pictures of each other. One women called out, “Američki osmijeh!” (American smile). The rest dissolved into laughter. When I asked her about this, she demonstrated the “American smile”—lips pulled back widely and artificially for a huge smile. I have been told by several people that Americans smile too much—they smile whether they are happy or sad, whether they feel good or not.
Come to think of it, what is our motive for smiling so much? When we see how difficult it is to understand our own cultural norms, it becomes easier to keep an open mind as we strain to understand things as they really are— not taken in by the distortion caused by the shimmering wall of culture.