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Managing Cultural Discomfort by Carl R. Wells

Cultural discomfort is the feeling of “uneasiness” that we experience while interacting with someone from a different culture.  It is the feeling that abled people get when they have to decide if opening the door for someone who is physically-challenged is helpful or harmful, welcomed or offensive.  It is the feeling that Americans get when international students chatter among themselves in their native language -- we wonder if they are talking and laughing about us.  It is the feeling that we get when someone from a different culture gets on the elevator with us – we question whether we should speak or make eye contact.  It is the feeling men get when they must decide if a female business colleague expects them to open the door, or not open the door (given the changing gender roles of today’s society).  It is the feeling that whites get when they become the minority among a group of African-Americans.

Cultural discomfort is not just an intellectual problem.  It shows up below the surface of our awareness and causes us to act or react automatically or habitually.  When we drive through an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, we automatically lock the doors.  When we see Hispanic or African-American youths traveling in groups, we automatically make assumptions about what they are doing.  At the root of cultural discomfort lie assumptions about who “we” are and who “they” are. These assumptions about others make us feel uncomfortable, cause stress, hinders our effectiveness, or lead us to act unfairly.

To manage cultural discomfort, we must keep in mind that we will always feel some level of comfort or discomfort when interacting with someone of a different culture.  The key is to not allow the discomfort to dictate our actions or reactions.  Also, we must work towards turning fear into curiosity.  Healthy curiosity about cultural differences can lead to cross-cultural dialogue and relationships.  When dialogue and relationships occur, we are on our way to testing assumptions, and hence managing cultural discomfort.

 

 

 

 

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