How to deal with negative comments about one of our cultures

Every person that has spent some time abroad has probably made this experience. It can either be during a vacation or during a long(er) stay in another country.

Someone just says something judgmental about our culture, our nationality, the way we look or dress, the way we speak or the way we do things, and we feel obliged to defend it. It doesn’t even have to be our own culture, it can also be a culture we’re familiar with, that we adopted or we simply embraced for whatever reason.

These observations are often done by people who are not aware of hurting our feelings but still, how can we deal with this and react – or not react – to this kind of small attacks to what we consider “ours” ?

We may feel protective as if they attacked or judged us, our children, our way of life or something we really care about.

I personally react differently to these comments when I am alone than when I am with my children and family. When I am alone, I tend to not take it personally and ignore the comments: if the person is not a friend, colleague or anyone that I have to live or work with, it’s easy to forget the incident.

If the person is someone I have to deal with on a regular basis, depending on the comment, I would reduce contacts with her or him to a minimum, for the simple reason that I don’t want to have to deal with people who are not flexible and understanding every day.

Before starting to explore why the person makes these comments I would try to find out if she is flexible enough to accept other perspectives or not. If not, there is no argument that will make her consider other points of view. It would be a waste of time and energy to try to make her understand (see my strategy n.5 here below). As an intercultural communication trainer I know how much people who express their bias can ruin a conversation and a relationship.

If my children, family or friends are involved, and are in any way affected by the comments, usually speak up and try to understand what makes the person say what she said, no matter if she is judging one of my cultures or any another one.

Here are the 4 ways I react to negative comments about culture (and anything else):

1) First of all I ask the person to repeat what she just said. In most of the cases judgmental comments are spontaneous and when they have to be repeated they lose their initial harshness.

2) I reformulate with my own words what the person just said like “so, what you’re saying is that…”. By reformulating what the other person said, we give her the opportunity to correct the wording and change perspective. Maybe she chose an unfortunate formulation and didn’t intend to be judgmental. – If her intention was to be judgmental, we can decide to whether explore the issue further (if we want) or simply acknowledge that we have different point of views.

3) I ask the person to explain what makes her say that– without pointing out that I perceived it as negative. Maybe she isn’t aware that her comment could be interpreted as negative, or she had a negative experience which lead her to making that comment. – Again, it’s up to us to decide how and if we want to discuss this.

4) Ignore it. This is the wisest way to deal with this. By not taking the comment into consideration, we can avoid any kind of discussion about it. Especially if we think that any kind of reasonable discussion with this person is a waste of time. – I follow the Bavarian way of “nedemal ignoriern”, but in a friendly way, after all, it is never good to add fuel to the fire.

Most of the time, people who make negative comments about another culture (or person) are very insecure and not content. They are probably struggling with accepting the difference and the “otherness” of the situation, the way things are done, or look like.

If their negative comment is the expression of their surprise or them being uncomfortable, we can help them make sense of the different situation or habit, by bridging between something they know and the “new” and “unusual” one, and by explaining them why things are said, done in another way etc.

If their negative comment is a way for them to signalize that they are offended, we can reassure them that they don’t need to like the “other”, and that they are allowed to have their own opinion. But if they are offending us or our dear ones, we want to make this clear to them in a friendly tone.

The most important aspect of dealing with negative comments in any situation is to take a step back, not take it personally, draw a very clear line.

How do you deal with negative comments? Please let me know here below 😉

2 replies »

  1. Sage advice as always Ute, thank you ?

    As an aside (with my editor’s hat on) you keep mixing up the spelling for ‘lose’ and writing ‘loose’. It’s a classic error which I spend considerable time with British students correcting! Forgive the criticism please!

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