There’s nothing as sexy as someone from a different country or culture.
They’ve got the accent. The exotic look. The ability to jolt you out of complacency and make your everyday world seem magical.
But is the reality of a cross-cultural relationship as appealing as the fantasy?
We knew the perfect person to ask: Joe Lurie.
A former Peace Corps Volunteer, Joe served for two decades as Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s International House.
There, amidst close to 1500 students annually from over 80 countries and 25 US states, he witnessed many intercultural romances, which often led to challenging and enriching marriages across cultures.
What distinguished the couples who thrived from those who struggled?
Thriving couples took the time to understand, respect, and honor each other’s cultures. (This trait, called cultural humility, has been shown to boost commitment and relationship satisfaction.)
In this YBTV interview, Joe tells entertaining anecdotes about couples who, despite or because of their cultural differences, succeeded in living happily ever after.
What You’ll Learn
Multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic relationships are here to stay.
The Pew Research Center found that 1 in 6 new marriages are between couples of different races or ethnicities.
Perhaps because the world is getting closer.
“We’re living in a time of tremendous contact between people that we’ve never experienced before,” Joe says. “People are meeting people that they’ve never dreamed of meeting before.”
Joe saw this firsthand at International House, where students from close to 80 countries and 25 states lived together. Hundreds of marriages resulted from this social experiment. Some worked out, while others didn’t.
It wasn’t their differences that drove couples apart. It was their inability to work with those differences.
All couples have their differences, even if they’re both from the same culture.
“In every couple relationship, nobody is a replica of the other person, so that is what is both exciting and frustrating,” Joe says. “When it comes to cultural differences, it becomes even more challenging.”
Even as multicultural couples are delighted to discover their common humanity, certain differences can be hard to negotiate.
If you put great value on punctuality, you may find it difficult when your South American partner doesn’t respect the clock. If you put great value on privacy, you may find it difficult when your Asian in-laws give you no privacy.
Successful couples work with these tensions, rather than allow their cultural differences to turn into conflict.
A successful couple, Joe says, will be “able to come to an understanding of things beyond their narratives, beyond their cultural ponds.”
Cross-cultural couples have some fairly big hurdles to navigate. If they come from different countries, their #1 challenge is deciding where to live. Parents add pressure to an already-difficult decision, not wanting their children to live far away.
Their next biggest challenge is choosing the religion or value system in which to bring up their children.
One in 7 babies born today is multiracial. These children can find it hard to know who they are and where they belong.
Joe has seen one couple navigate this challenge by raising children in both backgrounds. Growing up, the children participate in the religious and cultural life of both parents. Once they become adults, they can choose whether to settle in one tradition or continue to live a life of blended cultures.
This couple “succeeded because they have honored each other’s traditions and values.”
Stories like this should give us hope. “These multicultural, multi-ethnic, multiracial kids will perhaps be a source of building bridges for this new society that’s rapidly emerging,” Joe says.
But the fact that we can and do marry partners from different countries or cultures doesn’t necessarily mean that society is becoming more tolerant or aware of cultural differences.
Joe tells the story of a U.S. professor of Korean studies who was being interviewed on live TV when a toddler burst into the room, followed by a baby. A woman came in and ushered the children out. (Watch the clip.) The online consensus was that this man had an Asian nanny. But, in fact, she was his wife.
“Even if you live in a cosmopolitan city—whether it’s New York, San Francisco, London, etc—there are still plenty of people who find it very difficult to understand how two people could get married who come from such dramatically different backgrounds racially, ethnically. So we have a long way to go.”
To learn more about the cultural blinders we wear and the challenges of navigating cultural differences in a world of globalization, check out Joe’s book Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey across Cultures, now in its second edition.
You’ll enjoy many more of Joe’s hilarious anecdotes on cultural misunderstandings. Each chapter in the new edition also contains exercises to help you see where cultural stereotyping or misperception may be occurring in your own life.
Even that basic sentence, “I love you,” is laden with cultural meaning. What we say isn’t always what our partner hears. Having cultural humility and the desire to understand our differences is a great place to start.
Jump to Topics of Interest
4:18 Why cross-cultural relationships are on the rise
5:16 Why we’re fascinated by people from different cultures
5:54 What brings couples together across cultures
6:06 The challenges cross-cultural couples face: where to live, how to raise children, differences in values
8:39 How normal couple differences get magnified when you’re dealing with completely different cultures
11:54 Raising children in dual cultures
14:11 The challenges multiracial children face
15:09 Are multicultural families the future?
17:11 Joe’s book Perception and Deception
19:07 Implications for doing business globally
21:28 How different cultures approach the need to say, “I love you”
An award-winning author and cross-cultural communications trainer and speaker, Joe has presented at Google, Linkedin, American Express, Chevron, and at conferences sponsored by the Institute of International Education, the Peace Corps and NAFSA, Association of International Educators. He also teaches intercultural courses at various universities and has lectured in Thailand, Bali South Africa, France, Italy, Spain, China and Tahiti. Learn more about his work and get your copy of his book, Perception and Deception.