So, you’re in a new relationship and enjoying getting to know one another, but how do you know if you’re going to see the world similarly?
Cultural values are rarely spoken of directly but are perceivable in daily interactions. They determine whether you think it’s authentic or immature to be emotionally expressive; whether you prefer to enjoy things now or save up for the future. Cultural values include whether people are more individualistic or collectivistic; comfortable with uncertainty or avoidant of it; cooperative or competitive. These are the standards and norms that a culture communicates among its members. On a broad scale these can lead to “culture shock” in a new country, but can also contribute to misunderstandings between two people from the same country, but with different cultural values.
So how can you get ahead of these misunderstandings, and get to know one another on this level?
While there may not be a script for how to approach a conversation like this, perhaps these tips can provide a helpful starting point for you:
5 Ways to Approach a Discussion on Cultural Values
- Approach situations that have elicited confusion or even anger with an attitude of curiosity and openness. While there are some behaviors that clearly cross your boundaries, there are many that fall into a grey zone. Asking someone why they did something with a desire to understand will typically be more effective than asking with an accusation.
- Remember that there are no “right” values. While some may indicate a deep incompatibility, going into any conversation as a “test” of the other is likely to backfire and lead to defensiveness, judgment, and shutting down.
- Share memories that you have with the communities that are important to you. Values are initially communicated and shaped by the people and groups around us that we find important. Providing the context and history of your relationship with these communities (such as family, close friend groups, religious groups, or others), can help set the scene for where your values came from.
- Have fun with hypotheticals to understand their view of the world and allow mutual sharing. Asking questions like, “would you rather be one of many, or stand out from the crowd?” “do you think people are innately good or bad?” provide an opportunity to build a mutual understanding of each person’s cultural values from a more distanced perspective.
- Identify if there is wiggle room. Are there some values that you would feel extremely uncomfortable disagreeing about? What about things that are important to you about how you view the world that need to be respected but not necessarily agreed with? You don’t need to know exactly, but perhaps having an idea can help shape your interpretation of the other person’s reactions to you.
Cultural values are ultimately a part of how you see the world and therefore impact how you function and interact with yourself, others, and the greater society. Try reflecting on your behavior, choices, and expression of self, and identify what kinds of cultural values you’ve been exhibiting. Your partner does not need to share the same values but being able to identify the differences early on can build greater compassion and perspective-taking.
About the therapist: Dr. Diana Hu is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Washington. She works with adults on issues of cultural identity, anxiety, stress, and relational issues. She conducts psychological evaluations for adults with attention and memory issues. She also serves as a clinical advisor for Therapy Notebooks. Connect with Dr. Diana and view more of her work on her Frame profile.