By Craig Storti

On two recent occasions I was somewhat drastically reminded how challenging and complicated culture can be. On the first occasion I was giving a class at the State Department and I asked people to come up with a story about how they had been tripped up by a cultural difference. Two women told their stories.

In the first story a woman who had been posted in Poland recalled how she was walking through a narrow alley one day, too narrow for two people to pass, when she noticed an elderly Polish lady entering the alley from the other end. The speaker knew enough to know she should squeeze up against the wall and let the elderly lady go by. When the lady was opposite her, the American smiled and said hello. Whereupon the Polish lady apparently launched into something of a harangue, berating the American for acting as if these two knew each other.

The point was that typical American informality—we call it being friendly—reaching out to people one does not know does not go over well in Poland, or much of Europe for that matter, where it’s seen as intrusive and generally not respecting the natural distance Europeans maintain between themselves and people they do not know.

The other story was told just moments later by an American who served in Rwanda. There was a drinks stand right outside the embassy compound, and she would go there every afternoon. She approached the stand, got her can of soda, and paid the woman in charge. “But I always felt she didn’t like me, like I was doing something wrong.”

Then one day the American went to the drinks stand with a Rwandan local who greeted the concessionaire warmly, asked about her husband and children, asked how business was, remarked how hot it was, and finally ordered her drink. “She was beaming,” the American said of the drinks lady, “and I realized that in Rwanda making a purchase is not so much about doing business as it is about spending time with an old friend, at the conclusion of which a drink might be purchased.”

So what are the lessons here for readers? The first is to be very careful about generalizing too widely the lessons you learn from any particular cultural encounter. While the American in Poland learned that one Polish-U.S. cultural difference is how you treat people you do not know, she would have been quite mistaken to have concluded from that experience that that particular difference would apply outside northern Europe (e.g., in Rwanda). She also would have been mistaken to conclude that only Americans reach out to strangers and she should be careful never to do so anywhere outside the United States.

The second take-away here is to assume that however you look at a particular situation, there are almost guaranteed to be people somewhere who look at that same situation differently, and sometimes, as in the examples above, they may look at the situation the opposite of how you see it.

This doesn’t mean that in cross-cultural interactions you should live in fear of being wrong and never trust your instincts. It means, rather, that when you interact with people from another culture, you should be open to the fact that you’re not seeing this encounter the way they are, and they’re not seeing it the way you are. Where culture is concerned, it’s always best to be humble.

The third lesson of these stories is to remember that you’re not always coming across to other people the way you think you are, and they’re not coming across to you the way they think they are. Naturally, any judgments or conclusions either of you reaches in such situations are bound to be suspect and quite possibly mistaken.

That might not be so serious as long as we keep our mistaken perceptions to ourselves. But of course that’s almost never what happens; sooner or later we act on these perceptions, and if they’re mistaken, then the consequences of our actions won’t be what we’re expecting. Meanwhile, if the folks in the other culture are likewise acting on their erroneous perceptions, you can imagine how quickly things get very complicated.

It’s easy to take cultural sensitivity too far until we become paralyzed for fear of putting a foot wrong. The point of raising your cultural awareness is not to create doubt and fear but to prepare yourself for making mistakes. The mistakes themselves are fine; it’s only when you’re not expecting them that you’re thrown off guard.

You actually learn a lot from mistakes, much more than you learn from always being right. Or as Mark Twain liked to say: Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books.