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Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies

In This Article:

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Why So Formal, Dahlink?

Americans tend to be informal ("Nice ta meet you, Joe") and to shake each other's hands. Other cultures may be more formal ("Very honored to meet you, Mr. Howard") and use hugs and kisses as well as handshakes in their greetings. You may think your stepdaughter is walking behind you because she's embarrassed to be seen with you, but she might be showing you respect—in some cultures, that's a way of honoring you.

"You're Pushing Me!" "No, I'm Not Even Close!"

Cultures differ in their sense of personal space. People from northern European cultures like to stand further away than people from southern European cultures. If you're in a stepfamily with people from a more southern area, they may (wrongly) consider you cold or uncaring just because you're not as kissy and huggy as they are.

I Kid You Not!

A friend from Nairobi, a young black man, was visiting the States. He got onto a public bus that was almost empty; there was only one other passenger, a middle-aged white woman. In Nairobi, it would be rude to ignore a person sitting alone on a bus. It would be like saying that the person was somehow offensive. So our friend sat down next to the woman. She perceived his gesture of goodwill as threatening and hostile.

Language: Straight Up or On the Rocks?

Some cultures like it all spelled out as explicit, direct communication, with the emphasis on the content of the speech. "Say it like it is, man." They believe that it's what you say with words that matters. Other cultures put the emphasis on the entire atmosphere around what's being said. (Were her eyes downcast while she said it, or did she stare at you? Did he wine and dine you before or after making the proposal?)

Food: Fuel or Fantasy?

Food can be a sacrament, a chance for socializing, or a refueling session, and some of how people approach eating and dining is cultural. Religious rules also figure in to eating habits (and I've got more on that later).

"Time to Go!" "Stop Rushing Me!"

"Hurry, hurry! Time is money! Don't be late!" That's one cultural approach. Other cultures work on "rubber time," which is a more elastic sense of time. Get the two approaches together in a household, and you'd best be aware of the differences or you'll all be feeling a lot of stress.

You're My Family

Even the perceptions of friends and family can be different in different cultures. The dominant American culture tends to focus on the nuclear family. In other cultures, the family unit is the extended family—uncles, aunts, third cousins thrice removed, and their best friends from grade school. Loyalties are different; self-responsibility is highly valued in some cultures. In others, people believe more in their loyalty and responsibility to their family. In some cultures, the elderly are given status and respect. That isn't true everywhere.

Bumper Stickers Do Not Lie

Beliefs and attitudes vary widely between cultures: "Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!" "Show your respect and know your place." "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." "Question authority!" "Children should be seen and not heard." "That's a man's job."

Yes, some of it is personal, but all of us are affected by the culture we grow up in. How many of your ideas are based on tradition? How about for your stepfamily?

Teach Your Stepfamily About Your Culture

A strong family identity is a foundation for everybody in the family to stand on. Building a family identity is more than a matter of deciding on the family rules and family style. A family also has a sense of shared history. In a stepfamily of any kind, you're suddenly a family, and you have to build your history through shared experiences.

In a cross-cultural family, you need to do more. You need to learn about your stepfamily's culture and teach them about yours. As you build your family identity, your customs and background may be incorporated into your stepkids' lives, becoming a part of their own sense of history, continuity, and future. Here are some tips for letting them all know who you are.

Acknowledge and Celebrate Your Background

It's not just where you live or where you were raised; it's also who your ancestors were, and which values and customs you've kept from their cultures. Let your stepkids know why you have a hard time giving them compliments ("If I don't tell you how gorgeous you are often enough, it's probably because my Grandma always said not to tell a child she's beautiful. It might put the double whammy on them. I'll try to do better, but understand where I'm coming from, okay?").

Link Your Stepkids with the World Community

Giving your stepkids a sense of your culture broadens their minds and gives them a sense of mutual humanity, an understanding of something they share with other people in distant parts of the world. "I'm giving you these red beads for your wedding day because it's a Nepali custom. Married women wear red beads. See mine? In this culture, people wear wedding bands. Same thing."

Teach Them the Lingo

Language is culture, say many communication experts. Teach your stepkids your language, or at least give them a taste.

Invite Your Stepkids into Your Community

An Anglo-Saxon child may have no idea of the beauty of a gospel church in full swing. An African-American child may be blown away at your family's annual North Coast Indian pow-wow. Your Japanese-American stepchild (and your Japanese-American partner) may never have pigged-out at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord that's just like the one you left in your home town in the Midwest.

Cook for Them, or Take Them Out to Eat

They may squirm at Vietnamese pho the first time, but soon they'll be begging for it. Compare your matzo ball soup with their won ton soup (broth with dumplings are fabulous the world over!). Explain why you love mayonnaise and white bread sandwiches. Make a family cookbook for holiday gifts (and I don't mean just Christmas or Hanukkah; I'm talking Diwali, Santa Lucia, Solstice, and Kwaanza).

Stepping Stones

Children and adults often live in such completely different cultures that talking together can feel like talking to somebody who was born on the other side of the world. They call that the Generation Gap!

Play Them Your Music

Persist gently when they scream at you for imposing Karen Carpenter on their delicate ears. Musical taste—and breadth of taste—takes time.

Share Your Cultural and Personal Stories

Stories gently teach values and consequences, as well as provide a way for your family to get to know and understand you.



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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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