Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies

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Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Okay, it's hands-on time. Here are some clues to improving your own communication with people from other cultures. If you model it, they will come. These tips are for communicating with stepkids where there's a language barrier as well. Use these tips whether you're speaking in your most comfortable language, their most comfortable language, or a shared language that's not native to either of you.

Speak Slowly and Solidly

Keep it simple. Use simple words, short sentences, and enunciate! Don't chew those words! Don't use slang, and don't be so sarcastic (okay, this tip is for all stepparenting). And, above all, don't assume that they understand what you said when you said it just because you said it. If there's even a smidgen of a doubt about understanding, ask them to repeat back to you what you said.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Listen actively. Listen for the meaning, not the lousy grammar. Listen for the positive intent. Suspend your judgment. Hold your horses and wait before responding. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears; watch for cues in facial expressions, gestures, and body language.

Question and Query Quizzically

A yes or no answer is often not enough. Ask for more than that because you wanna make sure you guys are understanding each other. Don't assume smiling and nodding means understanding or agreement (in some cultures it might mean only that the person is respectfully listening). You don't want to be asking negatively phrased questions now, do you?

Don't ask convoluted questions such as: "Do you want to go to the store with me and get milk, or would you prefer chocolate milk, after your room is cleaned, unless, did you clean it already?" "Huh?"

Giving Instructions

Break it down step-by-step, and don't explain all the steps at the same time. Ask for questions (and be ready and happy to answer them).

Don't assume that you have been understood, even if the yesses are flying fast and furious. Check out the action. Has the child understood?

"I Don't Get It"

If you're not clear about something, repeat what you have heard and ask for clarification. Then repeat what you believe she meant. You think your stepkid is suicidal because she's standing there with a worried look on her face saying she wants to jump out the window. Don't call 911 instantly; get some clarification. "So you mean you want to jump out the window? Oh! You mean you want to go to the neighbor's yard and jump on that trampoline you can see when you look out your bedroom window! I'll call Carolyn and ask if you can come over."

Nonverbal Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Lots can be communicated without words. You might be thinking, "Hurrah! That'll make life in a two-language household easier." Well yes—and no. Gestures are not always the same in different cultures and ethnic groups. Try to become aware of cultural taboos, too: Don't put your hand on a Thai child's head; it's insulting. So is pointing your chopsticks at somebody from Japan. In some cultures, touching may not be acceptable; in others, walking with arms around each other, holding hands, or hugging between members of the same sex is groovy. Eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge, a sign of disrespect, or the sign of an honest, forthright person, depending on what culture you come from.

Adjusting to Differences

With differences in values, lifestyle, and approaches to child-rearing, you and your partner have a lot of communicating and problem-solving to do. But you do have an advantage over stepfamilies where the differences aren't so obvious. Because the differences and conflicts are so visible in cross-cultural stepfamilies, you're more likely to put in the time and energy to get to know and respect each other's ways. Doing this increases your chances of having a successful stepfamily.

Food and Dietary Restrictions

Life in a bicultural stepfamily makes dinnertime interesting. "I hate cornbread." "Have you ever tried it?" "Well, no…." Unless there are physical reasons (such as an allergy) or religious or moral reasons (such as Muslims or Jews not eating pork), aim for broadening everybody's palates.

Where there are dietary restrictions, whether for religious or moral reasons, it's vital to respect them. Never plop a hunk of gristly meat on a vegetarian's plate and force him to eat. It's cruel and disrespectful (and that's true no matter what age that vegetarian is).

At the same time, respect's gotta go both ways. The vegetarian isn't being respectful if he chants "baby killer" to you at dinner just because you're eating a lovely veal parmagiana. Flexibility is key. You may end up having several sets of pots and pans (one for meat, one for dairy products, and one for the nonkosher vegetarian), but at least you'll have some mutual respect in the household.

Families often have conflicts over how much to eat and whether a child should be forced to clean her plate. It's a challenge for most of us to relax, to present healthy food, and to let children regulate their own intake. People of all cultures should realize that food isn't an area you can effectively regulate. Setting boundaries and limits around your child's eating patterns will only lead you to trouble. Don't go there.

Religious Differences

Interfaith families are increasingly common, and not just for stepfamilies. In some families, one "side" converts; in others, Mom and Dad try to raise the kids with a little of both religions ("They can choose when they are older"). Some throw up their hands and give up on official worship, and some split down the middle and have two camps.

Rachel, mom to two and stepmom to another two, says, "On Saturday my kids and I go to temple. On Sunday, Chris and his kids go to church. We've asked all the kids if they want to explore, but they haven't been ready to do that yet. My kids think of going to temple as a special thing they do with Mom, and I think that Chris' kids feel the same way about their Sunday morning Mass."

You may want to talk with your spiritual leader about solutions for interfaith challenges. Many organized religions run interfaith groups and classes. No matter what approach you take to religion, it's essential that other people's religious choices be respected. You won't have much of a marriage (or a family) if essential beliefs and moral values are disrespected.

Socioeconomic Differences

Culture isn't just a matter of what country your people come from, or what religion you practice. Socioeconomic differences, if they exist, can lead to vastly different approaches to living. It's not just a matter of how much money you make every year, either. Socioeconomic differences can include different values around how you talk about and spend money, your attitudes toward credit, your "breeding" and manners, your family's emphasis on education, and so on.

As a member of a new stepfamily, you'll find it helpful to discuss which attitudes of your own and your partner's (not to mention the kids) are based in your socioeconomic cultures. Understanding is key to tolerance.

Generational Cultures

It may sound strange, but even a few years between partners can make a cultural difference. Every generation has its own cultural references—TV shows, music, even attitudes toward life. In our stepfamily, Bill is a child of the '60s, I'm a child of the '70s, his kids are children of the '80s, and the cultural "wars" between Hippie, Punk Rocker, and Gen-X'ers sometimes rage.

If there are age differences between you and your partner, you may find that there are things you don't understand about each other. I don't really get it when Bill talks about the sense of community and shared purpose he and his friends felt in their youth. He'll never really understand what it was like to grow up in an in-between generation, feeling too young and too old for all the action. On the other hand, generational culture differences can provide wonderful opportunities to stretch and grow. No doubt your stepfamily will have friends of all ages, too, each bringing their own generation's perspectives to share and learn from.

Holiday Traditions

A stepparent who has different holiday traditions from the rest of the family—especially a stepparent with no child of his or her own—can feel left out in the cold. Any family's traditions have force. It's vital for everybody to be considered when planning holidays.

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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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