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Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies

It's especially important that a cross-cultural stepfamily learn to communicate effectively and to respect one another.

In this article, you will find:

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Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies

Whenever you have a relationship in a cross-cultural situation, you have to communicate effectively. Intercultural communication consultant William Sonnenschein believes that effective cross-cultural communication requires self-awareness, respect, tolerance, flexibility, empathy, patience, and humor. That's quite a list. Let's break it down:


Your cross-cultural communication will be improved by your willingness to really know yourself and to understand your reactions. Your perceptions of the world and your values affect your interpretation of what other people are saying and doing. You have to understand yourself and what you are bringing to the stepfamily (good points, old baggage, values, expectations, and beliefs) to understand the others. You can improve your self-awareness in so many ways (and I'll give you one way in the "Slants and Rants" exercise later in this article).


A nondominant culture is a culture that is in a geographical area culturally dominated by another culture.


One of the biggest complaints by people from nondominant cultures is lack of respect. But you will find that just trying to understand and learn about the differences between your culture and your stepfamily's culture leads to increased respect and improved cross-cultural communication. (These differences can be as basic as how often you brush your teeth or whether you are allowed to blow your nose at the table.) Try to learn about your stepfamily's culture in specific ways. You can read and research, ask questions, or maybe even learn the language. (I know, Hungarian is hard.) Active listening works here, too. (Active listening, my cure-all for what ails you, is Learning to Communicate with Stepchildren.)


People's behavior can have ambiguities or mean more than one thing, depending upon what culture the person is from. There are ambiguities in language, style, and behavior. When an African-American child looks at you and says "You're bad," she may not be saying you're a naughty stepparent. An Asian-American child's refusal to look an adult in the eye will be interpreted as "shifty" in some cultures, but merely respectful in his. You'll improve your cross-cultural communications if you remain tolerant of behavior that may change meaning from culture to culture. Haul out your "positive intent".


You'll do best in life when you remain flexible, particularly in situations that are new or challenging. Go with the flow, babe, ease with the breeze. Here's where your self-awareness of your own values steps in again. If you really understand yourself, you'll be able to relax when things are going differently from expectations, as long as it doesn't threaten your real values.


Feeling what another person feels, and walking a mile in his or her shoes (ouch, blisters!) is really important for cross-cultural communication. Try feeling what someone who is different from you might be feeling in new or strange surroundings. It may give you a whole new perspective on the world.


Cross-cultural communication (and living in a cross-cultural stepfamily) can be difficult. Be patient. Family growth takes time.


Miscommunications can be funny! Laughter is essential in a family when you have to learn new customs as well as get used to living with a whole bunch of new strangers. When you lose your sense of humor, you lose your sense of humanity as well as your perspective.

Slants and Rants, an Exercise

Remember how I said self-awareness is essential for good cross-cultural communication? Here's an exercise that will help you understand more about your own biases and perceptions. On the left are a bunch of behaviors. On the right, you jot down what you might assume if you see or experience this behavior coming from one of your stepkids (or your partner, or your partner's parents or extended family, for that matter). When you're done, I'll explain how behavior can reflect cultural differences.

If a member of my stepfamily… I might assume…
Speaks very softly  
Speaks very loudly  
Is always late  
Stands very close  
Stands too far away  
Never hugs or kisses me  
Never laughs at my jokes  
Doesn't ask questions  
Giggles too often  
Doesn't make direct eye contact  
Has a soft handshake  

Now take a few minutes and think about why the person behaves that way. Do you think it's intentional? Is it due to a personality or cultural difference? Why do suppose you make the assumptions you do about their behavior? Are these assumptions based on things you've learned from your own culture? From past experiences? From the way you were raised?

Cultures Are Different

In the preceding exercise, you observed your own reactions to people's actions. But not all cultures are the same. Biologically, yes, and in terms of potential, yes, but in terms of how different cultures act and react to different circumstances, no, we are not the same. Here are some ways that cultures may differ in their approach to life. Keep in mind that I'm dealing in generalities—sometimes huge ones.

As you read through these, ask yourself, "What am I like? How about the members of my stepfamily?" You'll soon get a sense of your similarities as well as your differences. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these styles; they're just different (and, I insist again, different is not bad!).

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