Dear Therapist..."How Do I Deal with Communication Issues in My Cross-Cultural Relationship?"
I’m two years in to a generally very loving relationship. However, we seem to have very different communication styles, perhaps because of our different cultural backgrounds (I am American, he is English).
In particular, I find his sarcasm difficult to deal with when I am the subject of what I find to be not-so-subtle digs. I have tried to express my dislike for these exchanges but am met with a response of ‘it is part of being English, don’t take it so personally.’
I don’t want to be overly sensitive, but the sarcastic comments really get to me, particularly when it feels like they are trying to communicate something other than a bit of humour. For his part, he says he thinks I am overly direct in stating my feelings, so much that he finds me aggressive although I don’t recognise this at all. Help!
American in London
As a fellow American also in a cross-cultural relationship, I have first-hand experience of the cultural differences you reference. As a therapist working with several cross-cultural couples, I know these issues are very common. Rest assured, you are not alone!
Let’s start by looking at the Cambridge definition of sarcasm: ‘the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticise something in a humorous way.’ So sarcasm is problematic and puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, because the person means something different than what they are saying, and also because something hurtful is delivered with the ‘light touch’ of humour. Funny but not funny. Confusing in the way that such passive-aggressive interaction usually is!
So while I fully appreciate that sarcasm is more common and therefore more acceptable in English culture, it can still be quite damaging in intimate relationships. Being intimate with someone means sharing of our most vulnerable selves and we’re less likely to do this when we are confused and feel criticised. If our partner wants our cooperation, it is just good sense for them to talk to us in a way that will be well-received rather than one that triggers defensiveness or emotional reactivity. I suggest appealing to your partner’s ‘enlightened self-interest’ and explain to him that he’s more likely to get a loving and generous you when the sarcasm is left out of your interactions.
You also mention the question of ‘aggressiveness’ on your part. We need to acknowledge that the American approach is often seen as quite direct relative to other styles. But it important to make a distinction between aggressiveness – standing up for personal rights in a way that conveys superiority and can feel threatening – and assertiveness, which similarly puts forth one’s thoughts and feelings but in a way that is responsibly respecting those of others.
Aggressiveness conveys, ‘This is what I think, what I want and what I feel. What matters to you is not important to me.’ Assertiveness is more, ‘This is what I think, how I feel, and how I see the situation, how about you?’ A direct, open, honest style (assertiveness) is to be welcomed as long as it doesn’t try to dominate or ‘win’ any discussion (aggressiveness).
If you’re asking your partner to be mindful of his communication style and how it impacts you, do take the same care and effort in doing the same for him and check to ensure you are staying in assertive rather than aggressive territory. Healthy relating means being aware of our impact on others, and sensitively crafting our communications so that they can be received rather than defended against. Passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive styles inevitably lead to frustration whereas a direct but respectful assertiveness usually allows for our needs to be heard and respected.