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Flirting with misunderstanding

On June 22, 2008

“There’s a video I want you to see,” my roommate Kate told me earlier this week. “I think it might be really bad.”

Of course that piqued my interest. “Bad” You Tube videos come in many different flavors: Would this video be poor quality, offensive, or just plain bizarre? With wide eyes and low expectations, I turned toward Kate’s computer.

As it turned out, the video's humor was based on a grossly exaggerated negative stereotype of a U.S. American man of one culture hitting on a woman of another at the cinema. Kate had been introduced to the clip after the Bible study she co-leads, and while she chuckled at it ridiculousness, she found it completely offensive, inappropriate, and unfair.

Against the opinion of many friends, I agreed that the video was racist, and I was frustrated the skit had aired on a major television network. However, after further consideration I realized it does convey a sliver of truth. Even if its portrayal of women and men of certain cultures is inaccurate, it shows that someone somewhere finds the way certain men relate to certain women disgusting. This focus on supposed differences can lead us to consider a larger issue at hand: If not as the video portrays, how do we behave when we’re interacting across both gender and cultural lines?

Every (sub-)cultural group has its own flirtation norms, meaning that when individuals of two cultures interact, they’re often playing by two sets of rules. Men and women are frequently on separate pages already, so compounding that existing divide with an ethnic-or class-based cultural gap can make communication quite complex, especially when it comes to initiating (or stalling) romance.

I think for us as egalitarians, these cultural differences make life pretty darn tricky. Sometimes the male-female scripts of a particular culture don’t seem to match up with my egalitarian ideals, and it’s easy to rush to (sometimes inaccurately) label others as sexist. My lack of cultural fluency sometimes leaves me confused about whether a man is hitting on me or how I might respond appropriately, which might in extreme situations lead to cases of potential sexual harassment, as one culture would define. And obviously, ignorance paired with prejudice leads to the kind of media portrayal we saw in this video.

The long-term solution, I think, is to pair our work for local and global gender equality with intentional efforts to understand people that are culturally different from us. As we get to know them and better get to know ourselves, we’ll be able to live together with less miscommunication. Greater clarity in all relationships will benefit cross-gender relations, as well, as we begin to understand the rules that dictate flirting, friendship, and the like. Plus, confusing—even offending—each other gives us practice embracing patience and grace.

In the meantime, any thoughts on navigating male-female interaction across the cultural divide?

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