Living in a multicultural world

Valerie Berset-Price

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

This has little to do with business, but it has to do with living in a multicultural world, so hopefully it applies to your column.

My husband and I have a multitude of friends from around the world. I come from Serbia originally. As such, we often extend dinner party invitations at our house to people we like and who may not be American. Having lived here for a number of years, I had to adjust to the American punctuality style and the fact that communication must remain constant. My pet peeve is when people refuse to RSVP or answer my specific email to them about our invitation. It makes me upset and makes me want to get rid of those friends in the future. I know it’s wrong, but I am unable to tell myself anything that makes me feel good about the lack of respect I feel coming from those so-called friends. Could you please help me? I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to judge people I love on their social manners only.



Dear Adrijana,

Thanks for your question. I can relate to your frustration, and I understand how easy it is to associate someone’s behavior with lack of respect. You see, around the world, people are taught to show respect very differently. For example, the other day I was in an Iraqi restaurant in Palo Alto, CA with a male colleague. The waiter avoided all eye contact with me and asked my male colleague what my order would be. While being invisible to the waiter bothered me, I had to remind myself that not making eye contact with a woman, especially when she is in the company of a man who could be her husband, is a sign of respect in many parts of the Muslim world.

Your international friends might have been taught growing up in India, Persia or Morocco, for example, that saying “no” to an invitation is extremely disrespectful. They were taught that ignoring the invitation is a form of communication that tells the person that indeed, they would not be able to attend. It allows people to not have to deliver bad news.

What makes it complex to live in a multicultural world is that each culture teaches to communicate in its own fashion. As a result, when people do not meet our cultural expectations, like answering an RSVP, we feel that we are being disrespected. When this happen to you, Adrijana, I suggest that you instead think of why your friends would try to disrespect you. I am pretty sure there are no reasons. Then I would think about their country of origin and wonder if their country’s mode of communication is more indirect than in the United States or Serbia. Only in other North American countries and Europe (including Russia) is communication as direct as we are in the U.S. The rest of the world shows respect by communicating indirectly. Your friends are not answering your invitation not because you don’t matter to them but because you matter too much to decline your invitation.

Hope this helps!


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