Giving Fellow Humans the Benefit of the Doubt

Is good for your blood pressure

– By Norma Brenne Henning, J.D., Salvatori Wood & Buckel –

Florida attracts people from all over the world, who come as visitors, investors, employees – temporarily or for good.  It’s hard to go out into public and not hear a foreign language spoken somewhere.   We expect seeing foreign people at tourist attractions and hotels – but often people from different cultural backgrounds also attend our schools and universities, our places of worship or become neighbors and co-workers.  The more time we spend with our fellow citizens of the world, the more they enrich our lives and give both sides the opportunities to learn from one another.  Clichés are worn down, friendships and often family bonds created over time through intermarriage.  However, like in any other human encounter, more time spent together also inevitably leads to more frustrations.   Human beings are both infinitely interesting but also infinitely challenging or aggravating – depending on your perspective.

From birth, we all develop filters for purposes of sifting through communication from the outside world to be able to interpret that communication and survive within our own cultural frame of reference.  Even in the Stone Age, it was important to determine whether the man with the big club was angry or happy.  One misinterpreted grunt, and you might find yourself at the wrong end of that club.  The concept of knowing when we would please or displease became second nature like breathing – so easy (even a caveman can do it) that we hardly think how it affects our lives and communications now.  Our cultural circles have expanded beyond family bands, tribes and nations and continue to expand.  Today, our new economic or social “survival” depends on our ability to deal with people from allover the world:  foreign investors, customers and clients – daughters and sons in law or exchange students and neighbors.

Just think about how many different cultures make up the United States alone, affecting business conduct and sense of humor between states of the union. Things that offend a person who was raised in the South may be perfectly funny to a person from New York.  This internal cultural diversity really surprised me when I immigrated.  (And please allow me to take this opportunity to apologize to people of the great State of Alabama!) Multiply the domestic “step-on-someone’s toes factor” by a thousand and you can anticipate the embarrassment and offense potential when different nationalities get together.  And naturally, not only the speaker but also the listener could make life easier by taking some responsibility in the communication process.  In that regard, we can start by giving each other the benefit of the doubt instead of feeling that they did not mean what we think we just heard.  (Again, Alabama, I’m sorry. I take full responsibility for that one.)

The ideal situation for both parties interested in good communications would be to open our filters to allow for just benefit of the doubt when hearing or interpreting behavior from people with different cultural backgrounds.  Perhaps the German who just bumped into me without saying “excuse me” was not deliberately trying to be rude – just doing what comes naturally to him.  Or perhaps the question: “What’s wrong with you?” from someone whose second language is English was not meant to imply that something was “wrong” with you – just a way to ask what was the matter when they noticed that you were upset.   Or the fact that someone from another continent can’t “look me in the eye” or “give me a firm handshake” is a show of respect in their country.

Whatever our interactions, it’s good to give some leeway to cultural differences.  As an added benefit:  We may just find out that it’s good for our blood pressure overall.



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