Managing cultural mistakes with mindfulness

Something happened to me recently when I was in Tokyo: I made a mistake.

I was trying to use my fledgling Japanese vocabulary to tell the hotel clerk that I understood him after he gave us directions to a nearby site, but instead of saying the word wakarimashta, what came out of my mouth was some jumble of sounds that were in all likelihood not a word at all. I wasn’t sure what had happened, because I had been assiduously practicing and using the few words I knew at every appropriate opportunity. And I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous in this encounter, since speaking to a helpful clerk who knew some English was the most low-stress, safest environment I could ask for. In keeping with Japanese culture, the clerk smiled as if I had not made a mistake at all, bowed, and sent us on our way. I had saved face with him, but not with my husband who chided me as we walked out the door into the Chiyoda neighborhood.

“What did you say?” he asked, in an incredulous way that I interpreted to mean, “Why did you do that?/How could you have done that?!” I bristled but had no idea, since what I had experienced was less a result of substituting one word for another than a temporary short-circuit in my brain’s connection between my mind and my mouth. A combination of jet lag and the intensity of exploring a new city for the past several days, tasting many new flavor varieties like tonkatsu on naan at Mos Burger and roasted rice crackers at Senso-ji, engaging in a much more strenuous marathon of walking than a normal day in our suburban life back in the U.S. allowed, and feeling a kind of sustained exhilaration from seeing so many remarkable places had all apparently boiled over into a splatter of exhaustion. Although I did not feel that I was experiencing culture shock in a conscious way – quite the contrary, I was very much having the time of my life – my system had nonetheless been overloaded, and my mouth, unable to receive or translate the right signal from my brain, just spouted out a mishmash of Japanese-ish sounds, using the new muscle combinations I’d been developing since I’d landed at Narita.

Having had the fortune of visiting several countries, I was accustomed to the reality that mistakes were inevitable, and other than being an awkward moment, no real harm was done. But the moment rankled me a little more than I would have liked, as did my husband’s admonishment. It gave me a brief twinge that maybe it had not been worth trying; a thought which I quickly rejected and then resented having, but which I also knew was the viewpoint generally held by my spouse, who preferred saving face silently over engaging haphazardly.

It was a small moment, but it drove home the fact that making mistakes can be not only a learning moment, but an opportunity to check in on how we are coping with cultural adjustment in real-time.

Personal Leadership

One of my go-to intercultural resources is the Personal Leadership methodology by Barbara F. Schaetti, Sheila J. Ramsey, and Gordon C. Watanabe. The authors invite participants to use moments where it seems like “something’s up” to engage in what they call a “Critical Moment Dialogue,” which is a kind of guided exploration of one’s mind, heart, and body. While this may sound fluffy, it is actually a very useful, portable tool for making deciding how to respond in a cross-cultural situation.

In my case, I was able to do it as I walked with my husband down Shinuku dori, because I had previously studied the practice through the Intercultural Communication Institute. I mentally skimmed the categories like Attending to Emotion, Attending to Physical Sensation, and Attending to Judgment to get a better reading on what was behind my mistake in Japanese, and my response to it. In doing so, I realized that I was not only feeling sheepish about my mistake, but was also physically more fatigued than I had realized.  Going deeper, I saw that I was also being a bit judgmental toward myself for not remembering the right word. How had my brain failed me?! And, a bit unwillingly, I also recognized that I was feeling judgmental toward my husband for having put me in the position of communicating with the clerk only to tease me when I messed up. Ouch.

Progressing to Engaging Ambiguity, I stepped outside of myself to ask what else I did not know or had overlooked. Had my husband really made me talk to the clerk, or had I volunteered? Was he really picking on me, or was I just projecting my embarrassment onto his remark? Did it really matter to the clerk that someone who was obviously a foreigner had made a mistake? And why was it bothering me when I knew it wasn’t a big deal? After permitting these questions to surface, I allowed myself to be comfortable with the messiness of trying to communicate in a language totally unknown to me, and felt more gentle toward the complications of travelling across cultures with a partner who also comes from a different cultural background from my own.

Next, I was ready to Cultivate Stillness. I could took a deep breath and give myself the space to simply let the mistake, my response, and my need to analyze it, wash out of me. My adrenaline began to dissipate, my shoulders relaxed, and I felt a renewed clarity. Now, after only a few minutes, I was ready to Discern Right Action, which for me, at that time and place, was clearly to take a break. When I expressed this realization to my husband, he was relieved, as he was also feeling a bit sapped. We spent some time in a coffee shop with the commuters and retirees, and just watched a Chiyoda morning unfold while we sipped our green tea lattes.

Over the next twenty minutes, my mind geared down and my body caught up. I experienced something marvelous: By ceasing the attempt to force my participation through linguistic perfection, I rediscovered the freedom to simply be myself, a girl from Phoenix in Tokyo, as is. I became more present in the moment, more enlivened, and more flexible as the day passed. And, with greater mindfulness, I was able to articulate actual words for the rest of the day. I even learned a few new ones, and formed new sentences and questions. Small details, but ones that gave me a feeling of accomplishment and participation in my cultural surroundings.

Feeling flustered? Could be a sign you need a mini break. (Also taken near Ueno/上野公園).
Feeling flustered? Could be a sign you need a mini break. (Also taken near Ueno/上野公園).

Just as important, I forgave my husband for the very minor sin of having irritated me, and accepted that if I wanted to continue to take risks in communicating in other languages – especially ones that I had never studied – that I had to be patient with myself (and him) during the times it didn’t pan out. Once I relinquished any residual frustration, my blunder with the Japanese language became less of a bruise and more of an inside joke, and we were able to use it to transform what could have otherwise been a day of low energy into a day of connection and humor.

Even better, this moment, which was so trivial that it could have been totally overlooked, informed the remainder of our trip. By asking myself, “what’s up?” when I first encountered cultural fatigue and by choosing an appropriate response, I laid the groundwork for managing my energy and engagement in the days ahead. With a more attuned radar, I could foresee the warning signs next time, before a jumble of sounds had to inform me that I was wearing thin, so I could stop and rest before it was necessary. Moreover, it gave me the chance to recommit to the kind of time I wanted to co-create with my travelling partner, a person who had really meant no harm and who was every bit as jet-lagged and culture-shocked as me.

Preparing for Mindfulness in Advance

Certainly, there are better and worse times to make mistakes. In my case, the potential consequences of misspeaking were small. However, this made it the perfect time to implement the kind of guided response offered by Personal Leadership.

Whatever approach you favor, the time to start practicing is now. Because the more you cross cultures, in whatever context, the more likely it is that you will eventually make a mistake. And if you make forays into new cultures with family members or coworkers by your side, at some point you will rub each other the wrong way, no matter how much you adore each other, and no matter how much you try to cut each other some slack. Once you’re in that place, your success – and the health of the relationships and success of your objectives – will be determined by how you choose to handle it and learn from it. The more established your template for doing so, the more nuanced and flexible your choices will be. So carpe diem! But be sure to pack your mindfulness and empathy, too.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alaine Handa says:

    I do these cultural mistakes all the time. A grain of salt. But sometimes its REALLY embarrassing especially if its a language blunder and you know the answer or the question they are asking but somehow your brain freezes. So you end up appearing like an idiot. When you don’t get used to hearing the language constantly, it takes a while for the language to register in your head. At least that is my experience.

    1. Melissa says:

      Thank you for sharing! I agree that it is so much more embarrassing when you actually know the language (or know what you are meant to say or do in the given situation)! And, maybe the worst of all is when your appearances imply that you could be a native speaker. I got away with blunders much more easily in Japan than Poland in part (I’m guessing) because there is no way I could be mistaken for native Japanese, but was frequently assumed to be Central European. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling like my brain freezes sometimes 🙂

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