“You are telling me that my baby is ugly.” – Refusing to be offended in an intercultural environment

by | Aug 14, 2019

If you want to develop intercultural competency, learn not to get offended.

I was born in Japan and grew up there until I left for adventures overseas, in my twenties.

I gave birth to my first child in Malaysia. In the early months, I had many visitors who came to see my beautiful new-born. They leaned over and looked into the baby’s cot where my pride and joy was sleeping. My beautiful baby…..I felt.  (Doesn’t every mother?) Looking at him, many ‘admirers’ commented, “His eyes are so small like little slits. I can’t even see whether they are open or not.” or “What a funny shape his head is!” and “Why are his lips so swollen?” or “His nose is so flat and wide.”…. “His legs are not straight.”  I was devastated and totally offended with such casual remarks.

How dare they criticise my baby in front of me, I thought: a new proud mother!! Feeling angry and frustrated with the insensitive comments visitors had been making, one day I grabbed my closest Chinese friend and asked, “What do you think of my baby??” She said,” Well, he is quite swollen, isn’t he?” Feeling overwhelmed, I cried out, “What?? Are you telling me that my baby is ugly??”  She said, “No, no, he is just a bit fat.”  My heart dropped, tears welling up, I looked into her eyes and told her that many people had been coming to see my new child, had been picking him up but nobody had had anything nice to say about him. She paused then said to me that normally locals (she was Chinese Malaysian) didn’t give compliments when they saw newborns. “Why not?” I asked. She said, simply, that many were scared that evil spirits would take a baby away if the little one was accepted as perfect.

Admirers were being polite and acting appropriately to protect the baby from numerous possible evil spirits. In my head, I thought, ”Oh…that’s… kind of nice ….”.  She added that it was one of countless superstitions that local people believed. I asked her with desperation, “Poy Yoke, I am Japanese, don’t worry, I don’t believe in frightening superstitions. Tell me honestly what you think of my baby…” She whispered into my ear making sure that nobody would hear, “He is gorgeous.”

It is so easy to get offended in an intercultural environment. There are moments that common courtesy and manners may become overwhelmingly uncommon for us. Some people are so noisy and loud on a train. A man sitting next to us at a café is continuously slurping his food. Your new colleague never says “Thank you”. Some people suddenly cut queues.  You feel you are ignored in the office. So as not to get offended, we need to look out for the positive reason and traditional beliefs behind people’s behaviour. We also need to have a solid understanding of our own perspectives, values, attitudes and ways of doing things, to know when and how our offensive mode is triggered.

I have one exercise that normally brings laughter to workshop sessions. Participants who work in a culturally diverse office need to come up with a range of encounters and behaviours in their office that they find annoying, offensive or which don’t make sense to them. The exercise requires close monitoring and control from the facilitator, to keep the discussion light-hearted so as not to turn the session into a battlefield. As adults are expected to be polite and well mannered, it’s not easy to get participants to open up and list the everyday minor habits that annoy them in an official space. After all, we mature workers are expected to cope sensibly in an office.

To break that ‘norm’ open requires a safe shared-learning-space to reassure participants this is not a ridiculing session; rather it is an occasion to fulfil our curiosity and share.  As participants open up, if I begin to hear someone chuckle, we are off on the right track. Afterwards we can all become proactively creative, speaking up with positive reasons why some office practices are done that way. Normally there are no right or wrong answers, but the reasons are healthier for everybody if positive. I can’t help stressing how important sincere laughter and playfulness are in this diversity-and-inclusion training context.

Minor misunderstandings, mistrust and being offended in any office situation, can escalate and result in considerable damage to businesses including financial loss.  Misunderstandings can result in tragic incidents in the community too.

It is often challenging not to get offended in life but it is something that “I can have control over. When I succeed in not being offended, I get closer to a solution. There are so many different cultures out there and I can’t understand all of them. However, I can try not to get offended when people say my beautiful babies  (now grown up) are ugly!  I just prefer that everybody tells me that my babies are gorgeous; that’s all.

Rika Asaoka

Director/Training Facilitator

Rika Asaoka from Language and Culture harmonises and unifies people in the workplace and communities. She provides interactive workshops, trainings, facilitation and mediation on Intercultural Effectiveness. Her facilitation style is known to leave a lasting impression on participants. Also an Intercultural Readiness Check Licensee, Rika is certified to use the IRC, a powerful internationally recognised tool for improving intercultural effectiveness.

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