The Language of Love

March 13, 2009
tic tac toe with hearts & x's

Cross-cultural marital communication

Not long ago I was at a book exchange night in Prague. Someone brought John Gray’s best-selling relationship guide Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. After a quick glance through the book, one of the women present said, “Yeah, well, I could give it a read, but I already know Czech men are from outer space.”

Since all but one of us was married to a Czech, we found the comment hilarious, and we spent the following few moments laughing commiserating on some common marital grievances. By the end of the night, I’d gotten a sense that I wasn’t the only woman in the world to become frustrated by her husband’s communication style. It was reassuring to hear my girlfriends telling similar stories about their Czech husbands. Even if we all knew that we couldn’t realistically put a single label on all our husbands, it helped to learn that some of our differences were as much cultural as personal.

From the beginning of our relationship, I knew that Radek and I had strikingly different temperaments. Still, it took us several years to realize that many of our arguments resulting from miscommunications had as much to do with our cultural upbringings as our individual personal traits. In many cases, some of my husband’s most admirable attributes are the ones that strike the greatest discord when we disagree. It’s highly likely, that the same goes for me.
Early on in our dating days Radek and I went to a sporting goods store so I could look for new running tights. He helped me pick out a few pairs, and I went into the dressing room to try them on. When I modeled them for his approval, I was shocked and hurt when he honestly replied, “They are no good. You have short legs and the pants make your legs look even shorter.”

Tearful, I fled the dressing room and the shopping trip was aborted. A few minutes later my Czech girlfriend who witnessed the scene tried to calm me down by saying Radek wasn’t trying to be insensitive, and that she understood why I was upset, but that she also understood Radek’s perspective. While there have been many times since that moment, that I have truly appreciated Radek’s directness, this was one of the times that I hated the Czech propensity for honesty.

Growing up, I’d been raised that being polite was paramount. Criticisms, particularly regarding something as personal as someone’s style, were usually softened with an accompanying compliment. (Those pants aren’t as flattering as some I’ve seen you wear. Why don’t you try another pair?) While the end result is the same (the pants are no good), after spending 25 years dancing linguistically around sensitive issues, Radek’s honesty seemed like a slap in the face.

When my father visited Prague a few months after Radek and I started dating, I overheard him talking to several American expat men over dinner one night. He offered them advice on helping a woman pick an outfit. You’ll have the best success, he advised, if you try to figure out how the woman feels about the outfit first. Never commit one way or the other until you’ve gauged what she wants you to tell her. Plus, you can never go wrong, if you tell her she looks good, he finished.

My guy friends hooted with laughter, but they agreed that when asked their opinion on their girlfriend’s style, they typically compliment her, regardless of how they truly feel. Radek was silent during the conversation, but later he confessed to me that he could never say something he didn’t mean, even if he knew it was what I wanted to hear.

Now, 7 years later, I’ve become accustomed to Radek’s style of direct communication and his lack of giving much verbal praise. In our relationship, outward compliments from Radek are rare, but when they come I feel as if I’ve won the lottery, and they tend to carry me through the times when he assumes I know he’s proud of me, without telling me.

I’ve learned that asking for Radek’s opinion means that I have to be ready to hear something that I might not like. (i.e. I liked your hair better before you got it cut. It’s too short now.) Taking criticism has never been one of my strong suits, so learning to accept my husband’s comments and realize that he’s not trying to be mean or hurtful, just truthful, has been an ongoing challenge.

During one of our recent discussions about improving our martial communication, Radek told me, “Why do I need to tell you that I’m happy with you? I’m happy 90% of the time and when I’m not happy, then I’ll tell you.” I groaned. I tried to set him straight by telling him once again, I’d really appreciate hearing regular positive reinforcement. Although I knew I was fighting a personal as well as a cultural battle.

I might not have attributed Radek’s behavior to his Czech upbringing if I hadn’t had a few run-ins with Czechs exhibiting similar sentiments. For nearly a year, I tried in vain to instigate discussion with Anna Lee’s Czech preschool teacher about Anna’s adaptation to školka. Every day at pick-up, I waited to see if Anna’s teacher would offer any specific information about Anna’s behavior that day.

Even though I often asked her pointed questions, I never got anything more than an occasional “Byla dobrá.” (She was good.) Twice during the year, however, Anna’s teacher met me at the door with the news that Anna had wet her pants. On these occasions, her teacher spoke at length about the pants-wetting incident. While she wasn’t really fussing at Anna for wetting her pants, I was surprised that these were the most momentous conversations we had over the whole year. Apart from the one day that the front door lock jammed and the children couldn’t go outside and Anna started crying hysterically. The teacher made a point to tell me, half-annoyed half-laughing, about that incident.

When I questioned my Czech friends about their experiences with school, they all told me that Anna’s teacher was the norm. My Czech girlfriends complained of never hearing praise from their teachers and rarely from their parents growing up. A few of these friends are now part of “half-n-half” marriages to American men, and they admitted that it took them awhile to get used to hearing praise from their husbands and their husbands’ families, particularly when they felt the praise was way out of line with their own perception of what they deserved.

When I hear someone back in America gushing over how “utterly gorgeous” that dress is or how the food at the new restaurant is “out-of-this world delicious,” I catch myself smiling. I was raised to praise things in the superlative, and old-habits die-hard. I’m still more apt to over-praise my children, telling them that they are “the best” and “the brightest,” as opposed to keeping silent and rarely praising them. But, I’m their parent, so I think it’s my privilege. Plus, they’ve got their father to balance me out. As soon as they learn that language comes with a cultural heritage, in addition to a linguistic one, the smoother their cross-cultural transitions may become.

Recently, I’m trying to be more receptive to the truth, straight-up, no sugar-coating, and I’m coaching Radek that keeping a woman like me happy is easier with frequent verbal acknowledgments of appreciation. As we continue to forage our marital path, I think our cultural differences add depth to our relationship – and certainly keep our lives more interesting.

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