Why can't people say what they really mean? Why do people hide what their true feelings? Why do people say "yes" but mean "no" ?
What has tested my patience the most is understanding- and misunderstanding- people. People often say one thing but mean another. Of course, this dilemma is not exclusive to cross-cultural relationships but it is certainly heightened when one is dealing with complex cultural and social barriers. And a language barrier.
During my time in the Philippines I have tried to be as culturally sensitive as possible, adjusting my behaviour in line with what I learn. These little changes have made a real difference to the relationships I am forming, particularly within the host-home. Lola Emma (my host-grandma) notices and appreciates my effort to wash my clothes more regularly (instead of doing the typical student thing of waiting until all my clothes are dirty). I have copied what the family do- often washing my dirty laundry as I shower- so that I never have to re-wear an outfit, because this is a big "no no" in Filipino culture. My refusal to eat with a fork and spoon has also been well received. I have chosen to eat like the family- using my hands- which in my opinion makes eating a much more tactile experience (and reduces the challenge of fish bones!) After weeks of being provided the option of cutlery, the family have finally realised that I like to eat with my hands and no longer leave out a fork and spoon. (NB. This is the Filipino equivalent to a knife and fork).
However, there is only so much you can learn through observation. The rest is left up to me to work out. My desire to be culturally sensitive has, at times, stressed me out because I have often been left to gauge what someone is really thinking or feeling . For example, last Sunday I had agreed to meet with the volunteers to watch a few films. However, Sunday is family day and so I wanted to check with my host-family if it was okay if I missed lunch. The response I received gave me mixed messages because they said "yes" but I sensed some disappointment. Was this an example of the Filipino 'saying "yes" but meaning "no"' trait? I asked again and once more was told "not to worry!" and to "go have fun with my friends!" But as I set off for town I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had upset or even offended someone. And so I spent the whole afternoon regretting my decision to leave the house, didn't enjoy the movies and got myself stuck in a cycle of over-thinking what everyone was thinking.
As it turns out my family were genuinely fine with me not being at lunch, they just missed my presence.
Another example of this 'yes and no' dilemma happened during a team social. I asked one of the Filipino volunteers if they had the number for 'Jollybean' (a fast food chain equivalent to McDonald's) so that we could order some take-out. The girl said "yes" but then assumed that I was asking her to organise the entire team meal. So she ended up running round town bulk buying street food because she didn't have the number after all! I felt awful that my simple request for a phone number had been taken completely the wrong way- why hadn't she just been honest with me? And had I unconsciously taken advantage of her accommodating manner?
On days like these I have become impatient with people- not just Filipino people- but ALL people, for not being more black and white. For not being more straightforward. I myself have spent the last few years trying to be more assertive- prescribing to the method of ripping the plaster off instead of peeling it back slowly. The best way of explaining this is to think back to a time when you had an invitation you didn't want to take up. Let's say you've been invited to a party that you should probably go to, but you are too tired and just want a night in watching X-Factor and eating galaxy chocolate. Regardless of how you decide to tell your friend, he/she will be slightly disappointed. But the blow will lessen if you say straight up what you want: "I'm sorry but I won't be able to make it tonight as I'm blah blah blah..."- (to be honest the excuse part is optional). What makes it worse is when you try to be polite and sensitive to your friend, but then never actually say what you mean: "yeah I'm feeling kinda ill, so yeah I might be there, hopefully..." but then later bail anyways. Sometimes you've got to be cruel to be kind.
But the human race isn't always this 'black and white' because of the simple fact that we are human: we contradict ourselves; we think with our hearts; we are indecisive; we want to please everyone. These 'multi-coloured' imperfections are what make humanity so diverse, so explosive and so exciting.
People are perfectly imperfect. And I need to be more patient with people.
What I've realised is that when disagreement, upset or offence arises in another country, it is not always due to cultural insensitivity: it is quite often just a clash of personal interests. You can't make everyone happy - even if you are the most culturally sensitive person in the world- because cultures are made up of individuals who have their own personal beliefs. And I'm definitely not friends with everyone I meet in the UK, so the same applies when abroad.
It's not cultural. It's personal.