You may have heard the quote “Wonderful country France . . . pity about the French.” (often attributed to Oxford historian Richard Cobb)

The thing is, people who hear this concept about the French and then go to France often come back with their worst ideas confirmed. Why is that? Usually it’s because they’re not being culturally compassionate.

What the heck is cultural compassion?

What I call cultural compassion, the field of Cultural Anthropology calls “cultural relativism”. Here’s a very bookish definition for you:


Translation into regular person English: Cultural relativism is the idea that we have no objective way to say that one culture is better than any other. It also says that every belief or behavior must be viewed in the context of its culture. (side note: this includes our own beliefs and behaviors, too).

Take this common situation from two different perspectives:

A group of American students in Paris decide to go out to dinner together at a restaurant. They order their food and give their menus back to the waiter. The waiter seems stiff and unfriendly, and takes a long time to come back to fill up their water and see if they need anything. They are all having a great time, laughing, talking, and eating delicious French food and drinking wine. When they’re done eating, they keep trying to get his attention to bring the bill over, but he won’t look over at them. They’re very annoyed that he didn’t give them very good service.

Now from the point of view of the waiter:

A group of young Americans barge into the restaurant, and are led to a table in the back, in the side room because Americans are so loud and disrespectful. The French waiter goes over to the table and quietly introduces himself, treating them the same as he does any of his other tables. He’s annoyed that they barely pay attention to him. Then they start shouting their orders at him in English, asking complicated questions, and changing their minds halfway through. They all shove the menus at him over the table and ignore him and go back to their very loud conversation. Through the evening, he watches the table from a distance, not pestering them, and keeping an eye out for the usual cues that they need something. None of these happen. They seem annoyed when he brings over the bill.

See what I mean? Same story, different perspective.

“But how can these two groups see the same situation so differently, Claire?”

Because each is coming from the perspective of their own culture, bringing a set of beliefs and expectations with them.

In the US, tips comprise a majority of a waiter’s paycheck. Waiters are often (though not always) students, and this is not their career. The expectation is to be cheerful, smiling, and ingratiating to the customers and checking in often. In the US, “the customer is always right”.

In France, none of that is the case. Waiters are paid fairly, and it’s a respected industry and craft. Oftentimes, it is a career. French waiters consider it a point of pride to know from distant glance whether their customers need anything. In French culture it’s also normal and expected for you to linger over your meal. So in France, if a waiter is constantly checking on your table, a French person would feel pressured to leave. By not checking on your table all the time and not rushing to bring the bill, your French waiter is inviting you to linger at the restaurant and relax.

Travel helps us all be more culturally compassionate

The important thing to take away from all this is that neither one of these groups is better than the other. The waiter was not bad. And the students were not obnoxious. They carried a different set of expectations, and judged each other based on their own cultural beliefs.

All of that negativity and miscommunication could have been avoided if two things happened:

  • Each group understood that there was a cultural disconnect happening
  • And (in the case of the students, at least) they did some research ahead of time to have a better understanding of the culture they were interacting with.

That way, the students might have tried to re-think their behavior in the restaurant to be more considerate to the French diners around them. The waiter might have checked on them a little more often, even though he wasn’t used to it. Everyone is happier!


Being culturally compassionate makes the world a better place

There’s really no two ways around it. Being more culturally compassionate makes the world a better place. And I mean this in two ways.

  • When you move through the world with a culturally compassionate attitude, you’ll enjoy the world more. You’ll experience less negative feelings. People will see your compassion and be better and nicer and more compassionate to you. Now, I’m not naive. I know it’s not some granola magic of putting positivity in the world and everyone will be nice to you. But think about it. If you meet someone new who’s super judgmental right off the bat and insists on doing things their way, you’re probably not going to like them very much and you probably won’t go out of your way to be nice to them. But if you meet someone super compassionate, who is open to listening and hearing about your beliefs and the way you do things and see the world, you’re probably going to like them and be nice to them and be open to them in return. That’s just how people are.
  • If more people were culturally compassionate, it would solve a lot of what’s wrong with the world. A lot of the hate I see in the world today stems from one group believing that their culture is better than another, or who is afraid of “the Other”. But by definition of “cultural relativism”, no one culture is objectively better than another, right? And by being more culturally compassionate and being open to learning about other cultures, you will see them as people, not as “Other”. So out go the fear and hate.

Being culturally compassionate takes practice

Now, the example of the American students and the French waiter is a minor situation. There are all kinds of experiences, misunderstandings, and interactions that can pretty much totally be blamed on cultural differences.

And at first, being culturally compassionate is really difficult. When you’re going through culture shock or dealing with homesickness, the last thing you want to do is be compassionate about cultural differences. There are going to be times when all you want is something familiar. And that’s okay, as long as you don’t let these moments be the ones you take along with you in your long-term conception of the culture you’re visiting. 

It’s also going to take time to train your brain to develop the habit. There are still times when I catch myself and have to correct my thoughts; it happens to everyone. And it takes practice. We’ve been in our home culture our whole lives. It’s natural for your brain to say “No! Things are this way! This other thing is wrong!” Cultural compassion is when you know that those thoughts are conditioned by the culture you come from. What makes you compassionate is when you self-correct your habitual thinking. 

The more you travel, and the more cultures you interact with, the more culturally compassionate you’ll become. Before long, it’ll be second nature to you if it isn’t already. And then you’ll be contributing to making the world more culturally compassionate too.

Get your travel on!

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