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The Orion

Chico State's independent student newspaper

The Orion

Chico State's independent student newspaper

The Orion

Navigating the circus of cross-cultural conversation

Zachary Phillips

A friend once asked me, “So, are you… like… actively gay?”

I’m still not quite sure who was more ignorant in that exchange: them, for asking such a strange question, or me, for sarcastically pulling out a pen and paper and writing down my weekly workout routine.

When it comes to cross-cultural experiences, there really is such a thing as a stupid question. Despite the best intentions, a single off-color or ignorant remark can rend a wound in the most solid of friendships.

If cross-cultural experiences were circuses, then approaching someone of a different culture with a personal question would be like walking a tightrope.

One must always maintain the tricky balance between delving too deep and dancing around the truth. Sometimes it’s easier to just take a dive onto the safety net that is one’s own culture.

Deep down, the respondent often feels like they’ve been strapped to a spinning wheel as questions are hurled at them like daggers. Despite their relative harmlessness, the occasional misplaced question can cut a bit too deep.

For the spectator, listening in on a diversity conversation can be so stressful that it’s often easier to just look away than to watch the awkward elephant in the room balance on a beach ball.

Many people, afraid of sounding ignorant and offensive, choose to abandon cross-cultural experiences altogether. Adopting a relational “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy may seem convenient and safe at first but will only result in isolation and ruined friendships.

It’s better to make an ignorant remark and ask for forgiveness than to feign colorblindness at the expense of others.

I’ve been in that position before and I know how terrible it feels. After learning the connotative difference between the words “undocumented” and “illegal” the hard way, I can definitively say that a few minutes as an awkward elephant can do the soul some good.

Even after his awkward poking and prodding my curious friend and I are still just that friends. If anything, the whole incident brought us closer. He gained a lesson in social literacy and I gained a workout buddy.

Given the alternative of him spending the rest of his days pondering my “activity,” the momentary strain on our friendship was well worth the trouble.

Zachary Phillips can be reached at
[email protected] or @ZachSPhillips on Twitter.

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