Intercultural Interactions: Can Discussion of Differences Bring Us Together?

I recently had dinner with a friend who secured a position in Anchorage, servicing predominately Alaska Native youth. She asked if there were any resources I could recommend to learn about Alaska Native cultures, as her individual experience and Alaska Native cultures had, to that point, seldom intersected.

She felt concern about saying anything that could offend, and a 30-minute cultural orientation at her new workplace just left her with more questions then answers. What was a good starting point for her journey of enhanced cultural sensitivity and awareness? There are a multitude of educational resources for each of the rich cultures in Alaska. However, as she was starting her job the following week, here were three essential concepts I shared:

The Cultural Iceberg

In the 1970’s, intercultural researcher Edward T. Hall proposed that culture was like an iceberg, and was generally composed of two parts – internal and external.

External culture was the tip of the iceberg – when you look at a culture other than your own, it’s the parts that you see: clothing, food, language, music, dances, games, festivals, arts and crafts, and the like. Internal culture is the other 90% of the iceberg, encompassing attitudes toward elders and adolescents, work and authority, communication styles and rules (personal space, touching, tone of voice, etc.) concepts of time, fairness and justice, approaches to marriage and child-rearing, notions of friendship, beauty, modesty—the list continues.

Every once in a while I’ll hear someone say, “I wish I had a culture.” Everyone has a culture, though if you have not had the opportunity to travel to a different land or interact with a different people, it can be difficult to ascertain otherwise where your culture stops and another culture begins. However, as the iceberg shows us, every person has implicitly and subconsciously picked up and developed concepts of all the internal notions listed.

One fallacy is that if somebody looks like you in appearance, or other differences in external culture seem imperceptible, it means that they must be like you on the inside; that isn’t necessarily the case. Those notions, that which cannot be seen, are typically the source of daily intercultural clash that is felt by both parties, though in the moment the points of conflict can rarely be discerned.

Approaching interactions, one culture is not the “default” culture and the other is the one that’s “different.” Enter with the frame of mind that both parties have a culture of their own; time can be just as well spent studying Alaska Native cultures, or challenging yourself to understand your own beliefs, where your own culture ends and another begins, especially notions that have been implicitly and subconsciously learned.

On A Hill, On A Hike

She told me that she had heard some things in the orientation, like “Don’t give too much eye contact” and was wondering what heeding that advice would really look like in an interaction. I decided to back up and provide some high-level context to help frame where those suggestions and directives were coming from.

I told her to imagine the last time she was on a hike or out in nature, and she climbed to the top of a mountain or a hill: How did you feel, to be encompassed by such awe and beauty? What was your energy level like? Did you feel loud and chatty, or were you quieted inside?

In much of urban America, nature is a place that you go to, separate from where you do your actual living. “I really like spending time in nature” is a phrase often heard. What if everything about your life not separate from that quieted feeling?

Over time, that quieted feeling becomes sewn into your people, your mannerisms, and all your ways of being. Everything is softened, and is more subtle. As a result, other skills are magnified and valued, such as the power of observation and truly, holistically listening, and abrupt encounters with chatter, over-exuberance and filler conversation can feel abrasive and nonsensical to someone coming from this experience and way of being. Culture is largely shaped by environment.

In other parts of America, particularly in the urban areas, there are other skills are necessary for success; a softened, quieted way of being can be a challenge in a place where being vocal is a necessity, assertiveness is akin to survival, and the speed of speech and the use of Standard American English is tied to subconscious notions of intelligence and capability. Environment shapes the culture of the people living there; there is a reason for why and how people are the way they are, no matter where you are.

Not better, not worse, just different.

If greater Western American culture is largely your own, it’s easy to look at many Alaska Native people as “quiet,” or “indirect,” “incommunicative.” To that, you are looking through the only lens the culture you were raised in has provided you, but you can guarantee a fellow community member can see all they need to know. Conversely, I’ve had many experiences traveling in rural communities with members of greater Western American culture where the local community members saw them as “abrasive,” “rash,” “doesn’t listen,” or “talks without thinking.” There is a reason for why people are the way they are. Not better, not worse, just different.

Symptoms of Historical Trauma

Last week, I phoned an elder to ask if she would be willing to join a language project in Anchorage. I called and introduced myself in the language of my region; I told her who I was, what family I came from, the names of my relatives, where I worked and the project I was involved in, all in Iñupiaq, and asked if she was interested in learning more or wanted to join. There was a pause, a long pause…filled by a robust and sorrowful wail. Respectfully, I stayed on the line; there was no expectation from me except to be present; when her sobs subsided, she was able to utter a few sentences before having to end the call. What she conveyed was a mixture of great joy and terrible pain; not only was she hearing a young person speaking Iñupiaq, but she was hearing it spoken so openly, and so freely.

“Historical trauma” is a concept encapsulating unresolved indigenous issues as a result of, but certainly not limited to, sudden colonization, introduction of disease, forced relocation, dependence upon an oppressor, the affects of missionaries and being sent to boarding schools. This was a young elder, in her early 60’s. There is a history here in Alaska that is so very recent; there are people walking around our communities reeling from this pain, still.

Alaska is unfortunately home to rates of violence and abuse well above the national average, and the statistics are well known. People who have been hurt are more likely to perpetuate the hurt; behaviors are passed down and learned; these are all symptoms of a much larger historical shock to entire peoples that haven’t just reeled from sudden change, but are survivors of it.

The good news is that the dust is settling. A generation is emerging where many of its members, despite being in contact with many of these issues, will be okay, and our children will be okay, and that’s how cycles break. So when you see these symptoms, when you see displacement, or loss of identity, or learned abuse, simply know that there are historical reasons, and that so many in our communities are working to tackle these issues head-on.


Why write a piece on the ways that people diverge? We certainly don’t need more division in our community. But perhaps by leaning in, acknowledging differences, and understanding not just other cultures, but understanding ourselves, will bring people in our community closer and will facilitate discussions in a more aware and educated way, because we are all here now. We all share this land. We are all Alaskans.

Not better, not worse. Just different.

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