by E

I hope you had a great Christmas – at least that would make one of us.

This past Christmas started out like a lot of others. I had planned to spend Christmas Day, the most important day of the holiday, with a special girl I’m seeing. A few of cultural misunderstandings later, Christmas was pretty much ruined and a few tough lessons were learned.

At first, there was the small miscommunication about when we would meet. Being the great guy that I am, I thought I was doing a great thing by reserving all of Christmas Day to spend with her. Christmas Day is the special day, after all – it’s when families, or people important to each other, get together to celebrate. While Christmas Eve is also a special date, the people who are important to us usually have priority on Christmas Day. Well, my plan wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. Apparently, in Asia, the most important day of the holiday is Christmas Eve, since people can be together as Christmas Eve turns to Christmas Day. I’ll spare you the shit storm that that little issue produced.

But I will lead you right back into another one. This time around, I caused major Christmas Eve drama by uttering two simple sentences: I’m not sure, and Where are we meeting? The day before we had been discussing our plans for Christmas Eve. She wanted to drink, but I wanted to do something more mellow. At first we were planning on eating in Itaewon, a major foreigner district in Seoul. We planned to make our way to the Outback Steakhouse, seeing as we wouldn’t make it in time for any of the special Christmas dinners being hosted by any of the expat- frequented pubs. When she heard I didn’t really want to drink, though, we agreed on going up to Seoul City Hall to see a big tree after eating. The next day, after asking if we would be meeting in Itaewon or another place, the fireworks started.

The first text I got back from her was, I hate you. A little bit harsh for Christmas Eve, to be sure. From there it escalated to a lot of swearing and verbal attacks. She made claims of me not caring, of just thinking of her as just another girl, and kept sending me snippets of conversation in the form of attached screen-shots of our previous conversation. She was absolutely raging over how I had approached the evening with her. To her, the plans had been set, and clear, and I was a bastard for not taking them, or her, seriously.

As far as I was concerned, I did nothing wrong. I had made time for her on the most important day of the year, and then switched my assumed plans when she complained. I had worked with her to find something good to do on Christmas Eve, and was now just seeking clarification on where we would meet to eat. Her behaviour, on the other hand, bordered on complete insanity. Seeing the tears form in her eyes after we met in the subway station that night, though, made it clear just how angry and hurt she felt.

All of this took place via text message – the plans, the fights, the questions, the discussions, and then even more fights. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that texting ruined my Christmas this year. All of this has led me to adopt three key rules when it comes to dating.

Rule #1 Don’t Have Serious Discussions Over a Text Based Medium

It’s no secret that text messaging has become all the rage among the hip young kids these days. I remember a time when if you wanted to to make a phone call, you pulled into a gas station and walked over to a clear glass booth with a quarter in your hand – or you just drove home. Hard to believe now, but that’s for another post. The point is, text based communication – whether SMS messaging, internet messaging apps such as KakaoTalk, LINE, WeChat and WhatsApp, have almost totally replaced phone conversations when it comes to dating. I don’t know anybody who prefers to talk on the phone with girls anymore, and I don’t know any girl who prefers to  speak rather than tap away on her glass screen with her butterfly painted nails. Whether you like it or not, the phone is dead.

But the rise of easy text-based communication has roused a whole new demon, an issue deeply rooted in how people communicate. When two people communicate in person – the form of communication nature has perfected in us over millions of years – we transfer a lot of information from one person to another. To start, there is the look of the person who approaches us: large or small, familiar or unfamiliar, apparently hostile or not. We gather this information not via linguistic elements but through visual cues. We can see the size of the person fairly easily, but further cues are introduced as the person approaches closer. We automatically, and almost instantly, run a cognitive visual-scanning-and-matching process to try to identify the person as he nears. We also pay specific attention to his facial expression, and then transition our attention down to his hands. If a weapon is present  our evolutionary design locks our attention onto the weapon, and adjusts our likely response in a way that increases the chance of our own survival. When actually making conversation, cues in tone or volume of the person’s voice helps highlight meaning in a way that words can’t, such as making it clear that the person is speaking with irony, comfort, or anger. Further visual cues are used to highlight points, such as a clenched fist which could highlight unease, pain, or hostility, while other body cues communicate other subtle subtexts, such as power dynamics, or the desire to mate. Psychologists estimate that over 70%, and perhaps as much as 90%, of our communication is based on nonverbal cues.

When we introduce the phone, though, we take away all of these visual elements. We strip away every visual cue we could have used to assess the rest of the message if we were standing face to face. Instead of the rich tapestry of visual, verbal, and tonal cues, we’re left with roughly half of the information we need for optimal communication. Sure, we can still communicate, but a lot of the message is lost. We can’t easily tell, for example, if the person on the other end of the copper wire is bored of the conversation or resents something we have just said. Not without that person voicing it, at any rate. As big of a benefit as (the greatest Canadian inventor ever) Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone technology has been to Mankind, it’s still a really poor communications device.

And that’s just the telephone. As soon as we introduce any form of text-based communication, even more of the message is lost. With text messaging, or programs such as Gtalk, we strip away not only the visual cues required to have a completely accurate understanding of the message, we also strip away volume and tonal cues. In effect, we strip away nearly 70% of the message. Those bashful smiles, that enthusiastic tone, that sarcastic zip, are just not received and, as a result, it leaves a lot open to interpretation. Essentially, the less information that is sent with the message the more information the receiver has to fill in to complete his or her understanding of what was said.

That can be fine if the two people are always on the same page about everything they think, say, or do, but how often does that happen? I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t happen often. If this is true, then discussing important things over a text based medium might not be the best action to take. In fact, it could be downright dangerous. Just look at what happened when I tried to discuss my culture’s perspective on Christmas, and where my default, well-intentioned, mindset was. All I got back was, I didn’t know we were in Canada, and, I hate you.

Rule #2 Understand That Your Conception of Reality Can be Vastly Different From That of Other People’s

Discussion over the phone can be made that much more difficult if we don’t stop to consider how the other person might think. Going about our day to day lives, we have the automatic assumption that other people not only see the world the same way we do, but also make sense of it in the exact same way as us. We just automatically assume that the self-evident truths we see about the world are also understood by our friends, neighbors, coworkers, or even strangers. Of course, all of this is absurd.

The truth is that people look out at the world from a different perspective – we all see it a little bit differently. Those self-evident truths that we see – that coffee makes people jittery, that  broccoli tastes foul, that the iPhone provides a superior user experience to Android – are not so self-evident to other people. In fact, in the head-space of your next-door neighbour, those may not be truths at all. According to your nieghbour, coffee might provide a smooth perk of energy during the day, and Android might have a far better user experience because of its customizability. When you think about it, there are all sorts of things that people see differently, so their world might be vastly different from your own. Why else do we get such heated (insane?) debates between Republicans and Democrats? One side is stupid, the other heartless? I don’t think so…

Of course, one of the best ways to encounter sharp differences in world views is to date someone from another culture. Here, not only do you get those same individual variations between worldviews that you get from person to person, but you also get major shifts in world views that exist between cultures. Think it’s rude to be lied to? Is lying an obviously immoral act? Think again. Asia is a lot different from the West and major differences in worldview have to be accounted for if you are to have successful relationships here.

That’s really the first step. Without recognizing that women in Asia operate under a vastly different world view, you’ll have a difficult time getting an Asian girlfriend, never mind keeping one. It goes further than that, though. Understanding that there is a big difference in world view between western guys and Asian girls is key to preventing and resolving disputes in your relationships.

The next step is talking about the issue, and getting a grasp on how your partner thinks, and why. So long as two people understand that there are different worldviews in operation, they can be dissected, understood and dealt with. A lot of the time the expectations that Asian women have about their man is much different from the expectations that a western guy thinks she has. Much of the time, the things that she wants out of the relationship – when you spend time together, what you do for major holidays, how you interact with each other’s peer-group, the level of exclusivity between the two of you at each stage of the relationship – will be different. Being flexible with what you want, or are willing to accept, is key. A relationship is really the result of an implicit negotiation two (or more) people have to arrive at a method of interaction; and, while it’s possible to trick and deceive the other party in order to get your way, it’s much more constructive to discover the needs and wants of the other party and then agree on a middle ground where both are happy.

Rule # 3 When Issues Arise, Give the Benefit of the Doubt

Issues will always arise. That’s an inevitable part of dating. They’re also far more likely when dating between cultures, and the misunderstandings are likely to be larger, as well. Christmas this year was just one example of how a difference in worldview can blowup into a major relationship-shaker. Ultimately, there will be more of those in the future – and that can’t be helped. As much as you can learn about your girl’s culture, there will be things that will escape your line of sight.

Of course, there are things about your own culture that she might not have expected, too. When this happens, you really have two courses of action available: default to blaming her actions on bad intent or a shitty personality, or pause and give her the benefit of the doubt in order to find out exactly what’s going on. Most of us just turn to blaming the girl for her bad behaviour, but this is far from the an ideal action to take. Automatically assuming that your girl was acting badly will ultimately cause tension in your relationship, and will prevent you from learning more about your girl’s culture and how she sees the world. If you’re keen on maintaining your current relationship, take a break then seek out more information.

The End?

Having a girl that understands all this is important. Whenever I date girls, I make sure that they’re both easy going and have an open mind about cultural differences. That helps a lot.

I ended up talking to my girl about all of this throughout the following week. After a lot of time and some creative language workarounds, we finally got on the same page with what happened, and how to short circuit future blowups. While I don’t think we’ll be able to circumvent all of our future issues, sticking to these three rules will go a long way to preserving a great relationship.