Without Cross-Cultural Competence, This Love Story Would Be Impossible to Tell

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Imagine you were telling someone a story. A fairy tale that involved the love between a knight and a princess. The task might sound fairly easy: A knight saw a princess. He fell in love with her, proposed to her, and they got married.

Now imagine you were telling this story to a person who is completely unfamiliar with European culture. The story would be much more difficult to tell. To begin with, you would first have to explain what a knight is. A princess is easy to understand: the daughter of the person who rules the country. But what is a knight?

To explain the concept of a knight, you would first have to introduce the whole political structure of Medieval Europe. A king gave his land to his lords, and the lords hired knights who didn’t have land to protect their lands – This is as brief as you could do. But why would a rich woman like a princess marry a man who doesn’t have land?

This is where you would have to introduce the literary context of a knight. Apart from its political and historical significance, this social class carried special value in literature, including poetry, lyrics and folklores. The idea of chivalry and gentlemen behaviour, and the importance of protecting the poor, the weak, the young and the women, should all be emphasized right now.

If your audience was from a patriarchal society, by this point they might start to understand the potential of a knight being a good spouse. However, to people from matriarchal societies, the categorization and grouping of women with the sick and the poor does not make sense. But that’s alright, just tell them that’s how the rule works, and let’s move on to the next challenge.

Now you started to explain what on earth love is. As ridiculous as it might sound, the western concept of romantic love is non-existent in many cultures. In some, the idea of love is divided into a binary: the good kind of love, which they call admiration, worship, loyalty, obedience, respect and filial piety; and the bad kind of love, which they name as possessiveness, sexual attraction, jealousy, addiction and lust. Love, the umbrella term, doesn’t exist when it comes to human-to-human; only the different aspects and expressions of love come in very detailed wordings.

Having explained one of the most complex human emotions, your knight and princess now could finally take their business to the next levels: courtship, proposal and marriage. These phases are different in every culture, so be very careful how you address each step and each move. How were they introduced to each other? Did the princess love the knight back? Would it matter if she didn’t? Did they date at all? If so, in secret or with the companion of a (or two) chaperone(s)? Were people from opposite genders allowed to exchange gifts? Who took initiative to propose, either to the other person or to their parents? Could they marry without the presence of other people? Why was it important for the bride to say “I do” at the wedding? As the fairy tale unfolds, you would find the information load surprisingly high for such aa short story when your audience is from a different culture. It’s entirely possible that you would have a different combination of explanations to these details as you told it to different people.

The fairy tale finally came to an end. You concluded your story with “and they lived happily ever after,” and watched as your audience nodded and clapped still with an extent of confusion in their eyes. You started to realize that culturally speaking, this simple children’s story that you picked is hardly entry-level at all.

As English speakers or people grew up hearing these stories, we might be accustomed to the worldview and values they conveyed and take them as the universal default. This privilege made it hard for us to realize how our society looks like from an outsider’s point-of-view. Even though we were not lectured on these values as children, the environment we grew up in still discreetly shaped who we are; and this, although often neglected in a modern society, is the indispensable power of culture.