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Respecting Cultural Differences

Sara Ani
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 4, August-September 1997, pp. 79

One exciting aspect of La Leche League is its international scope. Leaders, Groups and members are found in countries all over the globe. Mothering through breastfeeding transcends cultural and language differences.

Mothers who attend Series Meetings represent a wide range of ethnic, racial and religious groups. All are eager to share their experiences and this is best accomplished in an atmosphere of respect for individuality. Although the world has "grown smaller" through the use of technology, we need to continue to be aware of the barriers that differences can create.

A Leader uses several ways to demonstrate her awareness of a mother's culture and how it impacts on her interactions with others. She is alert to the nuances of body language and speech as well as her own personal bias. She is mindful that she sets the tone for the entire Group. The other mothers will notice her sensitivity, appreciate it and perhaps increase their own sensitivity.

It is estimated that as much as 70% of communication is nonverbal. Add to this the fact that different cultures have different meanings for the same body language. This was made clear to me during an exercise at the International Management Symposium held after the 1995 LLLI Conference. After we were paired up and each given different cultural scripts, we tried to communicate, ignorant of our partner's nonverbal messages. We realized that in order to communicate we needed to know more about each other.

Body language involves all the nonverbal behaviors that another exhibits including the posture, eye contact and even the "space" an individual requires.

For example, some cultures are more formal and look aghast at casual postures. A friend of mine, while traveling in the Middle East, sat in a synagogue with his legs crossed. A Sephardic man rebuked him for having what he considered casual attitude in a holy place.

Americans tend to look people in the eye. They are uncomfortable without continuous eye contact and assume that the other is hiding something or being less than honest if they look away. However, in some cultures, especially in Asia, it is a sign of respect to look down when spoken to and disrespectful to have continuous eye contact.

Similarly, cultures have specific expectations about the proximity of others. Latin Americans and southern Europeans stand closer to each other and touch more than Americans. Yet several British Leaders confided in me that they are sometimes uncomfortable with the level of hugging and kissing that American women display.

Verbal language can also be a barrier, even when everyone thinks they are speaking the same language. British Leaders point out that British English and American English have different words for the same object such as nappies and diapers. French Leaders relate that the same French word can have a totally different meaning in Quebec. Couple this with the use of abbreviations, acronyms, slang and "LLL lingo" and you can how see confusing communication can be.

In addition to body language and verbal expression there are issues of food, religious beliefs and parenting practices to consider. All combine to create a network of values and opinions that must be respected.

Within my own Group, a very diverse one, monthly meetings find me cautioning members about frequent use of Yiddish and Hebrew words that others may not understand as well as talk about religious holiday preparations. Further, I must think about our meeting place. Some women may feel uncomfortable meeting in a location that is a house of worship. They may wonder if it implies that La Leche League is affiliated with a certain religious group.

Cultural and religious beliefs also often include ideas about modesty and nursing in front of others or how long a child should nurse. There also may be reluctance about stepping out of one's local neighborhood to attend meetings.

Balancing the needs of a diverse Group can be both challenging and rewarding.

When a Leader is aware of the social and religious complexities of the Group she can help mothers breastfeed within the context of their own cultural and religious doctrine. She can meet mothers' needs by being sensitive to differences, accepting these differences and looking for commonalities. She can be aware of how these things affect communication and can set the tone for meetings.

These six simple ideas have worked for me as I have tried to build a Group bonded by a focus on commonalities rather than differences:

  • Listen to others with an open mind.
  • Talk less.
  • Learn by asking questions.
  • Use a sense of humor to smooth over uncomfortable moments.
  • Realize that you have limitations and can't possibly know all there is to know about other cultures.
  • Share information about your own culture.

When Leaders develop respect for mothers who attend Series Meetings and demonstrate acceptance, other attendees will follow. Our goal as Leaders is to create an atmosphere that allows every mother to feel respected and supported. This enables her to feel comfortable as she exchanges ideas and becomes more receptive to LLL ideas.

The LEADER'S HANDBOOK sums it up well:

"The primary goal is to provide each mother with good, sound knowledge and allow her to proceed with the rearing of her child according to her own beliefs, values and personality." A Leader can do this if she respects and works with cultural differences.

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