Cultural Relativity Workshop

Holly Yasui
Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Center for Global Justice sponsored a trial run of a special “Cultural Relativity Workshop” on Saturday, December 11, for members. Approximately twenty people participated, about two-thirds foreigners (mostly from the U.S.) and one-third Mexican nationals.

The purpose of the workshop was to learn about and explore cultural differences through role-playing in various scenarios, such as greeting and conversing during a chance encounter at a bank, buying products in a store, working in a group to set up an event (cleaning, preparing a bar, an information/registration table, and projection equipment). The workshop leaders, Lilia Trápaga and Holly Yasui, also handed out pages with photos of Mexican gestures, which they acted out in dialog order to give context to meanings that are difficult to put into words.

The discussion among the participants was lively and spirited – so much so, in fact, that the first scenario and “gestures guessing-game” took up the whole two hours programmed for the workshop.

The first scenario was “played” by three pairs – first, two U.S.-Americans, then two Mexicans, then a mixed pair, a U.S.-American and a Mexican. The first two pairs were volunteers who were given stage-setting instructions and asked to improvise a typical interaction based on 1) greeting the other person 2) asking after the health of the other’s family and 3) conversing a bit and 4) saying good-bye. The third pair that “played” this scenario was the workshop leaders, a Mexican and a U.S-American.

The discussion focused on issues of physicality, courtesy, and family relationships. Participants noted that Mexicans are much more physical than U.S.-Americans (e.g. the embrace-kiss greeting, as opposed to a handshake), and that U.S.-Americans observe fewer formal courtesies than Mexicans (e.g. asking the other to sit, standing up when the other stands). One of the most interesting observations regarding the impromptu conversation was that in many Mexican families, grandparents are honored and are largely responsible for the care and cultural formation of the children when the parents are out of the home during the day working. Thus courtesies and traditions are transmitted in a way not common in the U.S., where nuclear families usually do not live with the older generation. This means that caring for aging parents is sometimes seen as a burden for working parents.

The last acting out of the scenario, by the workshop leaders, was scripted designed to point out some cultural differences / misunderstandings that U.S.-Americans and Mexicans might not otherwise notice. They emphasized the obvious issues of physicality and courtesy, including very specifically Mexican peculiarities regarding language (usage of specific words and phrases) and invitations.

The session on gestures was entertaining and instructive, since U.S.-Americans generally do not use much “body language” in comparison to Mexicans. Some Mexican gestures were known or easily guessed by the U.S.-Americans (e.g. “drinking”), while others were not. Both U.S.-Americans and Mexicans had fun learning gestures that are different but have corresponding meanings (e.g. “money”); and U.S.-Americans enjoyed the richness of Mexican gestures that do not exist in the North American “visual lexicon” (e.g. “I swear it’s true” / “te lo juro”) The context of usage of these gestures was a source of animated discussion, mostly among the Mexicans. One of the Mexican participants shared a series of gestures, subtly directed by a mother to her children who are misbehaving while in company: “keep it down” (patting downwards with the hand), “don’t do it” (“no-no” gesture with index finger), or else I’ll hit you (short jerk with the hand with palm forward).

Overall, the participants agreed that the workshop was useful and interesting. Since only one scenario was completed, there remains material for two or three more workshops, which may be programmed through the Center for Global Justice later this winter.