We all know communication in relationships can be…er…complicated. And cross-cultural relationships come with some unique “toppings” on the old relationship pizza. (We all think of relationships in terms of pizza analogies, right? Or am I just hungry?)
With language barriers, cultural differences, and logistical challenges such as, “your continent or mine,” it’s a wonder any cross-cultural relationships get past the (often long distance) dating phase.
However, I’ve had a few lovely misunderstandings in my own relationship which have actually benefitted our communication in the long run. Here are 3 examples.
1. “Are you bigger than that woman?”
…he asked as we stood in line to buy our coffee. I was speechless which was his first clue that something was off. I think I maybe also wasn’t breathing? So that was probably his second clue. “Is he fat shaming me!?” I thought as I considered whether to simply walk out of the café like a sexy, confident queen or start knocking over stacks of coffee beans and screaming profanities. Maybe I could do both?
“Babe?” He asked.
“nnhhh,” I sort of snorted.
Blank stares from both of us ensued. I realized I would have to act like a human at some point, for better or for worse, and took a deep breath before calmly asking, “what do you mean?”
“Well, you’re wearing heels so you’re bigger than her now but would you be bigger than her without the heels? I can’t tell.”
Blood resumed flowing to all of my extremities as I realized he was asking if I was taller than her. Turns out, no stacks of coffee beans would be damaged that day.
But the question became a gem of all gems in our relationship. “What do you mean?” It’s helped me keep my dignity in countless moments of assuming the worst. Even 10 years into our lives together, asking for clarification has been worthwhile every time.
2. Ich bin farting!
We had just started dating and I was excited to impress him with the German I’d learned on my language app in just one week. (Hashtag language genius!) We met at his apartment and were getting ready in separate rooms to go out to dinner. I called out what I thought was, “ich bin fertig,” which means, “I am ready,” in German. But my pronunciation was so bad that I actually called out, “ich bin farting,” which means, well, something different. The long silence coming from the other room, I was confident, was him being impressed. Finally, he simply called back, “ok.” I didn’t think any more of it, and we went to dinner. It was weeks before I realized I was pronouncing that word wrong and brought it up to him. When he confirmed that he thought I was sharing information about my own flatulence rather than letting him know I was ready to go to dinner, we laughed. And laughed. We’re still laughing about it a decade later. (My sister even gave us a mug that says, “ich bin farting,” as a wedding present.)
Laughter over this blunder and many others is ultimately one of the most enriching parts of our relationship. We get to laugh about unique misunderstandings that could only come up in specific circumstances of language flubs, and that’s turned out to be the gift that keeps giving.
3. Do you want to start our life together in Vienna?
We had been dating with an ocean between us and he was being respectful of the line I’d drawn in the sand months before when I said I would never leave NYC. What he didn’t know was that months of spending time in and out of Vienna had softened me to the idea of moving to Vienna to live with him rather than him coming to live with me in NYC. But I hadn’t said that to him yet (or to myself, really) because of the scary, vulnerability monster in my head that knew this question was about more than geography. It was, “are we all in?”
Thankfully, his vulnerability monster is less aggressive than mine and he asked the question, “do you want to start our life together in Vienna?” For him it was a question of bureaucratic legal forms and trips to the residency office. For me it was a romantic movie script and the theme song started phasing in as I kissed him on the cobblestones in response. (He welcomed the kissing, but he did have to ask if that was a “yes.”)
Thankfully, he asked the question. Because neither of us knew what the other person was thinking. 10 years later, we have a loving (and loud) home with 2 kids in Vienna and we’re still having occasional misunderstandings, as humans do. But the resolutions of these communication quirks have ultimately enriched our relationship in the long run.
Megan is an American singer/actress/writer/editor/pizza lover who is finishing her master’s degree because she is an avid career collector. She lives in Vienna with her Slovakian husband and their 2 kids (who speak more languages than she does). She has been a contributor for Vienna Würstelstand and hopes to finish the children’s book she’s writing within the century.