As I am writing this, one of the world’s biggest events is taking place and unfortunately, the U.S. is generally oblivious to its significance. Yes, I am talking about the European Football Championship — the one where Turkey had a Cinderella run to the semi-finals, where England did not even qualify, and where the Dutch were knocked out of contention in the quarter finals after a whippin’ by the Russians. It’s Spain versus Germany in the finals. You call it soccer. We call it football.

It is impossible to convey to most Americans how big this really is (even more so when we’re talking about the World Cup, scheduled for 2010 in South Africa). I tell them to imagine a rivalry as intense as Army vs. Navy football games, or UT vs. A&M, and multiply that by a factor two or three and scale it up to an entire nation. If the Dutch team is successful in a major international soccer tournament, people take vacations, businesses shut down on game days, and pub owners will paint not only their faces bright orange, but their buildings as well. Think St. Patrick’s Day, but on a larger scale. And the Dutch are far from unique in this respect. Legendary Dutch football coach Rinus Michels is famous for one very short quote: “football is war.” Football matches are ways to settle (or perpetuate) collective grudges, either because of a past war or because of a spanking in a match decades prior.

Crowd at soccer match
Fans turn out in large numbers for soccer matches across the globe, such as this 2006 World Cup match between Serbia-Montenegro and the Netherlands.

So why don’t Americans get this?

This is the million-dollar question at the heart of most cross-cultural miscommunication. Most of these questions are variations of the following question: Why can’t “they” be more like “us“? And upon immigrating here to the U.S., I have learned that nine out of ten times, this is the wrong question to ask.

It was the summer of 1981. My parents had made friends with an American, a civil engineer like my dad. He had visited us at our home several times and we liked Mr. Matt a lot. He invited me and my older brother to stay with him and his family in the United States of America, and my parents decided that it might be good for both of us to have that experience.

Of all the impressions I got during my visit — many of which are not very profound as I was a 7th-grader — there is one that is etched in my mind. My brother and I had just cleared immigration when we were met by Matt and his wife Dawn, there to pick us up. Matt showed us a smile of recognition, but Dawn’s greeting was a different story. A complete stranger to me, she opened her arms wide and looked like she was about to cry. She greeted me with the world’s biggest (and most suffocating) bear hug, as if I was her own long-lost child. My brother was fortunate to be able to avoid this awkward situation, because at 16 years old, he was a little too manly for such a greeting. But me, I bore the brunt of this strange expression of affection.

I realize now that it was a sweet response, possibly even genuine in some odd way, but certainly sweet. I did not get that at the time. I froze with panic. I thought to myself, who is this woman? What does she want? Why is she touching me like this? Everyone else just shakes my hand. And why is she asking me how I am doing? That’s not her business! A million thoughts raced through my mind. I was too confused to utter even a sound. But in that moment, everything I had ever heard about Americans, which seemed to revolve around them being superficial, was brought home in that incredibly uncomfortable moment. Dawn, of course, never had a clue.

“In terms of cross-cultural competence, I have come to realize that one never arrives; one either accepts or declines the journey.”

Three years later, in 1984, my family and I actually moved to this country when my father was reassigned to New York. I learned to say “nice to meet you” even when the words sounded completely hollow to me. After all, how would you know if it’s nice to meet someone at the time of the introduction? Wouldn’t it take some time to come to that conclusion? Of course, I interpreted others’ “nice to meet you” as a kind but otherwise meaningless gesture. Also, I quickly realized that Americans don’t really want to know how you’re doing, and that it can be very awkward for them when you actually tell them. In fact, I learned to have quite a bit of fun with that! You see, where I grew up, yes was yes and no was no. You say what you mean and mean what you say. And you don’t ask anyone about their business unless you have an established relationship that allows those kinds of personal questions, generally reserved for friends or close acquaintances.

It was the winter of 2002. I was back in the Netherlands for a vacation, visiting high school friends of mine (“friends” in the European sense of the word, not the American). They introduced me to a friend of theirs named Rob. Shaking hands was an awkward moment for me, because it felt as though I was supposed to say something beyond “hello,” but I couldn’t think what it was. So I said, in Dutch, “nice to meet you.” While Rob remained oddly quiet, my friends realized what had just happened. Pointing their finger at me, they burst out in laughter, basically saying, “You are soooo busted!” It was one of those moments I would prefer not to remember. Unfortunately, my memory seems to have a will of its own.

All of these experiences — and plenty more — have contributed to my interest in culture. They have made me realize that even though I may consider myself bicultural, I still will screw up, both in my home culture and in my host culture (not to mention other cultures). In terms of cross-cultural competence, I have come to realize that one never arrives; one either accepts or declines the journey. Mine has been unpredictable, painful at times, but overall, very rewarding. Depending on the circumstances, I now seem to end up on different sides of the “us” versus “them” divide. It is for this reason that this divide makes so little sense anymore, which is also why that question, why can’t they be more like us?, is such a fruitless approach when trying to enhance understanding across culture.

I have not yet put my finger on the right question to ask. If and when I do, I’ll write the book. But the Dutch have some folk wisdom that might be a good place to start. The saying goes: Verbeter de wereld, begin bij jezelf. It roughly translates as follows: If you want to change [improve] the world, you must start with yourself. My experiences have taught me to stop trying to “fix” the other. I can’t get all Americans to “get” the European Football Championship. But If I can get just a few students to start asking different questions about culture, I know I will have made a difference.

I’d love to keep writing, but I have to wrap this up now — the Euro 2008 Finals are about to start. Doei!