One factor that makes interaction between multi-ethnic groups of women difficult and sometimes impossible is our failure to recognize that a behaviour pattern in one culture may be unacceptable in another, that is may have different signification cross-culturally … I have learned the importance of learning what we called one another’s cultural codes.
An Asian American student of Japanese heritage explained her reluctance to participate in feminist organizations by calling attention to the tendency among feminist activists to speak rapidly without pause, to be quick on the uptake, always ready with a response. She had been raised to pause and think before speaking, to consider the impact of one’s words, a characteristic that she felt was particularly true of Asian Americans. She expressed feelings of inadequacy on the various occasions she was present in feminist groups. In our class, we learned to allow pauses and appreciate them. By sharing this cultural code, we created an atmosphere in the classroom that allowed for different communication patterns.
This particular class was peopled primarily by black women. Several white women students complained that the atmosphere was “too hostile.” They cited the noise level and direct confrontations that took place in the room prior to class as an example of this hostility. Our response was to explain that what they perceived as hostility and aggression, we considered playful teasing and affectionate expressions of our pleasure at being together. Our tendency to talk loudly we saw as a consequence of being in a room with many people speaking, as well as of cultural background: many of us were raised in families where individuals speak loudly. In their upbringings as white, middle-class females, the complaining students had been taught to identify loud and direct speech with anger. We explained that we did not identify loud or blunt speech in this way, and encourage them to switch codes, to think of it as an affirming gesture. Once they switched codes, they not only began to have a more creative, joyful experience in the class, but they also learned that silence and quiet speech can in some cultures indicate hostility and aggression. By learning one another’s cultural codes and respecting our differences, we felt a sense of community, of Sisterhood. Representing diversity does not mean uniformity or sameness.
→ Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (pages 57-58)