Cultural Misunderstandings in Dating | Psychology Today Australia


Mohammed is a pseudonym of a real character through whom I will tell the collective stories of zero-gen daters, immigrants, and refugees who must navigate unfamiliar cultures.

Mohammed never courted a woman in his life. He immigrated from Arabia to the United States as an adult. His English ‎skills were thin, and he knew little about modern courtship. So when he met an Arab-American woman, Fatima, he faced not only a language problem but also a love language problem.

Fatima was born and raised in the United States. After meeting ‎Mohammed, she expressed no romantic interest. She did not ‎want to date a man who originally hails from Arabia, from which her parents fled for the United States. She was ‎American, and Mohammed’s foreign identity annoyed her. But Mohammed, ‎oblivious, asked for her number. ‎

Cultural Differences in Interpreting Nonresponse

When they met, Mohammed could not understand her cues. He ‎proposed to meet at 5 p.m. in a coffee shop, but she did not respond. In certain Arab cultures, ‎not responding means “Yes.” When a family informs the woman ‎of a potential husband, her silence may be culturally interpreted as a positive ‎response. If not interested, she is expected to say, “No.” So, Mohammed was ‎operating on false understandings. ‎

Mohammed went to the coffee shop an hour early. He brought Arabian coffee because he did not trust the ‎mediocre quality of an American coffee shop. He also brought Arabian food and snacks. The workers at ‎the shop were astonished. After ‎Mohammed prepared the table in an Arabian style, he waited nervously. ‎

At 5 p.m., Fatima failed to show. Maybe she was stuck in traffic. He kept waiting. At 5:30 p.m., she was still missing. He got concerned that she might have been in an ‎accident. He called her once, twice, three times, without an answer. Then his phone number was blocked. Confused and ‎humiliated, he sat at his Arabian table and ate the food and drinks by himself. ‎

That night, Mohammed saw Fatima with an American man. When they kissed, his frustration grew into fear. American women did not find him attractive and he was hoping that Arab-‎American women might. He wanted to introduce them ‎to the land of their ancestors, but they were not interested.

The differences between Fatima and Mohammed are endless:

  • She was born and raised in ‎America; he was born and raised in Arabia.
  • She speaks English natively, and her ‎Arabic is poor; he speaks Arabic natively, and his English is poor.
  • She is American with no understanding of Arabia; he is Arab ‎with no understanding of America.
  • She is a modern woman who defies traditional ‎gender norms; he is a traditional man who does not understand modern gender norms.
  • She is a nominal Muslim, so she neither wears the hijab nor dresses modestly; he is ‎an observant Muslim, so he prays five times daily and pays almsgiving yearly. ‎

Mohammed’s mother is delighted that Fatima did not show up. She does not want him to ‎have sex before marriage. Maybe her prayers were answered—which is why he had no luck with modern dating. He called his mother, telling her to ‎reduce the intensity of the prayers, so he could have fun with American dating. ‎But ‎Mohammed reached a point of despair. He felt ‎trapped, unable to liberate himself from the shackles of traditions, and unworthy of love.

Culture Shaping the Social Script

The story of Mohammed is emblematic of the challenges of cross-cultural dating. Insiders of a culture often find dating challenging. Outsiders of a culture like Mohammed simply cannot even begin to understand the basics. Although love and dating should ideally be intuitive since it addresses a human need, culture shapes the social script that people use to navigate those challenging waters.

Those social scripts are often unwritten, unspoken, and presumed. People tend to be unforgiving of those who do not follow the social script. They perceive that as awkward and abruptly cut the communication. Ghosting is increasingly becoming a normal way of ending interactions, whether platonic or romantic.

Although human differences should not be a liability, the dating culture has yet to embrace diverse ways of being, doing, and knowing. People judge each other primarily based on the approach: If it conforms to the social script, they engage; if not, they disengage.

For Mohammed to become successful in American dating style, he has to abolish all of his traditional cultural approaches and completely assimilate into the American culture. He is a displaced person who struggles to project an attractive persona. Unless Mohammed becomes fully Americanized, his traditional approach may continue to be met with utter rejection.

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