Boundaries, Borders and Bridges

With all the talk of walls, fences, barriers and borders, interculturalists are awakened to the need to define culturally appropriate boundaries. Boundaries protect and identify. Boundaries serve as a liminal space between cultures that require negotiation. Many of us negotiate boundaries on a daily basis with such ease that we are barely aware we are doing it.

How are cultural boundaries different from political boundaries?

Countries fight over borders and boundaries. Some of these borders go back centuries and have a historical, geographical or cultural basis. Defining a border creates a sense of ownership and identity. They either hold people in or keep others out. They can be an actual physical structure or a line that is invisible from space (as famously recorded by Michael Collins’ observation) Most, if not all, physical boundaries end up being a challenge to outsiders and are eventually compromised. Cultural boundaries serve to distinguish one group of people from another. They establish a taxonomy and give people a sense of belonging. For those who enjoy the variety and diversity in nature, the variety and diversity of peoples and cultures is what makes the world a beautiful place.

Psychologists often mention boundaries, is that what you mean?

Among psychologists, boundaries are often brought up as a way to protect people who have allowed themselves to be intruded upon. Ill-defined personal boundaries cause problems because there are no clear expectations and people feel like others constantly walk all over them. Resentments build because people allow others to trespass boundaries and they get offended. This can happen in families, at work and with intercultural interaction. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries makes for healthy relationships.

Won’t people think I’m a cultural bigot if I set boundaries?

People tend to worry that by setting a boundary, they may be perceived as closed-minded or territorial (among other aspersions). It is one thing to protect yourself by not allowing others to tread upon your liberties and another to pick up a megaphone and announce all the people who can’t come to your party. When cultures interact, there are always going to be shocking or uncomfortable elements that challenge one’s world-view. One needs to have a very clear understanding of their own cultural identity when interacting with others so that they can preserve their individual cultural values while making others feel at home with their values. (See also research done on the topic of “self-construal” here.)

Boundaries can open more discussions than they silence.

I respect people who have a clearly defined sense of self, whether with their culture of origin or their professional role. A consistent pattern of positive performances in our interactions builds confidence and makes me more comfortable to share my own cultural values. This includes truly listening, negotiating from a place of trust and leaving confrontation out of the encounter. 

Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, displays the epitome of constructive communication that opens opportunities rather than preventing possibilities. He is quoted as having said, “I like to build bridges…not walls” and yet there is no one who embodies a more solid cultural and national identity like Oscar Arias for Costa Rica. In the middle of turmoil-ridden Central America, Costa Rica stands as a model of successful government that has been able to maintain healthy boundaries with its neighbors.

What is your cultural stance towards communicating with others?

Take a stand. Be confident in your stance.  If you create solid boundaries and practice a confident interactive communication style, the fear of not being accepted dissipates and bridges arise. Cultural exchange and collaboration function best when all parties involved have clearly defined, healthy boundaries.


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