Oprah and Cultural Misunderstandings

According to Keirsey, Oprah Winfrey may be a T...

Oprah Winfrey, Media Mogul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first read about Oprah Winfrey’s recent experience in Zürich I was infuriated. Really? In this day and age? In Europe of all places? I was quick to judge. I was ready to get on a train and go down and give that sales clerk a piece of my mind.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was much more to this situation than simply racism. Living in a foreign country, it is easy to misunderstand salespeople’s intentions. It is often hard to read your waitress or waiter. In Germany, a waiter leaves you alone. They don’t bug you, ask if it tastes good, do you want more water, a refill on your coke. And a salesperson in a department store is only as helpful as you want him/her to be. Some are very attentive, they know Americans have a certain standard for customer service. Others seem aloof until you ask for their expertise then they won’t leave you alone. In my experiences here in Germany, I have been treated equally as good or equally as bad as the rest of the clientele around me.

This morning I read an interview with the evil salesperson that Oprah accused of racism. I have to say, I believe that the salesperson did not think she was being racist. Knowing the typical personality of a German, can’t speak for the Swiss, the clerk clearly thought she was doing her job correctly. Here is what I assume she must have been thinking: I am showing you a bag. It is exactly like that super expensive bag you want to look at. The only difference is that this one is leather, and that one is Alligator. I’m not going to get that one down, because it is the same one that I am showing you. And in my experience, most people just want to look at the bag because it is 35,000 euros, not because they actually want to buy it.

In the salesperson’s mind, she was being efficient. Why should she waste time getting down that bag? They are the same bag. But in Oprah’s mind, the sales girl was being racist because she refused her service. Here is where things get complicated.

This moment is fueled by all the other complicated moments these two people have experienced previously in their lives. Oprah has experienced numerous negative situations where people treated her in a disparaging way due to the color of her skin. So when she isn’t getting what she asks for she assumes the clerk is being racist. Why else would she not be allowed to look at the bag? The salesperson has experienced numerous customers who want her to show the billion dollar bag with no intention of ever buying it. When the cheaper bag is identical, why spend the energy getting the other one down off the shelf. She assumes that this customer (Oprah) just wants to look at it because its expensive.

Both people reacted based on their experiences. Both people interpreted the others actions and reactions in their own way. Their words and actions could be interpreted differently, but it was their individual past experiences that told them how to read the situation.

Now imagine you are teaching in a multicultural classroom. I said “If you don’t stop doing that I’m going to have Sally hold you down while I break your legs.” The American and German kids laughed. They know I am kidding. They love my silly sense of humor. The Japanese kids were clearly upset by this. They think I am actually going to break their legs. Why would their teacher lie? Why would she threaten them in such a way? All of their experiences say “When person threatens them with harm, they could be harmed.”

Each group of children are playing off of their own past experiences. They try to use their own cultural cues, their own background, to tell them what they think the teacher means. Unfortunately my joking is being read in two ways. I can do nothing to change how they read me. Am I a masochistic crazy or super hilarious teacher?

So my verdict? Oprah needs to let it go. And I think she is. She is realizing that although she felt like the salesperson was being racist, she may have misinterpreted the situation. The Salesperson needs to think about how she reacted to the request. Oprah may have bought 4 of those bags, one for her, and the other three for her friends. And we all need to think, when I do X, Y, or Z, how do people interpret my actions? When I say this or that, am I triggering a negative experience in that child’s life because I joked in a certain way or used certain words?

Be yourself, but know that others may see you differently based on their own past experiences. Have you ever experienced a situation like this? Have you assumed something you shouldn’t have about another person’s words or actions? Or have you caused harm because your seemingly meaningless action or words were misinterpreted?

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9 replies

  1. My Dear, I have read your post with much amazement and wonder. And I get the impression that if everyone was like you and thought as nice as you there would never be prejudice, racism or hate in the world. Thank you for your light. But, I am afraid that you have taken Oprah as speaking the total truth without any ulterior motives or reasons. If you wish to re-examine the facts you may see that 1) Oprah is a promoter in SHOWBIZ 2) Oprah made a new movie about racism 3) Oprah has to promote that movie 4) Oprah related that handbag ‘story’ ( which the sales girl, and now owner vehemently deny) to draw attention to the movie 5) Oprah is an excellent actress 6) This is all part of her act
    It is much simpler this way, although you may have to accept that people often don’t ACT truthful.

    • Thanks Lakisha for stopping by. I also thank you for your kind words. I do my best to teach peace in my classroom, promote cultural understanding, and seek to diffuse conflict in a peaceful means. I was a bit blown over by your comments here, and later that you have an entire blog devoted to bashing Oprah. I think you have some valid points in your comment that she is promoting her movie. And numerous interviews done with Oprah in the last week quote her as saying “this might have been just a sales person being snooty.” I in no way think Oprah made up the story, I think she honestly perceived racism. That is the whole point of the post. We say things or do things, wittingly or unwittingly, that get us in trouble. They get us in trouble because what we said or did is interpreted differently than we intended. This happens so often when we are all of a sudden plopped down into a new culture or sitting in a group of people from various countries.

      And for those who are reading this post and thinking the post is about Oprah, it really isn’t. It is about a culture clash, a clash of experiences, misunderstanding.

  2. Hi Kathleen! I just read your blog for the first time and loved it! This post is so insightful and I can totally see how the whole situation played out and how there were misunderstandings on both sides. I’m also an expat living and working in Germany (teaching business English freelance) and so it’s very interesting to see your point of view. I’m actually working on a series of articles for Young Germany (http://www.young-germany.de/) and one of my articles will feature a teacher at an international school in Germany. I would love to interview you for this if you are interested. You can reach me at: kristi.fuoco@gmail.com

    • Thanks for the compliments…does being in my 40’s classify as young? I could certainly hook you up with some younger expats teaching in International Schools in Germany.

      • How long have you been teaching at an international school? Did you start when you were younger? And sure, if you know some people who might like to be interviewed for an article please get them to drop me a line as soon as possible. I have to get the article written in the next few weeks. I don’t know what Young Germany classifies as “young” but I’m guessing 18-35 or so. Thanks for your help and I will keep on reading your blog for sure! 🙂

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