Whether you are learning to thrive long-term in another country or just walk down your street and chat with your neighbors, different cultures are everywhere. Initially engaging with other cultures by trying new foods or listening to stories can be exciting and feel like an adventure. But as you grow in relationships and seek deeper, more meaningful connections, cross-cultural situations can become challenging as you encounter practices and patterns that are different from your home culture.
Samantha Deck, who helps with training in topics surrounding cultural intelligence and multicultural teamwork, has served for 18 years with Wycliffe, and has lived in south Asia, eastern Europe and the United States. She shares three principles in order to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.
1. Understand Cultural Expectations
Before you can understand a new culture, you have to know your own culture and tendencies. “Understand with a really humble heart how you might be perceived in the different cultural contexts that you might be going into,” Samantha advised. Geography, historical oppression and political views can all affect how people from a local culture might view you and your ideas. One way you can explore this is by reading articles or books which explain your home culture to foreigners. The advice they give about interacting and understanding your culture can give you insight as to what others might find confusing or challenging.
Cultural differences and expectations can also arise within multicultural missionary teams Differences and expectations can even arise between people from the same country or language group. Sometimes dealing with team challenges can be the hardest because they can catch us by surprise. It is important to budget extra time and emotional energy in the beginning in order to get to know your teammates well and figure out how to work together in joy and conflict. These times of learning and reconciliation are valuable opportunities to grow as a team and practice extending grace in cross-cultural ways. Navigating cultural dynamics, no matter the setting, takes empathy, sensitivity and humility. After all, there is no culture or person that is perfect; we’re all fallen, sinful people.
It’s important to remember that all people and cultures have been created in the image of God and have value. “Remember that your culture is just one of many cultures,” Samantha advised.
2. Learn Cultural Frameworks
How a culture explains and evaluates the world around it (their “worldview”) can vary widely. By learning how your host culture organizes and values the world, you’ll be better equipped to understand and navigate differences between your home culture and a new culture.
Cultures can differ in how they view numerous things: the role of time and schedules, justice, honor, relationships, community, possessions, generosity, communication and more. For example some cultures prepare for upcoming crises by stockpiling food or stacking sandbags. Other cultures would rather respond after the crisis occurs. The first culture might have an economy that allows them to financially support preparing ahead of time. The other culture might be in a geographic location where severe weather events occur frequently. If they only focused on preparation, they’d perpetually be preparing for crisis after crisis, never able to stop.
Understanding cultural frameworks helps you evaluate situations where you’re frustrated or annoyed when you come up against different ways of doing things.
Samantha said: “It’s helpful for us to see that the strengths and the good things about our culture might not work that well [somewhere else]. [Learning] from people who are living in those places will make it much easier for us to survive and thrive.”
3. Stay Humble in Conflict
No matter how long you’ve spent in a host culture, there is always more to learn and mistakes to be made. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable misunderstandings, working through them with the local community or your multicultural team in a culturally-appropriate way will foster love and deepen relationships.
You might be tempted to withdraw in situations where you’re frustrated, uncomfortable or offended. But Samantha’s encouragement was to lean into the discomfort because it can be an avenue for learning and growth.
Because different cultures resolve conflict in specific ways, it is crucial to approach conflict or misunderstandings in a way that’s understood and accepted by the local culture. For example, in the U.S. people tend to address conflict directly and verbally by apologizing. But other cultures might prefer indirect methods of communication or symbolic gestures. It’s helpful to know ahead of time what sort of things might cause offense to your team or local community; then you can moderate your actions or respond in ways that reflect the gospel.
Samantha said: “The work of reconciliation itself is a countercultural idea in so many ways. ... If our teams are [witnesses for Christ] to the people around us, then it’s really important that we know how to mend these difficulties and not just leave each other broken-hearted.”
The uncomfortable things can really help you understand cultures and people better. Samantha added: “It can also help you to understand ... God better since all of us were created in his image. There is something of God in all of these different cultural views. ... We can see how God meets every culture’s deepest longings in the person of Jesus.”
Bringing It All Together
Understanding cross-cultural principles is central to the work of Bible translation. “How cultures recognize these deeper things of value to them like respect and honor ... will influence how people will read and understand the words of Scripture,” Samantha shared.
One translation adviser told Samantha about translating the passage in Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (NIV). But in that language community, only thieves knocked on the door. Friends would call out or whistle! Understanding cross-cultural differences help translators to ensure Scripture is clear, accurate and natural, with no unintentional meanings.
Before a culture has a chance to engage with translated Scriptures, they will encounter Christ through believers. By understanding cultures and applying these principles, cross-cultural workers are better equipped to show Christ’s love to people around the world.