God save the Queen, and me too
British culture has its own peculiar flavour, even for a colonial like me. So much is familiar, yet I am oddly struck from time-to-time by dissonances between British culture and my own.
Canada, as one of the Old Dominions, slowly evolved in becoming its own country. I’m writing this blog post from my home office built in the 1840s before Canada became a country in 1867. The original deeds to the house, which we discovered after we moved in, state that the property transaction occurred in the Crown Colony of New Brunswick under Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. (This still amazes me.) While Canadians fought under UK command in the Great War, by WWII and 75 years ago this month, Canadians fought under their own command and captured Juno Beach – one of the five beaches at Normandy on D-Day. While we adopted our own flag and anthem in the 1960s, I still have vivid memories starting kindergarten in 1969 and singing God Save the Queen with the Union Jack draped in the corner. Elizabeth II continues to be Queen of Canada even today. While this slow evolution often surprises Americans used to revolutionary change, I see it as coming from the British cultural propensity to not confront and just muddle through. This is a cultural value the Brits have shared with their Canadian cousins who were Loyalists, not Revolutionaries.
Benedict Anderson reflects on the development of nationalism, saying that it will take more than a common language, monarch, and chronological time to unify people around a shared identity today. In his ground-breaking work, Imagined Communities, he develops an argument that asserts it is shared culture and common story that unifies a people. So, despite the common bond between Canada and Britain, there are still cultural differences, many of them pointed out in Orin Hargraves’ Culture Shock! London.
One British cultural value is that of propriety. Everything must be done in order, respecting traditional mores and values, a concept that is rooted in the class system and defined roles for all members of society. (See Downton Abbey, for example, right, Colleen?) Hargraves cites these examples:
“The imperative of public behaviour is that decorum shall be maintained, and awkwardness of any kind shall be avoided. The stiff upper lip of the British is no cliché; it’s a genetically programmed part of the anatomy. Whether in a boardroom meeting, at a train station ticket window, or in the audience of an emotion-packed film, the rule is to avoid displays of strong emotion … When someone does actually make a scene in public, it is viewed as something quite unfortunate, even disgraceful (unless, of course, the perpetrator is a foreigner, in which case it is charitably assumed that the poor thing can’t help it.)”
This quote instantly put me in Sevenoaks, Kent, in the summer of 1996. My wife and I had recently left our Latin American mission agency, and had been recruited to work with OMF, the former China Inland Mission, and founded by British missionary, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. Though it had spread to multiple sending countries, there was still a definite British flavour to the agency, and we had been asked to attend the two-week candidate orientation in the UK. We were the only non-Brits in attendance.
From our perspective, the two weeks went smoothly, though there some cultural adjustments to be made along the way. (We stayed in a castle with mildewed broadloom, there were also lumpy mattresses, and very bad instant coffee.) We made friends with the other candidates, we attended all sessions; we felt we contributed well, voicing opinions and sharing our stories. The directors of the program, a lovely couple, even unexpectedly invited us on an excursion to Bath, just the two of us, for tea and a walk along the cliffs and down High Street.
A month later, back in Canada, our Canadian director pulled us into his office with a concerned look. “What happened with you guys in England?” he exclaimed. He had just received an email from the British director that listed multiple negative incidents and areas of concern they had with us. We had been rude and disrespectful – by bringing coffee into the conference room, rather than drinking it during the break. We had laughed too loud, told too many stories, and been the centre of attention, rather than fitting in. We fell asleep during sessions (we were extremely jet lagged, as we had been living in BC at the time). We were part of a cult (the Vineyard, sorry Jason! – see last week’s post for more detail), and found that the reason we went to Bath with the director couple was for them to probe and explore our theology as they had a very low opinion of that unconventional denomination. (And we thought they were just being nice.) The email ended with a weak affirmation that God would lead the Canadian director in his decision, and that he was closer to us and so could make a better decision.
In his wisdom and having considerable cultural intelligence, our director told us: “When the Brits send me emails, I interpret with their cultural lens. They will start with all the negative things, and end with one positive. If they end with a positive, then they are good with it. So, you’re in.”
So, caution ahead. Same language, similar values. But cultural differences abound.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 36.
 Orin Hargraves, Culture Shock! London (Tarrytown NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2010), Kindle loc. 934.
8 responses to “God save the Queen, and me too”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Great story, Mark! Ane one that is going to have more and more relevance as the global center of Christianity has shifted south of the equator, meaning more missionaries are coming from the south and more mission organizations are becoming international and having to learn to manage teams that are multi-cultural. While we are united in Christ, we must learn to love and appreciate the diversity we have in the body of Christ.
Great introduction and connection to the texts with your personalized historical review from kindergarten to your home office. I like the way you described Canada as loyalists while the rest of us to the south are revolutionaries.
I really identify with your two-week orientation in the UK and follow-up feedback session by with your Canadian director. Wow, I’m so sorry you endured that and can still read and feel the pain you endured. Like Paul says, whether we accept it or not, it was all for your good and God’s glory according to Romans 8:28. I’ve seen and experienced your “ministry situation” several times and it always just flat hurts! While much of it could be attributed to culture differences I believe it is more about how Christians hurt Christians and the bad strongholds that principalities and powers have on well-intentioned and well-meaning Christians who there are “differences” between them. Your director is wise, and beneath the layers that we may blame on the cultural lens, I believe there are other more sinister ploys going on.
Historically thinking, when Paul moved around the Mediterranean planting churches, talking in the marketplace, making tents, giving lectures, and writing letters do you see any connections to how he dealt with the cultural differences back then that might apply to the British-Canadian context today?
I was interested in your writing on “propriety” and your reminders on the cultural differences ahead. I like order! But I also hope I don’t stick my big foot in my mouth.
Thanks for your in-depth writing and love the story of your house!
Thanks so much for the shout-out, Mark!
Wonderful summary and narrative! You mention, Benedict in your text and reveal, “In his ground-breaking work, Imagined Communities, he develops an argument that asserts it is shared culture and common story that unifies a people.” With the influx of globalization, do you find that culture is something that is more cumulative now compared to years ago? Is shared culture something more diversified unity or is it distinguished by language, customs, etc.?
Oh my goodness – your blog was riveting. First I appreciated your great British lens from the Canadian perspective. I was fascinated by the email and horrified at the same time. For a culture like ours – that values affirmation more than negative feedback – it would have been so hard to receive all those negatives. I’m guilty of following the royals, and so I view propriety from my very minimal public experiences in watching their etiquette. Do you experience those same influences in Canada?
Mark what a great story of your initial immersion with OMF. I had a similar experience in moving to NZ alone for a year as a recent college grad. I muddled through made lots of mistakes that I was oblivious to but some how began to develop some cultural aptitude and ended up staying for 17 years. I still think of myself more of a kiwi than an American even though I have been back in the US for 15 years. That time there and the ways I grew transformed me. I think that you have had similar experiences. I commented on another post this week that the similarities between the US and the UK often give a false sense of security and lull Americans into assumptions about the context. All of us need to keep our eyes and ears fully open that we may grow as fully as possible in this our final advance.
wow what a story. So interesting to see how you have had that first hand experience. Thats funny that two people could leave the meeting, one thinking it went well, and another being offendend. Thank you for some more canadian history for us!
2 more weeks of posts!
Canadians! Muddling through for 150 years. OK, so you mentioned the Queen and I felt a colonial obligation to assess the content of your review; deciding whether there was a possible case for “pistols at dawn”. Talking of cultural gaffes, when I was in the army we had a brigade exercise with Australia and the the US (in the days before we banned American nuclear ships and the yanks got twisted out of shape). When everyone was arriving at base camp I was “helpfully” assisting a group of US officers setup their equipment when a bus drove past with the entire right side window displaying the naked backsides of around 40 passengers. The Americans were aghast as they asked me who they were. The answer was easy. Australians. I still know one of the officers, and to this day he refuses to believe it was the Australian version of a Welcome Wagon. BTW, what do you get when you mix OMF with a vineyard?