As I write this blog, I have to acknowledge that I have been born and raised as a citizen of the United States. This means that my cultural tendencies will include a competitive edge. Understanding where we are from culturally and our cultural tendencies is critical to the engagement of other cultures. Yes, it is important to be aware and understand the cultures we are engaging with, but we must have a deep self awareness as we engage.
Engaging cultures beyond our own involves significant communication in all its forms. From verbal to non verbal, how we engage in communicating can make or break the interaction. Understanding our cultural tendencies means we are aware of our traits and our communication style. If we are unaware of these things then simply noting how another culture communicates won’t change how we represent ourselves.
Erin Meyer notes in Culture Map that communication conflicts can happen based on our understanding and perceptions around communication. She uses the example of a silent pause before replying to a question. As a person from the United States, a pause might mean there is a problem with the question and we would quickly react to fill in the silence whereas other cultures would embrace the silence in a more positive way. If we know about ourselves these types of tendencies we are able to adapt ourselves in various contexts. This is where competency comes in.
It is also important to acknowledge the tendencies that would impact our competency. An example of this would be, those of us from the United States tend to have a competitive edge. So, when we study about competency we can have the tendency to believe our acquired knowledge is all we need, which leads to a sense of pride and superiority. This can then become a conflict when engaging with other cultures from a sense of “I am already aware of the cultural differences and know what to do”. This will create additional cultural conflicts. This is where our humility comes in.
Ismael Ruiz-Millan wrote an article titled “Churches Must Talk About Cultural Humility Instead of Cultural Competency”. (https://sojo.net/articles/churches-must-talk-about-cultural-humility-instead-cultural-competency ) In it he addresses the need for constant personal reflection and humility when engaging with other cultures. This is important with international cultures and cultures within the United States. The United States is diverse due to immigration and due to the vast differences of locations coast to coast. We have seen even within our own country the need for cultural awareness and humility. The need for humility is what keeps us as individuals in a healthy place for engagement.
As a mission leader we train our teams to enter the mission field with a posture of “humble learner”. It is essential when engaging cross-culturally that we go with the goal of learning from those we are meeting, rather than imposing our cultural norms on them. Stepping into interactions with compassion and a willingness to learn, aids in the development of trust and in turn strengthens communication and empathy.
Knowing about and understanding cultural differences is key to competency, embracing the differences and learning from them is essential to healthy and humble engagement. We must do both.