Humility and Grace
Speaking the same language but not speaking from the same culture can sometimes be worse than speaking different languages. I remember when our family first landed in Beijing it was night time and the buildings were lit up with lights. Traveling back from the airport there was an excitement of being in a new country, in a new city, as well as beginning a new adventure for our family. With one of our foreign hosts in the car with us, I said that this city is really beautiful. He responded that it was only because it was night. I remember thinking what a pessimist. I felt as though he burst my bubble and I thought he was saying he didn’t like it there. Since then, I have come to know this American was just expressing a part of Chinese culture I would encounter repeatedly. If there is a compliment given, culture demands that a balance be given (ying and yang, compliment and insult). I don’t know if this foreigner even was aware of his inculturation and the lack of understanding that it had on a fresh and wide eyed co-worker. Understanding the context in which you live is important for clear communication to be had.So often believing we speak the same language and/or are from the same country, we fail to recognize the subtle mistakes (traps) that lead us to failures in communication.
Reading Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, brought many examples to mind; some funny and others tragic. This very easy to read, yet difficult to live book, is one all should read and take time to discuss. As my dissertation will involve helping westerners working with Han Chinese understand the subtle narratives of the culture in order to communicate Christ effectively, this book resonates with me as an important piece in working cross culturally.
Erin Meyer makes a statement that I think could be made by most of those working in ministry as well, “…the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work.” The key to effective communication has to do with understanding one’s audience and not letting our own personal agendas dictate the conversation, lecture or meetings we are having. From time to time there have been individuals that come highly recommended to do some training times. Over the years we have learned to better vet the teachers before they come. Others time we purposefully sit a foreign team member in the training session to help navigate some of the roadblocks, misunderstandings, and cultural miscommunications that often take place. Let me give you an extreme (but true) example that happened when there was not a foreigner present to help save the situation. Just so you know, the Chinese are gracious with a guest and want to save face limiting confrontation as well. All of that lead to a perfect storm for a class that still is talked about today. The class was an introduction to the New Testament. The teacher was recommended and invited to come teach the course. As part of the introduction to himself, He began to talk about his belief that women should not be in any kind of leadership. He went on for over 30 minutes talking about not just women in leadership in any aspect of the church but also in any aspect of leadership…anywhere. He then described why he believed this way and then moved to Scriptures justifying his stance. This Taiwanese Christian man spoke great mandarin and clearly was confident in his point. He knew his culture and was ready to defend it. He spoke the same language but not the same culture. To make things worse, there were 16 students in this class of which 11 were women called by God to be leaders. So I will say that the next several days were a bit awkward and we had some damage control once he left and found out what took place in this class. Obviously this professor has never come back again, as well as we have increased our interviewing questions for people that have not been personally known by the instructors or the leaders of this particular school. When we have our own agendas, we are blind to the social and societal cues taking place.
There are so many things within the Chinese culture that I could talk about that Meyer highlights in her book; from flexibility of time, standing in (or lack of) lines or the avoidance of conflict. However as an egalitarian leader, I have struggled with the hierarchy that is naturally built into this Confucius culture. In university, I wanted the students to call me Greg. We compromised with Mr. Greg (Or Teacher Greg). This gave them the ability to show respect with a title as well as be a little more western like I asked them to. Also there are many team meetings and many big book studies where reverence is given to the leader and discussion is often stifled. I have even embarrassed some by not recognizing the subtleties of who is ready to respond and who is not. Over the years I became aware of what to look for in a person that has a comment and the telltale signs of someone trying to let me know that they do not want to be called on. Unfortunately, those were lessons I had to learn by many mistakes rather than by reading a book.
Erin Meyers book on decoding the subtleties of culture, I believe is essential for people who are working cross culturally. I am one to believe that culture infests all areas of life; in every country; every state or city. How we understand and work within the context of these cultures helps us to be able to see our limitations. While we are swimming in the deep end of cross-cultural uncertainties, it is important for us to humbly admit our own inadequacies and that we may never truly master the complexities of these types of communications. The hope comes in knowing that in relationships, grace is often given as we seek forgiveness for the number of times we stuck our foot in our mouths. The Lord is honored as we seek his will and his knowledge above our own.
- Meyer, Erin.The Culture Map: decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures. BBS Public Affairs (New York. 2014) 10
13 responses to “Humility and Grace”
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Great opening and life experience example with the ying-yang side of the Chinese culture. You are a living example of Meyer’s checklist and human resource for LGP8 and we thank you for sharing your lessons learned.
I’m glad you showed some facial expressions. Body language, I have found, carries the same meaning across many cultures. Some cultures express guilt, evil, love, and Christ in amazing ways. For example, in one day I traveled through Congo and walked through an entry point into Uganda. The look and expressions on the people’s faces were as dramatic as the difference between dark and light.
Great post, nice use of Pink’s ethnography.
Great first line, “Speaking the same language but not speaking from the same culture can sometimes be worse than speaking different languages.”
Do you feel the Naz church or PLNU prepared you well for these cultural hiccups? I found this website NMI,but not sure if you went to some type of M. Boot Camp for your training…
Hi Jay. First of all I hope it was ok for me to edit your response. We did do a training for about 3 months prior to leaving. Point Loma also has many in country and out of country experiences that have helped shape me to live abroad. The NMI is a supporting group from local fellowships that provide awareness and teaching. I don’t work with them unless in the US speaking.
Of course my Brother. My humble apologies!! I appreciate you.
I enjoyed your post; thanks again for sharing your perspective using some great personal examples.
I expect you will agree with me that so much of culture must be learned not through a book but through living it out in real situations. Meyer gives great frameworks for learning how to adapt in various cultures, but somehow the learning sticks once one makes a tremendous gaffe. Cultural learning is truly humbling.
So true Mark. Classroom is classroom but walking the streets solidifies the lessons. People often ask us how to prepare and I usually ask if they have spent anytime out side their home culture. (More than 2 weeks at a time) because they need to learn and work through some common mental blocks in a community they trust. I know you know what I am talking about.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
I often think that Dr. Seuss should have written a sequel to his book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” called, “Oh, the Mistakes You’ll Make!” I know I could write a book on my own!
Jenn you and I could probably write a books on the things we said…or thought we said. 🙂
I think in the contemporary world, particularly in Christian leadership, everyone should assume they are working cross-culturally. I think some of the problems we have in the U.S. church is that too many assumptions are made based on cultural biases. These are frequently couched in Christian terms but they are more like enculturation than biblical principles. I also think that your experience working in a more easily defined cross-cultural situation will open doors for you to teach and train others here in the U.S. that have yet to gain this important perspective.
Dan I think one day I would like o come back and teach. It does make me nervous that I have been out so long I can not relate with the ever changing climate of my passport country. I am sure you know exactly what I mean. I even struggle when I read family members posting on Facebook and wonder if they know how unchristian their
Great post Greg and your images did not disappoint once again. I have to think I would put my foot in my mouth countless times as a missionary in China or any other culture vastly different than my own, and I would like to think I would have the humility and grace to learn from my mistakes and properly honor the culture that is foreign to me. I know my biggest struggle with the Chinese culture would be the lack of egalitarian focus as well and the strict adherence to proper hierarchy. Wonder if that is starting to change with the Western influence?
Greg, you made a very provocative statement; “The key to effective communication has to do with understanding one’s audience and not letting our own personal agendas dictate the conversation…” So I am curious how you feel those in ministry and evangelism accomplish a goal like this? After all, isn’t our pure focus all about having a personal agenda to reach the lost? I’m not trying to be argumentative; but I can honestly say that this is not something I have ever been able to fully separate.
Good post Greg, and again I enjoy learning more and more about the Chinese culture. Im sure this book is very applicable to your work and im excited to see it fleshed out in the presentation of your disseration. I cant imagine what it will feel like when you see the work you do save years of mistakes off future missionaries and christian workers lives