This post is lovingly dedicated to those who took the time to love me during my early cross cultural days. I am forever humbled and changed by your hospitality and friendship.
There are so many posts I could write inspired by Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. I could write about how when I read it for the first time a couple of years back there were so many ‘aha’ moments that it led me to shift my plan to study semiotics for my doctoral work, to studying global perspectives. I could write about the vulnerability I feel reading such an important work and finding my own country and culture minimally mentioned. This is exasperated by a common alignment of Canadian and American culture, when the one thing Canadians virtually universally agree upon is that we are not American. (A decent argument could be made that much or our cultural identity is forged by negation.) As Meyer points out, “(i)t is th(e) relative positioning that determines how people view one another” rather than where on each scale they fall. I do understand that most of the time we will fall near each other. I could also explore that this book was written for a business context and there may be some necessary caveats if it is mobilized for a church context. I gesture to these other routes because they also matter deeply to me. Instead I will follow Meyer’s lead and trace how I came to realise how important a role understanding culture plays in loving God’s world and where I find a useful beginning in a church context.
It was about ten years ago now that a restlessness took root in my heart. Having grown up in rural southern Ontario, and never having moved more than an hour and half from home, my international experience was limited to a few school trips and the handful of international friends I had made at seminary. While I had done some work on unpacking and understanding my own subjectivity, I fully confess I privileged my culture as normative. When I felt God invite me to pray for His heart for the world, I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead.
My family and I moved to a remote city in Australia in 2010 in order for my husband to pursue further education. It took so much work just to get sorted to leave, that I had done relatively little to prepare to arrive—though my mom had spent considerable time researching the many things that might kill me. Upon arrival, the most obvious difference was the intense heat. What I would learn, is how much influence environment has on culture. The heat shaped clothing, pace of life, common activities and even when the shops would open and close.
At first I felt the need to defend myself. Early comments that felt sexist led me to be on the defensive and I spent far too much time trying to explain why I am the way I am than listening. Meyer’s advice would have proven helpful then, and has been my starting point in subsequent experiences: “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.” Looking back I would imagine I came across as rather intense to the relatively laid back locals. Perhaps it is natural to begin by noticing all that is different in a new place, but as I have learned it is important to wonder curiously about the differences rather than approach them critically. “If you go into every interaction assuming that culture doesn’t matter, your default mechanism will be to view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly.” I learned that some of what I understood as sexist or hierarchical systems persisted more out of a laid back nature that hadn’t been highly motivated to critique tradition than out of a deliberate decision to reject change (though certainly that existed as well.)
Once I overcame the challenge of finding work in a place where resumes and applications were expected to be prepared outlining numerically how my experience matched the search criteria rather than the essay style I’d become accustomed to, I began pastoring in a local church. I was blessed to have a lead pastor who had the patience to help me navigate the cultural differences. I learned about the history of the nation and the specific area. I (finally) listened. I listened to the stories of the relationship between the church and culture, between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of Australians, between the North and the South. We talked over ‘proper’ coffee and Tim Tam biscuits rather than the familiar perked coffee and doughnuts from back home. Trust was built; “(a)ffective trust (which) arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, friendship.” This was the space where I finally found connection. Lingering coffees and unhurried conversations in some shade in the midst of the warm tropical outdoors. As a pastor, this wasn’t much of a stretch, but it became my strategy for engaging the many different cultures I would encounter. I would hypothesise, that though cultures vary in whether trust is built based on task performance or relationship , building trust is the natural place to begin in a ministry context and that forging relationships is always valuable as it is a universally Christian value.
Early on I was extremely blessed by a group of Indonesian students who were open to helping with our small Children’s ministry. For the five years I was there, this ministry was led by an ongoing collection of Australians and Indonesians. This new cultural difference increased the beauty and difficulty of ministering. Listening carefully to those for whom English was not their primary language required more patience and determination. In a church context one of the gifts we share is scripture. As “(o)ne productive way to start putting trust deposits in the bank is by building on common interests” , Bible study is a unifying experience. One benefit was that all the cultures I worked with had scripture in their own language so we could all share a starting point. Unhurried discussion, filled with curiosity led to richer understandings of scripture and deeper relationships, highlighting the significant value of intercultural dialogue. We also prepared for ministry and did ministry together which forged common experiences, again increasing trust. Even before I read Meyer, I understood that “(m)ulticultural teams need low-context processes” which includes space for debriefing and reflection.
I continue to reflect upon and learn from intercultural friendships and experiences, but all of them have led me to understand myself more clearly and more humbly and I trust we are all so much richer for those relationships. The words of St. Francis seem a poignant closing: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”
1. Erin Meyer, The Culture Map (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014), 22.
2. Ibid. 27.
3. Ibid. 13.
4. Ibid. 168.
5. Ibid. 171.
6. Ibid. 178.
7. Ibid. 55.
8. St Francis of Assisi, The Peace Prayer. https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/peace-prayer-of-saint-francis Accessed January 31, 2019.