DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Listening to the Air

Written by: on February 1, 2019

Many years ago, while working my own business, I supplemented my income by becoming a substitute teacher. My favorite group to work with were the elementary age children, especially those from grades 1 to 3.  At one of the schools I substituted at, there was a young first grade boy from Haiti who spoke no English. He could not communicate with anyone and just looked sadly at the paper he was supposed to color. The picture was labeled in English with the colors that were supposed to be colored in each spot. The idea was he would be immersed into the culture and learn English. In the meantime, he looked lost. Suddenly, some of my one year of High school French came back to me and I was able to tell him in French what each color was. The little boy looked relieved and smiled brightly and completed the assignment. The other children were simply amazed that I knew French.

Here was a situation where this child could have been assumed to be unintelligent or not responsive to the assignment because he could not understand the language. In the book, The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, she explains communicating across cultures goes beyond language and sometimes involves reading between the lines (Meyer 2014, 32). Meyer further goes on to explain the Japanese call this process of reading between the lines as “listening to the air” (Meyer 2014, 33).  Americans are accused of being guilty being of what the Japanese call “KY” or “kuuki yomenai”, which means “one who cannot read the air” or those lacking the ability to read between the lines (Meyer 2014, 33).  Meyers explains this by stating that some countries, such as United States of America, are “Low-context”, saying exactly what they mean and meaning what they say, while other countries such as Japan, are “High-context”, being more nuanced and requiring the listeners to read between the lines (Meyer 2014, 39).

Although Meyer’s work is directed toward helping professionals across global lines communicate, I believe this work is also applicable to working with different cultures in the learning environment, particularly in Christian education. Meyers teaches that companies cannot expect its multicultural staff to adapt to the leaders of the company, but the company must go beyond and understand how its multicultural staff communicate whether in High-context or Low-context. Christian education curriculum writers tend to write toward the dominate culture with little more than a sprinkle of brown and black pictures of children. While this attempt at cultural diversity is appreciated, the content of the material often is not culturally relevant to a variety of audiences. Ladson-Billings states, “Culturally relevant teaching is a pedagogy of opposition that recognizes and celebrates African and African American culture. It is contrasted with an assimilationist approach to teaching that sees fitting students into the existing social and economic order as its primary responsibility” (Ladson-Billings 1992, 314).

Meyers work does not teach assimilation, but rather the need to build bridges through an understanding of cultural differences and learning to listen to the air. I believe we can do the same in teaching the Bible to our children and youth by making the Bible culturally relevant to not just African Americans, but to children and youth of all nationalities. We would do well in incorporating Meyer’s methods of cultural communications within our own country first and foremost given Americas historically diverse background.


Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Reading Between the Lines and Beyond the Pages: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Literacy Teaching.” Theory Into Practice, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1992: 312-320.

Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.

About the Author


Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

9 responses to “Listening to the Air”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Mary, thank you for this. I was caught at how often it can be assumed (in the US) that someone is of low intelligence because they are not strong in speaking the English language. Of course that has little bearing on one’s intelligence and most non-English speakers I know can speak at least two languages and are working to add English to their list. It makes me think of how important your work is – to connect children to God’s word in ways they can understand and easily apply to their lives. Have we ever talked about One Hope? It is one of our favorite orgs that work with children and Scripture engagement around the world and are designing US programs more recently because of need. You may be interested in what they do.

  2. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Mary. I thought of how many leaders I have talked to who believe they can translate their teachings and resources into Spanish, Korean, etc. and they are being culturally sensitive. They fail to realize that language is not the only difference. Translated materials often become useless because they are so culturally out of context they are not understood even though the language is their native one.

    • mm Jenn Burnett says:

      Tammy you are so right! One of the other problems I’ve run into is the assumption that there is always an easy translation, as if all languages had the same number of words and each one had an equivalent. I love doing bible study with my Indonesian friends and we compare how we understand scriptures based on the different nuances of words. So much can be lost just in the translation as well as the culture gap!

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great work Mary. This book has really opened my eyes to how deep of a relationship communication actually is. I’ve always thought of it as a two-way street but it’s actually an intersection stacked on top of either that goes on and on! You bring out yet another layer and it is so valuable in our country at this time.

    My question would be, do you see this as taking the Jewishness out of the Bible and putting our cultures into it, or more of learning the culture of the Bible and then translating that into our culture(s) today?

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Mary, thanks so much for sharing your insights and experiences. To this day, equating dominant culture language skills to intelligence is prevalent in most parts of our nation which is comprised of many residents born outside of our national borders (some 43.5 million or 13.5% in 2016). My father came to this country as an economic migrant (I believe that is the correct current nomenclature) from Germany in about 1952. He was proud to become a US citizen and flew the flag everyday, but never lost his thick accent and therefore was always considered less than. I am embarrassed to admit that it was not until being exposed to Fuller Seminary I learned there are many ways to examine and understand the Scriptures and that we are always informed by our cultural environment (however one wants to define that), which is why each part of the church has its own “canon within the canon”. Mary, I love your illustration of the Japanese “listening to the air”. Meyer reminds me once again of my need to be culturally humble and take the initiative to learn from others. Thank you for helping me to understand this relative to your context.

  5. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you for sharing this Mary. It is a world problem across all cultures when it comes to communication. I remember when learning was established in our country by the missionaries. One community was quick to get the learning process and wrote all the materials in their local language which other communities do not understand well. They taught in their local language and set exams in that language. Many people from different ethnic groups failed the exams just because they did not understand the language. Language barrier can be used by an enemy to destroy other communities.

    On the boarder of Somalia and Kenya there is always terrorist attack by the somali militia groups who speaks in arabic. One year ago they attached a bus and were speaking in arabic asking question in the qorun and those who understood and answered were saved because they knew they were not christians. But those christians who did not get what they were saying were killed. It is always good to know and understand some languge of the people you are relating or working with.

  6. mm Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you for your post, Mary. I hope your young friend still remembers the gift you gave him that day. Meyer helped me understand the gift of time we can offer as we learn to communicate across cultures. It seems a little research could go a long way. Meyer challenged me to do my research before heading into any new context. Taking time to recognize and appreciate differences in cultural assumptions could save many budding relationships. It’s worth our time!

  7. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I love your post Mary! Particularly your heart to reach children across different cultures. One of my favourite curriculums I used when working with a multilingual group of kids was Sparkhouse’s “Holy Moly”, mainly the video component as the paper part was only in English. The videos didn’t use any clear language (sounds with expression though) and were simple enough for younger students to follow. While it is so important to take time to understand the different places the kids are coming from, it is also always refreshing to me how easily little kids play together regardless of language and culture. What are some of the best ways we can empower the kids we are leading to value their multicultural, multethnic peers? Thanks for you important work Mary!

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