The culture gap

This past weekend I just happened to watch two movies which were about the Pacific conflicts in the second world war.  Both movies brought out the point that there was extensive difference between the Japanese and the British/American culture.

For example, the Japanese thought their opponents were cowards because they surrendered rather than fighting to the death.  The Allies thought the Japanese were fanatics because they preferred death to surrender.  These assumptions coloured their treatment of each other on the battlefield and in the POW camp.

But this misunderstanding arose due to a lack of appreciation of culture.  The Allies weren’t cowards, but they valued life and preferred to live to fight another day.  The Japanese on the other hand, valued honour, and would prefer to die honourably in battle than live with defeat.

We as mission workers live in this culture gap, where it is so easy for two different peoples to believe they understand each other.  We discussed this six years ago in a blog about guilt and shame.  Without sufficient investment in cross-cultural awareness, we can draw conclusions which merely reinforce misunderstanding.  For example, I have heard Christian mission workers complain that the locals are corrupt/stupid/lazy without bothering to investigate why their behaviour may appear like that to us when it may be completely consistent with a local world view.  The poor employee who steals from the till to buy medicine for his sick mother thinks he is doing a good thing in taking care of his mother at the expense of his wealthy employer.  This doesn’t excuse corruption, but it can explain it.

This problem is compounded when we lazily assume that the way we do things is ‘right’ (a western concept), and is biblical, which is easy to do when we read the Bible through the eyes of our own culture.  When we sit with people of another culture and ask “What does this verse say to you?” we may get an answer that surprises or even shocks us.  See for example, our blog on the Parable of the Talents!

This is why we need to spend as much time listening as talking, understanding as explaining, and going to great pains when we teach people the Bible that we don’t teach them our Bible.

Only by listening to our missionary colleagues from all over the world, as well as our host culture, will we begin to break free of the western mindset which blinkers our understanding of other cultures and stops us really hearing our brothers and sisters from other places.

Only by becoming more intentionally inter-culturally aware and engaged will we begin to represent a global kingdom perspective and not a narrow monocultural one which verges on religious imperialism.

Guilt and shame

40288_without_face___1One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

A guilt society would be characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the use of terms such as ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘duty’.  Individuals in such societies regulate their behaviour by reference to their own conscience.  There will be shame when somebody misbehaves, but the guilt is primary.  This society will be recognised by many western mission workers as their home culture, as this culture is often dominant in the Christian world.

Shame societies, on the other hand, will place less emphasis on abstract concepts of right and wrong and more stress on the need for social cohesion by maintaining the honour of the individual, family or nation.  Individuals will regulate their behaviour by reference to the shame that exposure would bring, and the risk of social ostracism or ‘losing face’.  There may also be a sense of guilt, but the shame of exposure would be primary.  Many of the countries in which western mission workers minister will be shame societies.

This distinction is useful for understanding why other cultures do not necessarily see things our way.  So if I come from a guilt culture, I will feel it is objectively ‘wrong’ for somebody to steal my bicycle.  But if I’m serving in a shame culture, it may be a bigger cultural taboo for me to challenge the thief, thereby exposing him to shame.  My emphasis on ‘correct’ behaviour may inadvertently have become a bigger issue than the original theft.  That is why western mission workers may perceive the people they work with as having an unacceptably low tolerance for theft, absenteeism or  bribery (for example), while themselves being perceived as being legalistically inflexible and irrationally intolerant of local norms.

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

The long-term impact of living in a culture different to one’s own can be stress, fatigue and even burnout.  Ethical situations may frequently tax the individual.  Some, for example, may wonder why so many people ask them for bribes, while others will be amazed that an apparently simple administrative transaction is complicated by the completion of paperwork when a simple facilitating payment would suffice.

This situation is made much more demanding for cross-cultural workers when they see Christians happily partaking in the culture they find it so difficult to understand.  Their natural inclination is to believe that their own values are correct and appropriate (and therefore Christian) and so the others are compromised.  Behaviour that is tolerated, albeit reluctantly, in the non-Christian locals is seen as unacceptable in the church.

How can we deal with such deep issues which can, if unresolved, threaten our emotional well-being and our relationships with the people we’re supposed to be serving?  Here are some suggestions:

  • recognise your own cultural preferences and try to understand those of your host culture.  Do your best to see that it’s possible that neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they’re just different.
  • discuss your concerns with people of your own culture who have been there long enough to understand how the local culture works.
  • try not to be judgemental towards your host culture.  Recognise that there may be good reasons why they’re different, and acknowledge that they may likewise be judging you.
  • if particular issues vex you, look at what the Bible says about them, and be willing to recognise that your preferences might actually be no more godly than theirs.
  • be very sensitive in challenging the church with what you see as ungodly attitudes.  Don’t openly condemn but instead find a suitable Bible verse and ask them to explain what that would mean in their culture before explaining what it means in yours.