Cultural conundrums

Yesterday, while waiting for my computer to finish doing something or other, I was reading the October issue of the Toastmaster magazine. I didn’t actually read much of it, just skimmed through to see what might be interesting or helpful. When I came to the article “Know Thy Culture,” however, I slowed down and read every word.

I don’t remember just how much interest I took in understanding culture before I studied Spanish, though certainly I had at least some idea of the challenges involved in cross-cultural ministry from the books I had read about missions. The more I studied Spanish, however, the more interested I became in the subject. When I decided to participate in a summer abroad study program, the matter became very practical rather than just theoretical.

I’m not sure just how much I learned to recognize cultural differences during the time I spent abroad – not only that summer (which I extended to six months when I stayed on for the fall semester) but also, two years later, another nine months that I spent in Madrid as a graduate student. The most obvious differences are probably the least important. The foods are different, the daily schedule is different, and the holidays are different, but one can become accustomed to all those and still know very little of the real cultural differences.

I commented on one occasion to a Spanish acquaintance about having had to live on a stipend of only $3000 the previous year (1983). He pointed out that a Spanish man might support his whole family on that income, so he could hardly see why a single woman should think she needed more. I knew that I could buy more food in Spain with the Spanish equivalent of one U.S. dollar than that same dollar would get me in the U.S., and that housing also cost less. But I wasn’t sure how other expenses compared, and how much of the difference was being accustomed to a different standard of living (even though I had always lived frugally by American standards).

From books and classes I knew that there were also differences in family relationships, attitudes towards time, personal space (how far apart people position themselves to feel comfortable), and many other aspects of daily life. I could recognize such differences, knowing they existed, but I don’t know how much I would have picked up on, on my own, during the limited time I lived there – especially as I spent more time interacting with other American students both in and out of class than I did developing close relationships with Spaniards.

The article in the Toastmaster magazine makes it clear that some of the most important aspects of culture to understand are those that are hardest to see. There are assumptions about behavior that are so ingrained that it doesn’t occur to us that they are culturally based. Even when we come into contact with people of another culture, who behave in ways that offend us, we may easily blame it on poor character rather than a different set of values.

One of the clearest examples of this is in attitudes towards time. In our culture, being prompt is a virtue, and being late for an appointment is seen as evidence of being disorganized or, worse, too selfish to care how our tardiness affects others. If you are deep in conversation, and realize you have an appointment to get to, the other person will readily understand why you have to leave in a hurry, and will probably think well of you for your effort to get somewhere on time. In a society that values relationships more than achievements, however, such behavior would probably be seen as crass and possibly insulting.

That distinction is one I’ve read and heard about many times. Likewise, I knew about differences regarding respect to elders, taking care of extended family, and saving face. But this article brought up others that I had thought little about if at all. For instance, Americans generally think of “change” in a positive light. Certainly there are unwelcome changes, and conservatives are less likely than liberals to welcome new ways of doing things, but change is so widely valued that the word usually has positive connotations.

You can buy products to change the color of your hair, the shape of your body, even tinted contacts to “change” the color of your eyes. There are motivational books to improve your organizational skills, your health, your spiritual life, your marriage, your overall outlook on life – and much more. This is so familiar to us that it’s hard to imagine people not wanting to change themselves. Who is happy with himself as he is? But the author of this article (raised in France and South America) recalls attending a seminar where the speaker offered a “fantastic program that will transform your life,” and being very puzzled when people responded enthusiastically.

Another example she points out is how American speakers interact informally with the audience, and stir their emotions to produce an enthusiastic response. Her French background made this approach distasteful to her, as she wanted a speaker to relate to her on an intellectual rather than emotional level. I have to admit that in this I feel as she did, and I don’t know if it has to do more with coming from New England (which has a repution, whether deserved or not, for being emotionally reserved), or my particular personality and family background.

I remember, even as a child, disliking it when adults tried to get us excited. Worse, it usually worked with my peers. Perhaps in reaction against it, I raised my defenses so that it was hard for anyone to get much of a reaction out of me. When I went to Word of Life Ranch (a camp in the Adirondacks), I was initially turned off by the leaders’ efforts to get campers cheering wildly. I was so impressed by the genuine concern shown by the counselors, however, that I came to love Word of Life and determined to attend Bible school there myself.

Years later, early in my marriage, I tried selling Tupperware to make some extra money, as well as to build self-confidence and leadership skills. When I attended my first rally for Tupperware dealers, I was amazed to find the same kind of pushing the audience to express high levels of excitement. It was so much like Word of Life, I began wondering how much of the techniques used at Word of Life had their roots in sales seminars rather than evangelistic meetings.

But while I had done a decent job of working myself up to meet expectations at Word of Life, I had no drive to do the same for Tupperware. If that was what it took to sell successfully, it wasn’t for me. I still dislike it when any speaker tries to bully the audience into an emotional response. Even at church, I hate it when the worship leader insists on a louder “Amen!” or some other show of enthusiasm. My intensity of worship has nothing to do with the decibel level, and if anything has an inverse relationship to it.

Another cultural difference that I don’t think I had been aware of is the amount one is willing to reveal about oneself. When I first went to Word of Life, I was particularly impressed by the willingness of people there to tell about their own feelings and their own experiences, making themselves vulnerable to other people. Back home, people weren’t like that, at least in my experience. Again, I don’t know if it has to do with cultural differences between New England and the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states where I have lived since, or just the limits of my own experience up to that time.

In the years since then, I have repeatedly been taught the importance of being willing to be open, willing to talk about one’s own feelings and experiences, even when those are hardly complimentary. In a class on leading Bible studies, our leader taught us (by example as well as by word) that if the leader is willing to be open and share first, then members of the group will follow that example. People who have had a big impact on me have generally been those willing to reveal their own struggles as well as successes.

But while I had come to think of this as a rule of human nature, apparently this willingness to share such personal stories is particularly American. In some cultures, people would be as embarrassed witness this baring of one’s soul as the baring of one’s body in public. Even more, Americans talk freely about faults in their parents and how they were raised, which would be unthinkable for people raised to prize their family’s honor. In some ways, I think our open approach is a healthy one, but it can certainly be taken too far when it becomes fodder for entertainment on certain TV talk shows.

I doubt I will have the opportunity to travel abroad again for a long time – though someday I would certainly like to. So whatever opportunities I get to use what I have learned about culture will be among people I live and work with here at home. And generally they are trying to learn how to adapt to American culture, rather than expecting anyone to adapt to their ways. But simply recognizing the differences can help prevent misunderstandings.

One of the Brazilian contractors who works in our department told how, when he first came to work here, he thought the Americans were not very friendly. Later on, he – and his Brazilian colleagues – realized that we simply are not in the habit of giving everyone at work warm and enthusiastic greetings before we start work for the day. A smile and a nod if we happen to pass in the corridor, sometimes with a spoken greeting but not always, seems to be the norm. If we went to work at their office in Brazil, of course, we would need to learn their ways.

I think it also can help me be more tolerant of others (and perhaps even less critical of myself), realizing that differences are likely based on where and how we were raised. I will probably still be annoyed every time the worship leader implies that our praise is not from the heart if it’s not as loud as he thinks it should be. But if he grew up in an environment where the two were very closely associated, he’s only expressing a genuine desire for fervent worship of the living God. And I don’t have to feel guilty for disliking his urging for greater volume, because only the pipe organ was that loud in the church where I grew up.


One Response to Cultural conundrums

  1. Karen O says:

    “It was so much like Word of Life, I began wondering how much of the techniques used at Word of Life had their roots in sales seminars rather than evangelistic meetings.”

    Or maybe it’s the other way around?

    Maybe the techniques used at sales seminars had their roots in evangelistic meetings.

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