Thursday, March 06, 2014

Taking your cultural "strengths" overseas

In the last two weeks I've visited seven Perspectives classes to teach lessons on mission history. Before my spring "tour" is done I will attend a mission conference in Portland, participate in a week of meetings around a forum for church leaders in Orlando, spend a few days in Southern California, and then, March 31 and April 10, teach two more Perspectives lessons. Those are a culture lesson. In pulling up my notes about crossing cultures I remember how much fun this material is to teach. It's more personal. And much less "sage on the stage." I'll step more fully into the mode of "guide on the side," raising questions and inviting the class to discuss their own experiences and concerns and come to their own conclusions.

I'm also reminded how easy it is to believe that working in a cross-cultural situation is hard because of problems with the other people's culture. But that's not a very helpful conclusion. It's no use going around expecting other people to change on our behalf. Far more effective to acknowledge and examine our expectations and look for ways to adjust them along with our thinking and behavior. Those are the only thing over which we have at least some control.

I like the way Kenyan pastor Oscar Muriu describes these tensions:
Americans have two great things going for them culturally. One is that Americans are problem-solvers. Every time I come to the U.S., I like to spend a couple hours in a Wal-Mart. I find solutions to problems that I never thought of!

The rest of the world, even Europe, isn't so intent on solving inconveniences. We tend to live with our problems… Americans don't easily live with a problem—they want to solve the problem and move on…

The second great thing for Americans is that your educational system teaches people to think and to express themselves. So a child who talks and asserts himself in conversation is actually awarded higher marks than the one who sits quietly.

Those two things that are such great gifts in the home context become a curse when you go into missions. Americans come to Africa, and they want to solve Africa. But you can't solve Africa. It's much too complex for that. And that really frustrates Americans.

And the assertiveness you are taught in school becomes a curse on the field. I often say to American missionaries, "When the American speaks, the conversation is over." The American is usually the most powerful voice at the table. And when the most powerful voice gives its opinion, the conversation is over.

I tell Americans: "We're going into this meeting. Don't say anything! Sit there and hold your tongue." When you sit around a table, the people speaking always glance at the person they believe is the most powerful figure at the table. They will do that with you when you're the only American. And at some point, they will ask you: "What do you think?"

Don't say anything. If you say anything, reflect back with something like "I have heard such wisdom at this table. I am very impressed." And leave it at that. Affirm them for the contribution they have made. Don't give your own opinion.

Americans find that almost impossible. They do not know how to hold their tongue. They sit there squirming, because they're conditioned to express their opinions. It's a strength at home, but it becomes a curse on the field.

(Source: Problem-Solving, Opinionated Americans from Leadership Journal, The African Planter: Nairobi Chapel pastor on mission trips, and working well across cultures. An interview with Oscar Muriu (quoted in Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church pgs 110-111)


Paul Merrill said...

Oscar Muriu baby-dedicated Jay when he was about 6 months old. Small world.

California Girl said...

This was very interesting. As an alien living in the US it's nice being able to assert myself vocally without being called a trouble maker. I'm hopefully vocalizing solutions and it is actually appreciated! Thanks for the insight!!

It's so interesting sinking deep into a culture layer by layer. We all want to know it all instantly and cross cultural life/mission isn't ever going to be an instant thing...even when we/I want it to be.

Love reading your blog.

Courtney O. said...

Great thoughts here Marti. Even just in reading the article I can see these dynamics in my own marriage. The way my Canadian husband I communicate are very different and my dominate and assertive communication style causes many conflicts in our home. Thanks for this new light to look at this through!