Cross-Cultural Connections, Section Four: Cultural Differences That Confuse

Section Four names and describes some differences in thinking and values between cultures that contribute to culture shock.

Time and Event

Also known as monochronic vs. polychronic. In industrial economies we value time to the minute. Factories and assembly lines grind to a halt and cost money if people aren’t on time. Time is money. But in other cultures, such as agricultural ones, value interactions with people more than time. They measure time in seasons and opportunities rather than by the second. A bus may be hours late in a polychronic society because the driver helped people load extra luggage or waited extra time for someone to arrive.

Suggestion: redeem the time but be patient. Watch and learn. Bring reading materials.

Task and Relationship

Example of helping side the pastor’s house while he talked with the neighbors. The goal-driven helpers were frustrated as the relationship-oriented pastor built relationships. Goal-driven societies make more scientific progress, while relationship-oriented societies seem more peaceful and less stressful.

Suggestion: learn the importance of people. Tasks need to be done, but slow down and build relationships first.

Individualism and Collectivism

Americans tend to be very individualistic. They pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They make decisions on their own much more than collective societies. Collective societies think the nail that sticks up will get pounded down. They find comfort in the group and make decisions as a group.

Suggestion: be ready to witness to a person’s group. Don’t overly pressure the individual to make an individual choice away from the group.

Categorical and Holistic Thinking

Western culture tends to categorize people, tasks, things, and time. We think of time as a timeline. Holistic thinking sees time more as an onion, with layers. Each layer relates to the whole. Most african nations wanted to withdraw from the olympics when apartheid South Africa joined. While the West placed “sports” and “politics” in separate categories, the more holistic African nations did not separate the two. Categorical thinking knows what is “mine” and “yours.” Holistic thinkers are more aware of “ours.” If you need it, you use it. If I need it, I will use it.

 Suggestion: remember that everything belongs to God. None of it is “mine.”

Logic: Straight or Curved

Example of Daniel, the Korean friend. When he wanted to ask counsel in his love life, he talked around in a spiral to Elmer about all the major areas of his life for forty minutes before ever getting to the main question about dating. He was peeling layers off the onion, or else spiraling around ever closer in to the main question, making sure Elmer deserved his trust and had all the information necessary to give the best counsel. In contrast, Western thinking tends to approach logic in a straight line, covering the important points in a logical progression to a logical conclusion. Straight thinking is chain-like, cause-to-effect or effect-to-cause.

Another pattern is the daisy. A Black may make a major point, then loop out and back around in to the same point, repeating it for emphasis.

Apparantly Hispanic thought tends to prefer deductive reasoning to Anglo inductive reasoning. I have to admit some confusion on this point. From the logic I remember, I would have thought Anglo’s did use dedictive reasoning more heavily.

Suggestion: Listen to the reasoning behind what people are saying. Perhaps even diagram it.

Achieved Status and Ascribed Status

In America, anyone can be president. In other countries, there are social orders like caste systems. In an ascribed status culture, people are greeted and treated according to their status.

It presents a challenge. If you lose your status in another culture you may lose your hearing with them as a consequence. Yet, keeping up your status may mean treating women or outcasts differently. There will be dilemmas in being a servant as Jesus was, yet acting in a culture in such a way as to be able to effectively minister to as many people as possible.

Guilt and Shame

Shame cultures exert external pressure to conform to norms. Guilt societies rely on internal sense of wrong such that people will feel guilty internally and punish themselves. A guilt-based missionary is likely to differentiate between a person and the person’s actions, and confront a person accordingly. The shame-based recipient will think more holistically and not make such separations. The missionary may accidentally shame the person and cause real damage.

It is in shame-based cultures that “honor crimes” are committed in order to restore family honor.

Suggestion: hold your tongue. Learn how to suggest other ways to a person rather than accuse them of being wrong. Don’t compare their society unfavorable to yours. Learn how to deflect requests without causing shame.

Worship Expression: From Low to High

Two-thirds World countries often prefer a more expressive, less structured style of worship. Western missionaries have often exported an entire cultural style of worship along with the Gospel message itself. While American churches view a tension between “contemporary” and “traditional” these sorts of differences have long existed. A successful church must adapt its worship style to the locals (personal note: this raises some interesting questions about local church styles right here in America as the culture around us changes).

 It is true that not all styles of worship are equally valid. Some are even wrong. But many differences are just different.

Suggestion: worship God with others and seek unity. Even at the expense of your preferences.


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