I vividly remember the moment I understood that culture permeates all of life. I’d already been a missionary for a few years, and I was reading “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” the true story of an epileptic Hmong girl and the cultural tug-of-war over her medical care. The author casually mentioned that in the girl’s Hmong household, family photographs “hung close to the ceiling, to show respect.”
“My gracious,” I thought, glancing at my own eye-level art, “culture even affects where you hang your pictures.” (Check out these “Fantastic tips for perfectly placed art;” surely nearer the ceiling would be easier!)
Culture. It’s not just language, or religion, or family structure, or household size, or what foods you care for, or whether you run late or show up early, or gender roles, or approaches to staying healthy, or what’s considered polite and what’s considered rude, or how you raise your children, or how you respect your elders. It’s all of these. And it’s where you hang your art.
No wonder, then, that multicultural teams face challenges — even when every single member of the team loves Jesus. Here are some steps that can help:
Understand your own culture
Sheryl Silzer, author of “Biblical Multicultural Teams,” specializes in helping teams work through multicultural teaming challenges. In her sessions, she doesn’t focus on “other” cultures — she helps each global worker examine his or her own culture.
“We often don’t understand what our own culture is,” Sheryl said. “So when we see something different, we don’t know how to respond, except to react in ways that say, ‘That’s wrong.’ Because if we say, ‘Well, maybe that’s the right way to do it,’ what that means is, ‘I’m going to have to change how I do things.’”
Sheryl notes that speaking the same language does not mean you share a culture.
“There’s a training center in Latin America. They all speak Spanish, but they don’t all get along,” she said. “It’s just like English speakers. We assume that, since somebody speaks English, they do things in the same way that I do.”
Examine your childhood family culture
Children receive cultural lessons from the start. Consider the grocery store: In a Western grocery store, you might hear a mother ask her child, “What kind of cereal would you like?” That’s typical in Western culture, but Sheryl says that in a communal culture with a strong hierarchy, children wouldn’t be asked what they want. They would just be given food and expected to eat it. And the children wouldn’t ask or complain — not because they are perfectly behaved, but because that’s the norm in their culture.
In her team-building sessions, Sheryl uses each room of the childhood home as a metaphor to explore how our experiences as children affect our approaches to areas like hospitality, leadership and authority, working and resting, and sharing resources.
“Most of us have not thought about our childhood, and how we related to our parents and how that shapes our view of authority,” Sheryl said. “Same with our co-workers and siblings. A lot of these issues go back to emotional baggage that we take with us to the mission field.”
Consider whether differences are biblical or cultural
How did you respond to the idea that children should just eat whatever they’re given, without any choice in the matter? Did that seem cruel? Impossible? Brilliant?
Sheryl suggests: “When you have some kind of emotional response, that tells you that you need to step back and think, ‘OK, what is the underlying cultural issue that’s prompting my response?’”
It’s a lesson she learned the hard way. Before Sheryl began studying culture, she was often confused by her own emotional reactions when she served as a cross-cultural worker.“
I just assumed that the way I did things was the biblical way, so I felt justified in criticizing other people and telling them that they were doing things wrong,” she said. “Now I realize that if my responses to these differences do not promote how we were created in God’s image, loving one another, the body of Christ, people functioning with their gifts, the fruit of the Spirit being developed, then whatever I’m doing is not biblical. But it took me a long time to realize that and accept that.”
A short list of cultural questions
Exploring how you handle these areas (and why) can help you understand your own culture and cultivate healthy team relationships.
Leadership/authority: Who should tell you what to do? How involved should you be in that process? How should a meeting be run? Should a meeting be a place to make a decision, or should decisions be made beforehand and merely communicated at the meeting?
“I worked with one team that had German interns, Chinese workers and two American female leaders,” Sheryl said. “No one understood each other! The Germans and Chinese were expecting the American women to be more directive in how they led, to tell them what to do. The Americans were thinking, ‘Well, you should be able to make your own decisions. We gave you guidelines, but it’s your ministry.’”
Communication: How do you decline an offer? How much do you speak in a meeting? Do you pay attention to the gender or ages of the others in the room to help you decide whether to speak up? What information is polite to share? Which questions are polite to ask?
Hospitality: When you have someone over, do you always eat together? Do you expect them to invite you over next? To bring a gift? To help you prepare a meal? How long should your guest stay? How will you indicate that it’s time for them to leave?
“One of my Asian friends said, ‘I invited some Americans over for a meal, and they never invited me back,’” Sheryl said. “My friend still remembers this like yesterday, although it was about 10 years ago. Asians feel like Americans do not want to maintain a long-term relationship because they do not reciprocate in some way.”
Spiritual practices: How do you get restored in your soul? Is this an individual process or a collective experience? Do you pray alone? In a group, does one person pray at a time, or do all pray at the same time? How connected are your relationships and your physical health to your spiritual life?
Sharing of resources: Do you consider any of your items personal property? When you share something — information or money or possessions — what is the underlying purpose? Do you expect to be paid back? When? If you need something from someone else, how do you ask? If you share something, do you feel compelled to reciprocate?
“In many cultures, you share resources in order to build relationships,” Sheryl said. “If you know someone who is selling a product I need, you become my connection to that person. But if you help me, then I need to help you — because of this, people have a very strong memory, particularly if you don’t reciprocate.”
Working and resting: How do you decide your work schedule? Who distributes the work? Do you work to rest or do you rest to work? How many hours should a work week be? How many vacation days (or weeks) should you take? Should your work schedule be consistent or should it change day to day? How does your economic status affect your choices? What types of jobs count as “spiritual” work?
“Westerners tend to separate the physical from the spiritual,” Sheryl said. “We think, ‘OK, I’m doing my work, but unless it’s preaching or something, it’s not necessarily spiritual.’ Other cultures integrate the spiritual and the physical to a greater degree.”
Friendship: Who do you consider a friend? What responsibilities do friends have to one another? Are friends or family more important? How do you develop a friendship? Do you ask to be included? Or do you wait to be asked? Should you be friends with people of other genders? Other ages?
We often think we understand our culture, or that we aren’t overly influenced by it — until we run into conflict. Looking deeply at our own cultural expectations can help spark greater understanding and dialogue within a multicultural team, so that each member can display the unity of Christ as they engage the unreached.
Note: I am indebted to Sheryl Silzer, author of “Biblical Multicultural Teams,” for helping me think through these issues. Sheryl specializes in equipping teams to work through multicultural teaming challenges. You can contact her here.