Conquer Your Cultural Stereotypes

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Our culture determines what feels normal, right, and real to us, and what we take for granted. When asked why we sit on chairs instead of on the floor, we may smile at the inquirer’s “ignorance” and answer: “That’s the way we live here.”

 We assume that this is the way it ought to be! But other cultures have developed other ways to live that may seem strange to outsiders.

 These cultural differences open the way for cross-cultural misunderstandings, cultural pride, and prejudice to develop.

Today we will talk about ways to deal not only with our conscious difficulties in accepting another culture, but also with those cultural barriers that are rooted in our emotions, beliefs, and worldview.

Case Study

An American girl cleaned the room while her Thai roommate was having breakfast in the dormitory dining hall. When the roommate returned, she became upset, cried, and left the room.

Later it became clear that the American girl had placed the Thai girl’s skirt on the pillow portion of the bed.

In Thai culture, the head is sacred and putting a piece of clothing associated with a lesser part of the body on a place reserved for the head was one of the worst possible insults.

Friends and advisors tried to explain to the Thai girl that the American girl’s intentions were only good, but the involuntary reaction was so deep that she refused to room with the American girl again.

From Sikkema, M. & Niyekawa, A. (1987). Design for Cross-Cultural Learning. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press

If you were the American roommate, how would you feel at this moment?

God has made human beings so creative that there is an almost infinite variety of patterns of human living.

Each culture has developed its own set of characteristics that gives its society distinctiveness and unity.

To learn to appreciate this diversity we must become bicultural. There are frequently some obstacles on the way to this goal.

Ethnocentrism

Most of us have grown up in a one-culture setting, hardly aware of the differences in habits and customs within our own culture.

The way we do things at home or our group is normal to us. People who differ in accent and habits strike us as “strange.” When we confront another culture, our normal emotional response is ethnocentric: we react to other people’s “odd” customs through our own colored glasses.

Curiously enough this reaction is a two-way street because they also have certain stereotypes of us.

Stereotypes are mistaken ideas or beliefs about the characteristics of a certain group. They may have their value as quick orientation points to facilitate understanding.

But since nobody embodies all the characteristics of a particular list, they soon become barriers to understanding.

Missionaries must learn to develop empathy and an appreciation of the host culture and its ways. This approach leads us to remember our common humanity before God.

Cultural Misunderstandings

Another barrier to communication is cultural misunderstanding. When we cross cultural boundaries, especially as tourists, we often assume that the symbols and behaviors we find in another culture mean the same as in our own culture.

This is a common mistake. What we have to realize is that behaviors are linked to values, beliefs, and worldview assumptions that may differ dramatically from our own.

For example, in North America it is rather impolite to be more than a few minutes late. After letting your partner wait for more than five to ten minutes, you better have some good excuses for being late.

Being late thirty minutes is basically inexcusable and rude. But in certain Arab cultures only servants are “on time.” Those of higher rank arrive some thirty minutes late after the servants have prepared everything for the meeting.

Values and Culture

In all we do we are guided by our values. However, individuals and cultures differ on what they value as most important. Moreover, as Christians, we also listen to the Word of God. In order to understand cultural differences, we need to distinguish between the different types of values we hold:

  • Personal Values—These are values that reflect our personal preferences and include such things as cleanliness, security, health, and job satisfaction.
  • Cultural Values—This category includes values that are top priorities in our dominant (home) culture. Individualism, material success, and independence are examples of top cultural values in the western world. Many non-western cultures place more value on community, cultural heritage, and dependence.
  • Biblical (Eternal) Values—Obviously, this is the most important area of values we live by. It includes mercy, justice, and love.

As you move to another culture you will discover that the most difficult adjustments will be when your values clash with your host culture’s values. If you are unaware of the meaning of cultural expectations, you will find yourself quickly frustrated.

Learn to be sensitive to cultural clues!

What about you?

What are some stereotypes you have of other cultures? How might having stereotypes become stumbling blocks for effective cross-cultural ministry?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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