by Gary Scheer
In a relational culture, not surprisingly, relationships are primary.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? During an interview to hire a maintenance worker for our property in Kigali, Rwanda, I asked a candidate, “Are you a Christian?” With a big smile he replied, “Oh, yes!” and told me about his church background and his family. I hired him.
And, sure enough, he began attending church. But it wasn’t long before the pastor told me our man had been seen seriously drunk several times. He asked why I had hired such a “pagan” instead of a Christian with a good testimony. I asked around and found that before we hired this man he rarely stepped inside a church building.
“These people are such liars,” declared our missionary colleagues.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve also probably wondered why the people you work with play so free and easy with the truth. You’ve probably also gotten good and mad.
Like the time I proposed a new accounting system for the church association. The Rwandan committee members displayed great interest, even enthusiasm. They voted in the system during the meeting—and that was the last anyone ever saw or heard of it. From time to time, I probed and pushed, but I only received vague excuses, combined with continued declarations of enthusiasm for the program.
“How can people just lie to our faces like that?” we ask ourselves in frustration. What are we up against? Simply put, it’s a clash of cultures.
In Rwanda’s relational culture, like many other relational cultures, the very purpose and foundation of communication are different than those in Western culture. Though there may be many similarities in technique, at heart the two systems differ fundamentally.
In a relational culture, not surprisingly, relationships are primary. They are the joy and delight of the people’s lives. Not only that, more often than not position and wealth come through relationships. (See James Lo’s article in this issue.—Ed.) While the particulars differ from one society to another, generally the name of the game is to cozy up to someone important, powerful, or rich so that some of what he’s got comes to you. Personal achievement means little. Rather, to “make it,” you must be a master at manipulating relationships. You must make people like you. And you must try to make your friends hate everyone else to make your position more secure.
You know you are in a relational culture when you try to motivate people with the American cheer, “Just think how proud you’ll be when you see what you’ve been able to accomplish with your own hands!” and it doesn’t work. Relational people take no pride in slaving away to do something when a rich uncle could step in and do it for them. Their pride is in their rich uncle, not their achievements. What’s more, their relationship-oriented rich uncle would feel proud to be able to help them.
When we become the rich uncle, we become frustrated with their dependence. We frown on those who have “made it” simply because they have a rich uncle. In our culture, the hero is the person who makes it on his or her own, despite all odds, against all opposition.
In a culture where relationships are primary, relationships are also the key to communication. The foundation and goal of relational communication is not merely to pass on truth, but to establish, maintain, and enjoy the fruits of relationships.
How different from Western communication, in which reality provides a clearly defined range in which acceptable communication can roam, but beyond which it ought not go. Westerners want to “get to the bottom” of the messages they receive, i.e., to find the truth in what is said. They want to follow the tether back to where it’s attached to reality. If they find it is detached, the message becomes invalid.
A president, for example, whose intent to impress consistently colors his communication so strongly that reality is obscured—and the truth is intentionally misrepresented—is strongly condemned. A friend who has been consistently and intentionally communicating unreality loses his credibility—and may never regain it.
Bycontrast, when members of a relational culture “get to the bottom” of things, they delve into the relational foundations and implications of the message. Truth or reality is not their starting point. The relational speaker is not chiefly concerned about reality. His goal is relationships. Finding a message detached from reality does not invalidate it for him. This kind of untethered communication roams in a much broader range.
Not that truth is thrown out in relational cultures, but it does play a lesser role. All peoples arrange values and virtues in hierarchies. Most will say “truth” is a virtue. But for some it will be near the top, with lying being a heinous sin. For others it will be near the bottom, with many other virtues above it. To lie is bad, but not nearly as bad as 101 other things—like being offensive, or breaking relationships.
One time the Rwandan leaders of our association told the missionaries that the school needed a teacher and that John, an accountant there, was an excellent one. It made sense to us to match his teaching ability with the school’s need.
John had not attended the meeting in which this decision was made. When I talked to John, he first asked why I thought the board was displeased with him. I said the decision had nothing to do with anyone’s displeasure, but with the need for a good teacher. With question after question, he continued to probe to see who was behind this and why. He wanted to find out what was happening relationally; what were the implications for his overall standing in the association.
John, you see, was just as content doing one job as the other. He was not happier performing a task that better matched his skills. He was, however, upset that he might be on the outs with someone in the hierarchy. His sole concern was where he fit within the complex network of association relationships.
And, indeed, the fact that John was a better teacher than accountant probably had little to do with the decision to move him. It was a manipulation of relationships that our Rwandan colleagues represented to us as a practical move to match John’s skills with his job.
What are some of the practical implications of this fundamentally different communication approach for those of us in relational cultures?
We need to look for the relational intent or impact of statements. The more important the message relationally, the freer the communicator may deal with truth and reality. When the message strays untethered from reality, know that something important may be going on relationally.
We are also certain to be misunderstood and mistaken by relational hearers. We cannot, nor do we wish to, cut our ties to reality and truth. But relational hearers will not be asking themselves, “Is this true?” Relational hearers will be asking first, “Who is he getting at?” rather than, “What is he getting at?”
When what you say is challenged, it may not be the truth in question. Rather, it may be that what you said—true though it may be—had an unacceptable relational impact on the hearer.
Don’t expect relational hearers to be as impressed with the reality and truth of your words. Credibility with them depends on more than just telling the truth. It hinges on how you relate to the hearers—how you receive them, how you help them, how you participate with them in life’s ups and downs.
But once you’ve established this relational credibility, you will not have a hard time getting people to agree with you. You will rather have a hard time getting them to disagree. Whatever you say will be good and true simply because you, the one with a good and positive relationship with them, said it. Your relationship is more important to them than truthful communication.
Nowhere are the fundamental differences between these two styles of communication more sharply defined, and more dangerous, than when a Westerner is made an arbiter or judge over a dispute in a relational culture.
The Westerner will first try to discern the truth and reality behind the arguments of both sides.Having read the situation, he will try to bring a solution that is “just.”
First, the very notion of a “just judgment,” as we Westerners understand it, is foreign to the relational culture. The Western arbiter will, having first gotten to the reality or truth behind the situation, propose a solution with reference to an abstract notion of right and wrong. He will deliberately put aside thoughts of who is related to whom, who will benefit the most, who might be on his side.
These very concerns, however, are the bottom line for the two relational opponents. A judgment based on “justice” may alienate a whole section of the community. Telling the truth may estrange you from your prime benefactor.
The “judgment” the Westerner has in mind is not what the relational opponents desire. They want us to help them rearrange relationships so that a new equilibrium can be established. They want loyalties above truth; favoritism is how their system works. In the deliberations, each side will try to get us to throw in with it. Yet, the solution that will satisfy them will be one that takes a bit from each side, gives a bit to all, in an effort to equalize the power and influence of each side; or better yet, to bring the two sides back into one coalition, more powerful and influential than ever.
Second, relational people are masters at using communication to manipulate relationships. When the tether is cut free from truth, the communication multiplies in range and subtle complexity.
The arbiter of a significant conflict is in a dangerous situation. As the final judge, he becomes the highest relational prize to be cozied up to. Whomever the westerner favors is the winner, right or wrong. Watch the manipulative communication fly, all targeted at the Westerner, who does not have the communication resources to deal with it all.
He will most likely pass a final judgment, feeling he has done his best to “get to the bottom of the issue,” only to have been manipulated into that judgment by the communication skills of the host culture. With great chagrin the Western “judge” may later realize that the judgment he made in good faith has perpetrated a terrible injustice.
The average Western missionary would find it impossible to bring a judgment that does not serve the truth and overlooks issues of right and wrong. The relational people involved in the dispute would find it impossible to accept a conclusion that undermined relationships, no matter how true, just, and righteous.
They would, in fact, read our judgment as a grossly insensitive ploy to radically restructure relationships in our favor. It’s a dangerous, no-win situation.
Indeed, the missionary from whatever country ought not cut communication’s ties to truth and reality. But neither should the relational peoples give up the priority of relationships.
The dichotomy between relational- and reality-based communication is one of the many unities broken apart by sin. God communicates truth and reality through relationship. The Word becoming flesh is of great significance: The Word—the truth and reality of God communicated to people; the flesh—the Son of Man, a person among people; the Word—facts, the way God is, his law, his judgments; the flesh—living among people, relationships, loyalty, warm, loving favor.
The Word became flesh and lived among us . . . full of grace and truth. Truth we Westerners understand. But grace? Our popular concept of grace is that of an exchange of commodities—”God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” But grace has to do with favor, which is a relational word. It is the type of relationship that those in a relational culture are continually seeking. Is not the Good News that the key to life abundant is to cozy up to the all-powerful One so that what he has becomes ours?—not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but simply because we belong to Him.
To the reality oriented person, salvation is a truth to be accepted and affirmed. To the relational person, salvation is Jesus to be hugged to the heart. Thereality-oriented person is often short on love and devotion. The relational person is often short on understanding the truth and reality of salvation. We need both.
What has been broken apart by sin must be put back together in our lives. The relational Christian cannot run roughshod over truth for the sake of relationships. The reality-oriented Christian cannot trample relationships for the sake of the truth. The relational Christian must come into our midst and teach us the importance of relationships. We must go into the midst of the relational Christians and teach them the importance of truth. And they need to be patient with us as we learn the importance of relationships, even as we need to be patient with them as they learn the importance of truth.
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