by Sandra L. Mackin
The answer so far seems to be “rawhide,” but we can change it to “silk.”
A Filipino missionary serving on a multinational team in Japan reports that her Dutch teammate is "against new ideas and insists on what she likes." Her German teammate is a "very negative lady who always complains and asks Why? a lot." Her Australian teammate finds it difficult to accept Filipino leaders.
A Pakistani missionary in the Philippines reports that he was shocked by Filipino Christians having dates and was hurt by his American director’s busyness and failure to spend time with him.
A missionary in the Philippines from Tonga was hurt by his Indian leader’s bluntness, especially when correcting him, telling him, "It’s very bad. You shouldn’t do it like this. Do it again."
What do these missionaries have in common? What’s at the root of their hurt feelings? Stress caused by cultural differences.
For over nine years I’ve worked on multinational teams in the Philippines and I’ve seen many conflicts like these. Further, I’ve conducted more than 30 interviews with people in Manila which reveal similar experiences.1
Consider a team from the United States, Korea, and Britain working to reach an area of the Philippines. Typically, they will focus on adjusting to Filipino culture, not on their own cultural differences. Eventually, however, cultural conflicts will arise among them and cause such distress that the team’s effectiveness may be seriously hampered.
It’s axiomatic that cultural differences lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. On multinational teams, people think differently, use different body language, and speak different languages (there’s considerable confusion among English speakers from different countries, too).
Whatever the cause, the results of such cultually induced conflicts are stress, frustration, and disappointment Ultimately, the conflicts can preoccupy and distress team members to the point where they do not function effectively.
What can we do about it? Disband our multinational teams? Hardly. The worldwide trend is to establish more of them. Therefore, we must strive to reduce the cultural conflicts. But before trying to improve team relationships, we need to acquire a biblical perspective on the problem.
There are four ways to look at our cultural values and practices. First, some are clearly right when measured against Scripture, for example, Filipino hospitality (1 Pet. 4:9). Second, some directly conflict with Scripture, e.g., child sacrifice in some cultures.
Third, some fall into a gray area. For example, Christians from different countries differ on drinking alcoholic beverages. Fourth, many are neutral, e.g., the Bible doesn’t address the issue of how much space is proper between two people conversing.
One of our problems on multinational teams is that people often confuse the four categories, insisting that a cultural practice is wrong, when it may fall into a neutral or gray area. On the other hand, some team members may take something in the neutral or gray category and insist that it is biblically mandated. When conflicts arise, we must carefully think through the issue and determine in which of these four categories it belongs.
Most of our cultural conflicts revolve around practices that are gray or neutral. In such cases, members need to study and apply Romans 14 and 15:1-3, where Paul teaches self-denial for the sake of other believers’ values. In gray or neutral areas, the godly response is to defer to the cultural practice of one’s brother.
The Bible also speaks to the positive side of team relations: love and unity (John 15:12; 13:35; 17:21). If we exhibit love and unity, the world will sit up and take notice that we are disciples of Jesus. What an even greater testimony it is when that love is practiced by people from different cultures and nations.
The unity of believers is also a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel. According to the apostle Paul, our unity is demonstrated in the midst of our diversity (1 Cor. 12:12-27). This is especially appropriate for multinational teams.
The Bible also gives us guidelines for practicing love and unity, but they are sometimes hard to apply across cultural lines. For example, the apostle Paul tells us to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). In some cultures, the truth is communicated bluntly. That’s what the Indian team leader did to the Tongan: "It’s very bad. You shouldn’t do it like this."
However, in other cultures – Japanese and Filipino, for example – the truth is softened to save face or avoid confrontations. In some cases this may be a matter of tact, but in others the truth is compromised.
When missionaries work together without considering how to "speak the truth in love" in ways appropriate to members’ various cultures, hurt feelings develop. We must learn how to communicate "love" to a teammate from another culture, and how to present "the truth" so they can receive it without feeling offended.
Another biblical guideline particularly appropriate to team relations is, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29). "Unwholesome" in Greek means "rank, foul, putrid both in a literal and figurative sense…. it carries the connotation of pernicious and offensive."2
To obey this, we must learn what our teammates consider unwholesome and offensive. A Filipino pastor’s wife, trying to compliment me, once told me. I looked "sexy." To many Filipinos "sexy" means "nice," but I didn’t interpret it that way and was surprised to be given such an unwholesome label.
When such misunderstandings happen, we must "be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Learning to resolve conflicts in ways appropriate to our teammates’ cultures is crucial for healthy relations.
HOW TO IMPROVE RELATIONS
Knowledge of our teammates’ cultures is the key to expressing love, pursuing unity, and building healthy, biblical relations. There are many things we can do to foster such understanding.
1. Prefield orientation. Before joining a team, each member should be helped to analyze his or her own cultural values. "It is purely axiomatic to argue that the more we know about ourselves, the more effective and accurate our communication is likely to be."3 But apparently we aren’t doing very well at this.
We go to the field, neither understanding who we are culturally, nor how we will affect our recipient cultures, nor what changes we need to make in ourselves….We must develop a set of methods, ideas, literature, and communications designed to ensure that before we leave for the field we understand the culture we will leave behind, but also carry with us.4
There are many excellent tools to help us fill this gap in our missionary training. Paul Hiebert’s book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Baker, 1985) contains a chapter, "Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries," which should be studied and discussed. L. Robert Kohl’s helpful book, Survival Kit for Overseas Living (Intercultural Press, 1979), is a gold of information on analyzing culture, with a helpful section on American culture. By studying books such as these, each candidate should emerge with a list of his or her culture’s values.
Of course, any such list is a generalization. Therefore, it’s also helpful to analyze one’s own personal values, which may not be exactly the same as the prevailing culture’s. For example, Americans generally are considered to be time-oriented, but that’s not true for all Americans.
Then the candidates must think through each cultural and personal value in terms of the four categories mentioned above. Is it clearly right when measured against Scripture? Is it in direct conflict with the teaching of Scripture? Does it fall in a gray area? Or is it morally neutral? Such analysis will be invaluable later on when one of his or her values conflicts with a teammate’s.
A particularly helpful tool for determining one’s personal values is Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers (Baker, 1986). They provide a questionnaire to help find your basic values (mainly those that are neutral or fall into a gray area). It can be used by both Western and non-Western missionaries. After you answer the questions, you plot a profile to show where you stand on the following values:
1. Time orientation vs. event orientation.
2. Dichotomistic thinking vs. wholistic thinking.
3. Crisis orientation vs. noncrisis orientation.
4. Task orientation vs. person orientation.
5. Status focus, vs. achievement focus.
6. Concealment of vulnerability vs. willingness to expose vulnerability.
The authors then discuss the six pairs of contrasting traits, pointing out the tensions that result when people at opposite poles interact.
2. Field orientation. Once on the field, team members will analyze each other’s cultures. They must keep in mind that some of their teammates’ values will be clearly right biblically and some may be in conflict with Scripture, but the majority will fall into the gray or neutral categories. The purpose is to understand each other well enough to communicate in love, pursue unity, build healthy relations, and decrease misunderstandings. The result will be a decrease in conflicts and a reduction in stress.
Three ways to decrease cultural stress are to recognize it, accept the new culture, and improve communication.5 By analyzing each team member’s culture, potential areas of stress will be recognized. Acceptance of another person’s culture as a valid way of life is built as we learn more about each member’s culture and the reasons for their customs. Communication reduces stress because it fills our need for interaction and reduces loneliness and isolation. By talking about their own cultures, in a context of love and acceptance, missionaries feel less lonely and better understood.
Therefore, when the multinational team gets together for the first time, it would be helpful for the team leader (who would have been previously trained) to conduct a seminar, to help each one get acquainted with the others’ cultural and personal values. Each member would share what they had learned in prefield orientation about their home cultures and about themselves. Each one would take careful notes on what is said. The team leader must be sure that all this is done in an atmosphere of love and acceptance.
3. Crucial areas to discuss as a learn. After team members have talked about themselves and their cultures, the leader should open the discussion about crucial matters that lead to cultural conflicts. Among them are: leadership styles and decision making; male-female relations and the role of women; physical contact; and preferred means of conflict resolution.
4. Leadership styles and decision-making. Cultures differ in the way leaders conduct themselves and in the relation followers have with their leaders. Some prefer authoritarian leaders, those who make their decisions with little counsel from their followers. Others prefer democratic leaders who encourage members to give their ideas. Westerners who are used to being led by democratic leaders find it difficult to adjust to being led by an authoritarian leader.
In the discussion, as members talk about this difference in their cultures, they will gain insights into why they respond differently to their team leader’s leadership style.
How will the team arrive at decisions? Each culture has a favorite method. Missionary Ben Reed works with a team in Japan led by a Hong Kong Chinese. This is what he learned:
Being from the West, where submission of the minority to the will of the majority has been the norm, we struggle with the cumbersome process in the East (Japan) referred to as consensus taking, where all opinions are reconciled to reach a unanimous decision. So unnatural to Western thought patterns, consensus taking is easily overlooked in administrative habits of Westerners… We Westerners sometimes blunder ahead trying to streamline our schedules and eliminate what we consider excess work. Often we simply alienate those who might otherwise have valuable input into the decision to be made and its outworking.6
On teams where discussion is permitted, difficulties often arise because of cultural differences in the way discussions are conducted. Lehtinen explains:
Most Germans, when they discuss, have a dialectical approach. You say something and a German feels that he has to say the other side of the issue. The first two words are, "Ja, aber…" (Yes, but…) Germans tend to be frustrated when there is no such tension in discussion. They feel: "We are just wasting our time, it’s small talk."7
With this understanding of German culture, it’s easy to understand why the Filipino in my earlier example saw her German teammate as "a very negative lady who always complains and asks Why? a lot." The Filipino was reacting to significant cultural differences. The tragedy was that she did not recognize the differences were cultural, but instead judged the personality and spirituality of her teammate.
Lehtinen also explains:
People of different cultures come to conclusions in their thinking patterns and decision making in very different ways.
…When they (Americans) need to make a decision, they gather the positive information about the topic and then they make a decision… . The British try to see the problems, too, and the solution which includes the least problems is often the one they choose…. (However) when an African talks about an issue, he paints a picture. Everything is included. He does not need to have a central point. Contextual logic is also very common in Southern Europe. People paint a picture with their words. When they discuss, it’s a long discussion. They talk and talk and talk and talk. And a person who comes from a linear culture asks, "When will they get to the main point?"… The whole discussion is. the answer to the question. At a certain time they start to agree, they reach a consensus, and then they finally all agree, "Yes, yes, now I see the whole picture."8
Because of cultural differences in leadership styles and decision making, team members must communicate how their cultures handle these issues. The leadership style the team adopts will depend on the structure of the mission and the attitude of the leader. By discussing these issues, mutual understanding will be fostered.
5. Male-female relations and the role of women. Many of my interviewees said that relations between men and women produced numerous misunderstandings and conflicts. Men who come from cultures where women are seen as inferior often have difficulties working with women from cultures where women are seen as equal partners in ministry.
Courtship and dating patterns should be discussed. This has been a serious point of tension between Filipinos and Americans. An American may think he is just casually dating a woman from the Philippines, but in her culture’s courtship patterns his actions mean pre-engagement.
6. Physical contact. The team should discuss what each culture considers appropriate physical contact between men and women. Many cultures do not allow unmarried persons to have any physical contact at all. Westerners can easily offend their teammates because of this. When Americans greet with a hug, people in some cultures view this as immoral.
Physical contact between people of the same sex should also be discussed.
In the Philippines, it’s acceptable for a man to take another man’s hand as they walk down the street, but this makes Americans very uncomfortable. When I worked on a team with a Fijian, I discovered that touching a Fijian’s hair is a grave insult.
The team should also be aware of how different cultures see the need for personal space. Americans need four or five feet for genera! conversations, less for personal matters, but Latin Americans tend to stand two or three feet apart in ordinary conversations and much closer for personal discussions. By talking over issues such as these, the team can avoid many misunderstandings and hasty judgments.
7. Conflict resolution. The team needs to discuss how conflicts are resolved in their home cultures. For instance, Americans tend to go face-to-face, but Filipinos prefer using a third party to mediate. Beyond cultural differences, however, the team needs to grapple with biblical principles, working through such texts as Matthew 6:12-15; Mark 11:25, 26; Colossians 3:12-14; and Ephesians 4:26, 27, 32.
8. Follow-up. The usual result of discussing these four basic cultural issues is new efforts to communicate and behave so as to avoid giving offense. But there will still be some miscues and the leader needs to conduct periodic follow-up discussions to keep members sensitive and to increase their understanding of one another.
We have discussed how cultural differences affect multinational teams and have given some ideas about how to train team members to understand each other better and to function more harmoniously. Understanding cultural differences is crucial, but this understanding must be combined with love and a desire to pursue unity. When understanding is coupled with love and unity, teams develop healthy relations and effective ministries.
1. These three illustrations are taken from personal interviews I conducted from September to December, 1990, in Manila with 31 individuals. Thirteen were non-Western missionaries who were serving or had served, in cross-cultural ministry outside their home country. Fourteen were non-Western (non-Filipino) seminary or Bible college students in the Philippines and nine were involved in cross-cultural ministry with Filipinos as part of their training. Four of the interviewees were Western missionaries working on ultinational teams outside their country of origin. Those interviewed were from Korea (8), Pakistan (4), the Philippines (4), Taiwan (1), Nepal (1), Burma (1), Indonesia (3), Singapore (3), Tonga (2), England (2), Canada (1), United States (1). Those from the Philippines had served as missionaries in Japan, Nepal, Nigeria and to the Zulus of South Africa.
2. E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 110.
3. Marshall Singer, Intercultural Communication: A Perceptual Approach (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 132.
4. Andrew Atkins, "Know Your Own Culture: A Neglected Tool for Cross-Cultural Ministry," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 1990, p. 271.
5. T.Wayne Dye, "Stress-producing Factors in Cultural Adjustment," Missiology, January, 1974, pp. 72-75.
6. Ben Reed, "Our Team Leader is an Asian," East Asia’s Millions, November-December 1990, p. 3.
7. Kalevi-Lehtinen, "Through the Prism." Seminar presented at Agape International Training Campus Crusade for Christ-Europe, April, 1988, p. 7.
8. Ibid, p. 10.
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