by Paul Sadler
I have found that there are a number of assumptions that Westerners need to re-think in order to effectively build relationships in less individualistic cultures. These seven reminders are based on both personal experiences and conversations with many in group-oriented cultures.
ASK ANY MISSION LEADER about his or her strategy for evangelism and before long you’ll hear the word “relationship.” We’ve learned that the gospel must be shared in the context of relationships of trust in order to bear fruit. But while we teach missionaries how to share the gospel and invest in linguistic and cultural learning, little thought is often given to developing skills in how to build cross-cultural relationships. Specifically, I have found that there are a number of assumptions that Westerners need to re-think in order to effectively build relationships in less individualistic cultures. The seven reminders below are based on both personal experiences and conversations with many in group-oriented cultures.
1. Look for Tendencies to No-strings-attached Relationships
David Livermore describes the relational style of the average American by the term “no strings attached.” He summarizes the approach this way:
Americans are known for being friendly and for having lots of relationships marked by friendliness and informality. Our friendships tend to be based on spontaneity, mutual attraction, and warm personal feelings. …We presume relationships shouldn’t be obligatory. Relationships should be something that exist for the sheer enjoyment of them – not something to which you’re obliged. (2009, 74)
As a Canadian, I can confidently say that a “no strings attached” relationship style is not limited to the United States. Livermore’s description was like a mirror to my own relational assumptions. As I’ve reflected on the implications of those assumptions, I’ve been able to see how toxic they are to the work of the gospel in an obligation-rich, group-oriented culture like Japan.
I first encountered the clash of relational assumptions in an English class my wife and I were leading early on in our church plant. There were two mothers who participated actively in the Japanese Bible study we led and so we were full of hope. Their children both attended the same kindergarten as our son and we wanted to deepen our relationship with them.
With a free Saturday coming up, we decided to call one of them and invite her and her children to visit a kid-friendly natural science museum nearby. Although we had people decline invitations in the past, this time the woman blurted out what she was really thinking and pulled back the curtain on a Japanese understanding of human relationships. Instead of just saying that she didn’t want to go with us, she asked, “Why are you asking me this all of a sudden?” It took a while to process what exactly she meant by that question.
I was disappointed by the response and confused by the question. In retrospect, I had gone into the conversation with the assumption that all relationships can be entered into and deepened fairly easily. I resonated with Livermore’s assessment:
The glad handshake, the ready smile, the slap on the back, and other superficial signs of friendship are part of the American way of life. Whenever Americans are denied these expressions of friendship or popularity, they are confused, reacting as if one of the requirements for personal assurance has been denied. (2009, 76)
I assumed a basic equality to all people and thus all relationships, and did not feel that any sense of obligation need accompany the depth of relationship associated with a simple family outing, I felt as if we were making a fairly easy request. The response made clear that our invitation far exceeded the depth of relationship that we currently possessed.
For her part, the woman who turned down our invitation was not being unfriendly; rather, she was just ensuring that our relationship progressed at a level appropriate to our mutual obligation to one another. While we knew each other in a neutral setting, a family outing would involve expectations on the time of the father and the child, and might assume other obligations that we, in our no-strings-attached understanding of relationships, had not anticipated.
In fairness, there were more obvious steps that ought to have preceded our invitation—things that might have expressed our commitment to the responsibilities of relationship and deepened our relationship without incurring undue obligation. By ignoring the levels of relational obligation, we risked causing insult and shame and sending the message that it was unsafe to get too close to us.
2. Recognize the Safety of the Group
Talking with others about the response to our invitation helped me to see another dynamic that I have had to learn about group-oriented cultures. People shared that while many Japanese are looking for friendships, most place a greater priority on belonging to a group. While the group relationships may be more superficial, they’re also much safer. One person explained,
Japanese society is very competitive and so although we want to get close to people, when we do it’s easy for us to compare and compete. We have deep personal needs, but to share those with someone can make us feel exposed and ashamed. So groups provide a way for us to relate socially without any of the risks of deeper friendships.
The popularity of fortune tellers was cited as an example of this. With a fortune teller a person can talk to someone and get advice about his or her darkest secrets. People are willing to pay a lot because this purchases confidentiality and moves the conversation from the risk of a relational exchange to the safety of a commercial transaction. Recognizing the perceived vulnerability of one-on-one relationships might have helped me to first suggest doing something informal as a group. In retrospect, the woman we asked out would have been far more open to this kind of invitation.
3. Be Aware of Relational Barriers with Men
Some people I talked with also suggested that the husband was likely a wild card. Just because we got along with the wife didn’t mean that we would be able to relate to her husband. There is agreement that a social outing involving a husband was a big hurdle. How then does someone ever get to know Japanese men? While typically revolving around the children’s shared friendship and interests, informal time with men is often easier if there is a task involved. Barbeques are common family events because the men have something to do, whereas a purely social time can be more intimidating. Someone else suggested that men often get to know each other by learning from each other. “Can you help me with something?” and “Can you teach me something?” are questions that can be used to deepen male relationships.
4. Remember that Being Friendly Isn’t Enough to Develop Friendships
In the first several years of my involvement with my sons’ soccer teams, I was often disappointed that I hadn’t made closer friendships. At games and practices I would smile, greet people, and try to start conversations, but I would often return home feeling like I was on the outside. Later on, however, I began to be more intentional about my commitment to the team.
When I heard that the team needed to have a certain number of referees, I took a course, earned my license, and began to referee regularly. When there were appeals to help set up the grounds, I made a point of arriving early to help. I soon noticed that people began to approach me to talk. I finally felt like an insider, but part of me was still not sure why. What did measuring the pitch lines have to do with being treated kindly? Why weren’t people interested in talking to me in those early years? And what are the next steps in building these relationships?
5. Seek to Build Community, Not Just Start Friendships
As I talked with people about what happened, I began to see my experience through the lens of community. “It’s the difference between farmers and hunters,” one person explained. “With a rifle and a horse you can bring dinner home for the family, but planting a rice field requires the help of relatives and the cooperation of neighbors. Japan has historically been an agricultural society that has relied on the cooperation of groups to survive.”
When I got involved with the soccer team, I began to see people as individuals, fellow hunters in a sense. I was looking for friends, but the rest of the team was trying to build a community. “They’re looking to build a strong soccer team and so people are going to focus their social energies on people who seem to be committed to that same goal and demonstrate a commitment to the community,” one person explained. Friendship follows community building. If you won’t help plant the rice field, you don’t get to share in the harvest.
While I had been trying to love my neighbor by “being friendly,” I soon noticed Japanese around me expressing love through their commitment to the group. They brought extra snacks for everyone to share, benches and tables for others to use, and they communicated their commitment through tireless attendance and responsibility. Understanding the responsibilities of community gave me a sense of how to express the love of Jesus more clearly.
6. Rethink Your View of Insiders and Outsiders
While I have always known that Japanese society is marked by clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders, I had seen these boundaries as negative, even wrong. If someone is on the outside, it makes it difficult (if not impossible) to influence the group or its members. Add to this the fact that the Japanese word for foreigner is “outside person” and the societal walls seem to be orchestrated by Satan for the express purpose of hindering the spread of the gospel.
But I discovered that this interpretation of the relational lines that accompany group-oriented cultures was unnecessarily one-sided. In fact, lines that distinguish who is in the group help people know to whom they are obligated. Without lines, we can say that we are obligated to everyone, but people sense the impossibility of this and express obligation to no one, or express obligation to people whom we hope will reciprocate, but may not.
Again, Livermore sheds light on the impression communicated by a democratic relational style to people in other cultures. After striking up a conversation with a waitress, his West African colleague said, “You talk so much about relationships, but you ask the same kind of question to a complete stranger serving us lunch as you would ask a close friend” (2009, 76). While I didn’t feel I needed to try and develop a knack for rudeness to strangers, I did realize that the people in group-oriented cultures are most likely going to notice my love by the way I express appropriate levels of commitment to the various levels of trust and intimacy that exist in my relationships.
As I’ve begun to think this way, I’ve realized that while “God so loved the whole world,” he also sees circles of relational obligation. While we are challenged to love even our enemies, God particularly encourages us to recognize the deeper layers of responsibility that accompany our closer circles of trust through the “especially verses”:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal. 6:10)
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:8)
7. Commit to the Long-term Rather than Just Passing Through
Another cultural dynamic that was at work in my soccer scenario was the Japanese long-term perspective on relationships. North America is a land of pioneers and immigrants. We’re hopelessly transient and so we feel a sense of compassion and openness to newcomers and fellow sojourners.
But like many Asian cultures, Japan values stability and continuity. People are connected to specific towns and regions through ancestral homes and family graves. Forging new relationships with outsiders takes more energy as a result. So when I approached the other Japanese soccer parents, one person compared his attitude to someone looking through a long-term lens and asks, “Is this person here to stay or just passing through?”
One of the first questions I’m asked by people I meet is how long I intend to be in Japan. But that’s not just because I’m a foreigner. A Japanese pastor remarked to me that everyone in the small town they had moved to asked him and his wife the same question. Because he lives beside the church they think it may be a temporary assignment.
Basic politeness is offered to everyone, but the hard work of building friendships is reserved for those who will contribute to the long-term stability of the community. Seeing the importance of values like stability and continuity (and the benefit of these values for building healthy communities) helps me to appreciate Japanese caution in relationships, and not wrongly attribute it to mere suspicion, prejudice, or unfriendliness. It also helps me view the ministries of the church and the mission of its believers through this long-term relational lens.
As one Japanese pastor explained, “It’s not that Japanese just take a long time to be evangelized, it’s more that we need to take a long time to evangelize Japanese.” Time needs to be taken. Relationships need to be nurtured and maintained. And the church and its members need to communicate stability and continuity through their strategies and approaches. According to one Japanese proverb: “Even if you find yourself sitting on a hard rock, you should stick it out for at least three years.”
There is no doubt a myriad of differences between how North Americans and people in group-oriented cultures approach relationships. Individual personality, status, and life situation add nuance to these distinctions. But by being more conscious of my own relational assumptions and discerning the natural paths by which relationships are developed in my host culture, I have hope for building more effective relationships through which the good news about Jesus Christ can be demonstrated and proclaimed.
Livermore, David A. 2009. Cultural Intelligence, Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Paul Sadler has served with Fellowship International for the last fourteen years as a church planter in Japan, where he also leads the Church Multiplication Team for Japan Baptist Fellowship. He can be reached at email@example.com.
EMQ Jan 2015, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 38-44. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please use our STORE (here).