by Robert C. Gordon
If you are shocked by the opening sentence of the article below, then read on, because many of us without realizing it have offended nationals to the point of no return.
If you are shocked by the opening sentence of the article below, then read on, because many of us, without realizing it, have offended nationals to the point of no return. One of the major reasons for this is that we have learned the culture only on the formal level, much like learning the vocabulary and grammar of a language only in a classroom situation. By doing this, we have missed the most important level of communication, the informal. Another aspect which the author probes is the missionary's frequent preoccupation with material objects, or a, territory he can call his own. While not justifiable, this passion helps to explain why mission institutions and compounds have survived so long.
When was the last time you felt like telling a national, "Go to _____?" Never, you say? Don't be too sure!
According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, vulgar and rude communication may occur while uttering the most polite apology or simply asking a question, like the American agriculturalist who greatly offended an Arab farmer by asking what crop yield he expected at harvest. Such a question is tantamount to calling a fatalistic Muslim a fool. Anybody in his right mind would never try to predict the harvest. Only God knows the future.
Such communication beyond language is the subject of Hall's book, The Silent Language.1 It is packed with illustrations of the thesis that language is only one part of communication. Hall sees all of culture as an integrated "language" from which people constantly extract messages.
If language is communication, and culture in its entirety is communication, asked Hall, why couldn't both be studied using the same methodology? He came up with several innovations in anthropological theory. His conclusions have many applications to missions. I mention only three.
First, Hall analyzed culture within a linguistic frame. A phoneme as a sound, a morpheme is a meaningful combination of sounds, and a word is a combination of morphemes. Hall saw this same thing occurring within culture. He isolated three levels giving them the names "isolate," "set," and "pattern." Too often when we train missionaries we teach culture on the level of the isolate. I personally can attest to this. Even though I majored in anthropology during my undergraduate studies, I arrived on the field unable to decode the culture.
A technical grasp of a culture assures no more than a curio hunter's interest and understanding of a people. Some individuals may never be able to see the larger structure that constitutes the culture. Many can, but they will need to be taught to "spell" and form "sentences," then construct flowing cultural "paragraphs." For most students, it will be a long, difficult study involving years among the people. It is not likely to be gained during a few months of short term service. A second contribution of interest to missions is Hall's recognition of three levels of communication that occur during each communication event. He labels them "technical," "formal," and "informal."
The technical level has to do with analysis and those things that can be recorded on paper. It may be a chemical analysis of materials used in a tool. It may be a description of the assembly. It could be a drawing reproducing a design. Linguistically, it would be a scientific analysis.
The formal level is what the people themselves are most overtly aware of in the event. Such things as are taught by precept and admonition operate on the formal level.
Finally, there is the informal message communicated in each communication event. It is communication that is completely understood, but for which no formal statement exists. It is usually learned by imitation. Hall illustrates this by the use of space.
Americans have a system of proper communication distances that are determined by the type of communication involved. Ordinary conversation between business equals standing together would ordinarily be between three and five feet. As Americans, we feel comfortable in conversations when this "distance" is maintained. Conversely, we become uncomfortable in conversations where the three to five feet rule is violated. This is an unwritten rule with absolutely no logical basis.
In one country a senior missionary and his wife were in constant conflict with their understudies, all in their first term of service. On the surface the senior missionaries appeared extremely insensitive. More correctly, they were not reading the informal cues in the behavior of their associates. Most of the blame fell on the woman. She had the responsibility of scheduling and explaining daily assignments to the men. Men do not like to take orders from women. To make matters worse, she had a tendency to talk from a distance of between twelve and fifteen inches, so close it seemed difficult to focus one's eyes. Twelve inches is perfectly proper in Latin America, but not in the U.S. I actually saw men lean backward or sideward attempting to adjust away from what they interpreted as an "intimate" or "confidential" distance, to an ordinary business conversation distance.
Cross-culturally, the problem is much greater. The possibility of inadvertently communicating unintended messages through informal American cues is frightening. The implication for missionaries is simply that every culture must be learned on three levels, the technical, the formal, and above all, the informal.
Hall's third contribution of practical importance to missions is a series of ten isolated cultural building blocks what he calls "primary message systems. " They are: interaction, subsistence, bisexuality, territoriality, temporality, learning, play, defense, exploitation, association. Each of the above can be combined with all the others on the list to give 100 combinations or "windows" from which to view culture. The value of this approach can be amply demonstrated by selecting one – "territoriality."
According to Hall, "culture is bio-basic – rooted in biological activities." Like animals, there is within man a sense of territoriality. This sense interacting with the other primary message systems results in patterns of community territory, group territory, economic areas, men's and women's territories, scheduling of space, teaching and learning individual space assignments, fun and games with space content, privacy, and the use of fences and markers. Every people, every community, every family bows to this biological constant. Conversion to Christianity does not remove the sense. Nor does extensive training in the church. Every person is brought up to expect and understand a certain use and definition of space; from the informally determined conversational distance to inflexible national boundaries.
Psychologically, this sense of territory seems tied to a need for security and status. Attacks against national boundaries threaten a people's security. The successful defense of such boundaries builds a nation's self-image and its international status.
The same is true of foreign missionaries. But missionaries are called upon to sublimate the territorial drive. They are sent abroad to live in a foreign country where it may be impossible for them to own property. Or where it is possible, mission societies forbid it. In addition, career missionary service ideally involves "sacrificing all." In the informal sense, this communicates one thing: missionaries are supposed to be religious gypsies, dependent on the gifts from homeland churches for whom they present a furlough production every four years. Owning a home in America is viewed as holding out on the Lord and a lack of faith.
Most missionaries are properly intimidated. They sell all, cut all anchors (with the exception of kinship ties which are shallow in recent American life), and take up the missionary gypsy role.
Barred from land ownership in his homeland by religious pressure, and forbidden from home ownership in their adopted land, the missionary often turns to an alternate source of security – material possessions. In this he has borrowed from the American middle-class ideal. "In the abundance of things there is security," the maxim reads. It is no accident that missionaries are among the world's foremost gadgeteers. It is often an indication of underlying insecurity in a man without a territory.
Often feeding this sense of insecurity are political uncertainties. Life in a foreign country may require evacuation on short notice, particularly in certain African and Asian countries. The effects of this insecurity may be particularly devastating on children.
Status also enters in. In America, status is determined in part by wealth. Wealth, in turn has traditionally been measured by such things as land holdings. A landless missionary, without other compensating status symbols is apt to be a sorry spectacle – at least in his own sight. Churches may pour out great "missionary hero" honors, but inside, a missionary is apt to view himself as a second-class American. Not uncommonly, he doubts his own worth.
Territorial conflicts also create problems between missionaries. We saw this clearly when my wife's mother volunteered to spend a period of time on the field as a nurse in the local missionary-run hospital. It was a miserable experience. She was put to work with a very competent missionary nurse. But both women were experienced supervisors. The visitor from the States was an intruder within the missionary's territory. A Congolese aid or nurse she could have accepted, since her authority would have been accepted. But the challenge of an equal was too much. The result was hostile aggressive acts unconsciously designed to oust the intruder.
This illustration also illuminates one of the reasons for the almost inevitable rise of institutions in mission fields. They provide a logical place for the missionary to indulge his need to establish a territory. Each man's institution is "off limits" to other missionaries.
Mission leaders must realize that it will be a rare missionary who will be able to rise consciously above the Western pattern. It will be a rare family that will not struggle intensely with this urge in its Western manifestation. The struggle will be intensified as: (1) institutions are turned over to the national churches; (2) missionaries are expected to become yet more mobile; (3) career service consists of a series of short-term assignments.
This struggle can easily affect a person's contribution to the work of the mission. Missionary pilot-mechanics I have known tend to exhibit mild restlessness if forced to work without a hangar and shop. The American pattern in civil aviation is to hangar airplanes. It is also assumed that maintenance requires a shop. Though compelling technical reasons are given (increased service life of airframe components, cleanliness during repairs, protection from vandals) the underlying urge, it seems to me, is a need for a chunk of land and a building where the pilot is the undisputed master. Restlessness, irritability, and dissatisfaction tend to disappear once the hangar-shop is completed. Supervisors in such situations need to be alert to the need for their men to have their own territory. In multipilot programs where shop responsibilities are shared, "territorial jurisdictions" need. to be clearly understood.
As yet, I have made no attempt to discuss the problem from a cross-cultural perspective. The reason is simple. Understanding one's own culture is the first step to understanding another's culture. Says Hall, "Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Simply learning one's own culture is an achievement of gargantuan proportions for anyone."
While this is no doubt true, it is also true that "one of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others."
The comments offered above suggest that in each crosscultural situation, we must carefully determine the various territorial questions. We must ask ourselves, What is his private territory? What is that family's territory? What is the lineage's? The tribe's? We need to ask these questions for such areas as political influence, economic exploitation, social authority, etc.
Following is a preliminary list of questions you may have never asked. They deal largely with the unstated rules of behavior. But such rules are the silent language that every missionary must learn, if he is to avoid politely or impolitely telling someone, "Go to _____."
QUESTIONS YOU WILL BE ABLE TO ANSWER WHEN YOU UNDERSTAND THE PEOPLE YOU ARE WORKING AMONG
1. How late can one arrive without insulting a dinner host? A business contact? A government officer? A pastor? A school teacher?
2. Is there a technical time, a formal time, and an informal handling of time? What are the meaningful units of time? Five-minute segments? Fifteen-minute segments? Hours? Movements of the sun?
3. Do specific activities correspond to certain segments of the day?
4. What time of day is best for a relayed informal visit? When should one never attempt business? Does the culture formalize such rules – 8 to 5 for good business; 12 to 3 for siesta; 12 to 1 for lunch? Or is one time as good as any other?
5. How long should you wait before concluding someone does not want to see you?
6. How much notice should be given for a committee meeting? Religious services?
7. What length of time is required to establish a satisfactory social relationship?.
8. Is there a sense of future in the outlook of the people? Or do they live for the present? Do they relate life to the past?
9. Do awards or rewards stimulate performance? What are effective rewards?
10. What territory does an individual man (woman) control? An elder or chief?
11. Can you predict where men will sit at a normal function given their rank or status within the society?
12.What system of learning is stressed? Rote? Logic? Example?
13. How do people play? When do they play? What does laughter mean?
14. What kind of person does the society fear most? Respect most?
15. Is law enforcement rigid with manipulation of penalties (as in the U.S.)? Or is enforcement according to the "spirit of the law" but prosecution rigid and strict?
16. Are bribes criminal, or merely a means of obtaining some flexibility within an otherwise overly rigid enforcement-prosecution system?
17. What determines who is served first (for example at a post office? Sex? Age? Arrival sequence? Rank? Race?
18. Is it possible to be truly "social" in African culture while living indoors?
1. Fawcett Publications, Inc., Greenwich, Conn., 192 pp. (paperback).
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