16 February 2009

'Tis Always Interesting, Living in Another Culture

I'm reading a fascinating book right now. It is called Cross-Cultural Conflict - Building Relationships for Effective Ministry and was written by Duane Elmer. I'd like to share a few paragraphs - partly because it is so much of what I've been living the past month as I seek to work with our French School ministry (We interviewed a new teacher on Friday afternoon, who verbally accepted the position... but then she did not show up for work Monday morning), but also because I find it fascinating. It is so easy for us to think that our home culture is the best/only/biblical way to handle different situations. It is unsettling (in both good and bad ways) to begin realizing that not be the case...

When a person cannot fulfill certain obligations, she or he fears loss of face. The person needing to save face leads the other person to believe that the blame is not her or his own. When this happens in the West, we call it "scapegoating," the placing of blame somewhere else when it is primarily our own fault. In other parts of the world, however, the strategy of "misdirection," "deflection" or "divirsion" is a finely honed art. Instead of accepting the responsiblity for some problem, one directs, deflects or diverts the blame elsewhere... Here is how is worked out in the purchase of a lamp.

A foreigner working in the country purchased a large desk lamp from a Chinese merchant. The delivery was promised for the next afternoon. When the foreigner called wondering why the lamp had not been delivered, he was told that the delivery man was sick and the delivery might be in a few days.

When the foreigner said he would be willing to come by and pick it up in person, the manager said that unfortunately there were some workman nearby repairing the water lines, and the road was most difficult to travel. When asked how serious the delivery man's condition was, the manager said that actually it was the delivery man's sister who was sick, and he was at her bedside. The truth of the matter was that the lamp was out of stock, however the shop manager was embarrassed, or thought it would be a loss of face, to say that. He was trying to stall for time until he could receive delivery of the appropriate lamp from his wholesaler, and the fact that the customer could not infer this from his comments was most surpising.

The merchant wanted to provide efficient service and please the customer. Saying, "No, I cannot deliver the lamp tomorrow" would have disappointed the customer, something all merchants wish to avoid, especially in a "face" or shame culture. The foreigner would have preferred a direct, honest answer, even if the bad news was that he would have to wait a few more days. Again, both were operating from their own cultural norms.

Suppose you were in the same situation. Knowing what you know now, what would you do if there was no urgency in having the lamp delivered? On the other hand, waht if you very much needed the lamp delivered tomorrow because of a special even at your house?...

If there was no urgency, you might wait an extra day and then call again and gently inquire. Getting the message about the sickness, you might assume that the lamp was going to arrive, but not at the specified time. You would not assume deliberate deception or malice.

If it was urgent that the lamp arrive the next day, you might (before purchasing it) say how important it is to have the lamp delivered tomorrow. If it does not arrive, your embarrassment will be great because of the important friends you are expecting. Besides, your friends will want to know where you purchased such a beautiful lamp.

Now the merchant realizes he might cause you loss of face if the delivery is not made. Understanding the situation, he may (1) suggest that you purchase another lamp (meaning the one he has in stock and can deliver at the stated time), (2) offer the use of the floor model until a new lamp can be obtained from the warehouse or (3) try a face-saving way of escap such as "I think this is the perfect lamp for you, but my driver is sick and may not be able to make the delivery."

Westerners prefer direct forms of communication and are not good at reading between the lines. Yet in most cultures the people are masters at indirect speech, and one must become accustomed to it if one is to survive and prosper in the Two-Thirds World.... (p. 116-118)

Interesting, isn't it? And it is often confusing. What seems like an out and out lie from my cultural perspective is no more serious than me saying to someone, "We need to have you over for dinner...," and then never following through with a definite invitation. Or, it could be like when someone asks you if you like the way they've redecorated their living room and you respond, "Oh it looks nice," even if you don't particularly like it. It is the cultural way of preserving relationship and everyone here understands that (i.e., the purpose is not deception, but instead an effort to keep the relationship intact and allow everyone to keep face) - except for those of us originally from a "western" culture. This same book takes an interesting look at the two midwives who did not follow Pharaoh's directive in killing the Hebrew baby boys when they were born. Maybe I'll share what is said about that tomorrow!

So... What do you think?


  1. Hmm. That is interesting! I concur that we tend to view things in our Western mindset. Is the fear of losing face a problem, Biblically? What an interesting thought. I'm going to be thinking about this for awhile!!

  2. It is one of those things I've been mulling over for awhile... according to my understanding, in a shame/honor culture, one who truly looses face is so completely shunned that they must leave. And biblical? Good question - we are commanded to "have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus... who made Himself of no reputation..." and also to "Let your light so shine before men that they glorify your Father..." And those are just two verses right off the top of my head.

    If you figure it out, please clue me in! :-) I'll be interested to hear any further thoughts you have.


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