The process of learning language is through socialization in the culture of our birth. This includes the words that are spoken as well as the nonverbal gestures and use of time and space that are part of the total communication environment.
Like gender, culture will impact group discussion. Just as no two males communicate exactly alike just because they are males, no two individuals of the same race or ethnic background communicate exactly alike. Each individual God created is unique!
Let’s Get Personal
History in society in general and within the Seventh-Day Adventist Church suggests that we still struggle to avoid stereotyping people groups. Each time we stereotype we show our own personal ignorance. While language barriers, prejudices, and stereotypes contribute to misunderstanding in intercultural encounters, the larger fault is that most of us are not willing to take the time required to understand another cultural or ethnic group’s personal experience, beliefs, roles, meanings, values, and attitudes. It is faster to say “She is French” or “They are Australians.” When we do this, we are being ethnocentric.
Ethnocentric suggests that we look at all other cultures from the bias of our own culture and believe anything that deviates from our own is wrong, odd, or different. “They drive on the wrong side of the road” is an example of “wrong” being “different from” what I am used to.
In contrast, a Christian’s goal is to become “culturally relevant.” This term suggests that when Christians of one culture meet Christians of another culture, they take the time to understand the meaning of the words used or the behaviors and attitudes being projected from the other cultural context. Being culturally relevant is essential to the success of any long-term group.
Is it “I” or “We”?
When communicating across cultures, it is important to know whether the other culture values the individual or the group. For example, in the United States the individual is highly valued. Competing for individual achievement, meeting personal goals, being self-oriented, valuing individual privacy and autonomy, and the nuclear family are valued. Emphasis is on “I.” Contrast this value system with cultures that value collective cooperation, group goals, unity, harmony, group belonging, and the extended family. Emphasis is on “we.”
Nonverbal communication varies widely among and between cultures. It is easy to offend without even realizing it if you are not aware that the same gesture can have an entirely different meaning within the context of another’s culture.
For example, culture modifies the degree of acceptable eye contact. Americans value direct eye contact. When someone in a small group circle is looking down or away much of the time, we often assume that they are bored. That same behavior in an individual from one of the Asian cultures might suggest a high level of respect and being appropriately polite to the leadership and the elderly in the small group. Direct eye contact with the leader or older people is perceived as rude or disrespectful.
While the nodding of the head forward and back several times generally suggests agreement or saying “yes” nonverbally in the American culture, there arc other cultures in which suggesting “yes” nonverbally would require the head to turn from left to right. How confusing if we don’t understand where the individual is coming from!
The frequency, location, and duration of touch are largely culturally based. While American men may not be accustomed to being kissed on the cheek when greeted by another man, to refuse that gesture of greeting by someone from a culture in which that is the official greeting could create communication barriers from the start.
Whether or not it is acceptable for more than one person to talk at the same time is also culturally driven. So is the use of time and personal space.
I hope that each group leader and small group participant in reading groups, committees, councils, Sabbath School classes, and church boards will avail themselves of the reading that is available on cultural diversity in small groups. If we can’t figure out the need for cultural relevancy within the walls of our own congregation, then it is unlikely that we are suited to be missionaries for Jesus far away from our family home.
Carole Luke Kilcher
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists