Becoming a Student of Culture

by Debbie Langford December 20, 2018

Our meeting at the International Cooperation Department at our university in China was to be a routine meet-and-greet. Our foreign affairs officer offered us water. Not thirsty, we declined. She made some welcoming comments and then offered water again. We declined again, and as the meeting started she placed two bottles of water in front of us. Her English was excellent, we had said “No, thanks,” and we proceeded to drink the water we had been given. Wait a minute…what?  

Early on in our cross-cultural training for teaching English in China, we learned some of the rules of etiquette in social situations in China. No matter how thirsty or hungry you are, say “No” when offered food or beverage. Twice. Your host will expect this and offer a third time because that’s what is polite. Now imagine you are a Chinese visiting scholar in America and your host offers a beverage…only once. Does being a guest in America mean wishing for water one’s entire visit? For a Chinese guest, placing a plate of cookies on the table and saying “Help yourself” is insufficient encouragement. At English class, we often laugh together over repeatedly offered cookies, teaching newcomers that in some American homes “if you snooze, you lose!” 

Has the fear of making a cultural faux pas kept you from stepping out to begin a cross-cultural friendship? Being the guest in the foreign culture of America, visiting international students and scholars are more concerned about making these errors than you are. Yet there are (at least!) three helpful principles to remember in interactions with international guests. First, become an objective observer. When there is a disconnect in communication or behavior compared to what you might expect, ask questions. “You know, in American culture we often…. Is it different in [your country]?” This places both of you on the equal footing of being a learner and saves face for both guest and host. Culture is frequently so deeply ingrained that one often does not realize something is cultural! Second, choose not to be offended. Questions about how much your house costs, how much money you make, or your age are your guest’s efforts to understand where you fit in the social and economic structure of America rather than a rude violation of privacy. Finally, relationship is everything. A small act of kindness goes many miles toward closing the relational distance between different cultures and countries. A few visits to your home means that you are friends. In the context of a relationship, mutual sharing is the norm, cultural mistakes can be easily smoothed over, and discussions about deeper life issues becomes natural. 

Becoming a student of culture is a process that takes time, observation, and yes, a little training. On Saturday, February 9, the Mercy Commission will be offering the half-day seminar “Words that Resonate” which will increase your awareness of basic differences in culture and communication as well as help you apply these ideas to sharing the gospel cross culturally. In the plenary session, Dr. Rudie Altamirano, Director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Pennsylvania, will share practical information about the pitfalls and opportunities in communicating across cultures. Workshops will focus on learning a few basic touchpoints that are key to sensitively sharing the gospel with specific cultural groups. By becoming a student of culture, and developing relationships with internationals, you will see your international friend no longer wishing for water after declining your first offer of a beverage and openly asking questions about the Water that quenches thirst eternally.