When Cultures Move Apart

Twice this week cultural tension came up. Okay, it happened about a zillion times, but twice that I specifically thought of you and the topic.

1. This week I reviewed feedback from my editor on a project for Global Trellis. What stood out to me is that the project is not controversial, but because it talks about parenting and couples, there are far more choices in words than one might think. This the project will be used by a global community spread around the world do we say marriage? Couples? Partners? When referring to the parents instead of saying “the husband” or “the wife” do we simply say “dad” or “mom?”

(All this for checklists! Yes, the checklists are amazing and the topic of postpartum depression on the field is important . . . but let’s also have some perspective here. It’s not an overly controversial topic; yet the amount of thought and effort that has gone into wording because of how differently cultures talk about marriage and parenting . . . though worth the time and effort, it also points to something and I want to pay attention to what it’s pointing towards.)

2. I listened to a podcast that touched on worldwide denominations navigating topics such as who can marry each other and the clash between African countries and North America and parts of Europe.

You have probably experienced something similar. Where you are living and where other people who are dear to you are living are worlds apart . . . both physically and culturally.

You might experience a gap with:

  • Friends and family members in your passport country
  • Supporters and sending churches
  • Local friends and colleagues
  • Other people in your organization
  • Fellow cross-cultural workers in your country

Just consider these different areas over the last fifty years in three countries/cultures that you love:

who can be educated
what “healthy sexuality” includes
gender and gender roles
race and race relations
what a “good” childhood looks like
who has power and authority
who can marry
the role of the government
the role of citizens
the role of the church
the interpretation of history
and the list could go on

I’ve been wondering how you and I can navigate genuine differences as people who have convictions without our convictions being at the expense of relationships. I’ve come up with three suggestions:

1. Acknowledge the tension

I like for everyone to agree with me on everything. You probably do too. This is obviously not realistic. When someone holds a different opinion or belief from yours, do you focus on the difference too much, too little, or about the right amount?

Of course there will be seasons—like an election—where your attention to the gaps in convictions or beliefs are greater. But remember the difference between feeling a gap and feeding it. Find a safe person or group to explore and process the tension you feel between your passport culture and your host culture and you on each of the areas listed above.

2. Stay curious

Can I tell you how much this is a discipline for me? Left to my own, I can “stay judgmental” or “stay sure my interpretation is the one God would agree with because clearly it is right.” I am not advocating that you become uber relativistic. Absolutes exist. Truth is real.

But I also believe that curiosity is healthy. Curious about historical events and current events that are informing your host and passport cultures. Curious where Christians are in agreement with a cultural stance, even as a stance changes. Curious about where Christians are not in agreement with a cultural stance. Curious what feels threatening to you. Curious about the tone, word choice, and values coming out of a culture. Curious about what you are willing to die for and what you are not and how that might ebb and flow over time.

3. Be wise in when and where to engage

Not all spaces are created equal. “Be wise” does not mean “say nothing.” We are talking about complex and nuanced topics. A helpful question to add enough space for your brain to kick in so you’re not just reacting is, “Would Lady Sophia say this? Or is this Lady Folly chomping at the bit?” Lady Folly wants to prove she is right even if she breaks relationships, causes hurt and confusion, and leaves a path of destruction.

Lady Sophia will consider the medium: is this a private or public Facebook group? Is this a text message? A newsletter? Is this a voice memo where the other person can hear my tone?

This past week I learned about “2D” and “3D” conversations in another podcast I listened to. A 2D conversation can be easily handled in an email or text. A 3D conversation needs a phone call, video call, or to be in-person. Most of the topics were are talking about probably need to be 3D. If you start to have a 3D conversation in a 2D space, simply say, “Hey, I think this is a 3D conversation, let’s find a time to meet.”

In cases like the checklists my editor and I are working on, having another set of eyes has been invaluable. She notices word choice or phrasing that with a small tweak keep the focus on the topic at hand.

When I close my eyes and picture the throne room in heaven with the Triune God able to see and love at one time all of the cultures He created, I have a sense of his great joy in the variety . . . even in our different convictions.

While gaps will still exist between you and those you care about, you can decrease the chance that you drift too far apart by acknowledging the tensions that do exist between you, staying curious, and being wise about when and where to engage.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

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Amy Young

Life enthusiast. Author. Sports lover. Jesus follower. Equipper of cross-cultural worker. Amy is the founder of Global Trellis, co-founder of Velvet Ashes, hosts reading challenges at The Messy Middle, and is the author of five books (Looming TransitionsLove, AmyEnjoying NewslettersGetting Started, and Connected.)

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