We talk about General Motors having a “corporate culture.” Your company, community and church have a culture. Culture is simply how things are done.
The purpose of this article is to supply you some examples to widen your awareness of how others do life. This will help us understand what missionaries face.
For example, in one Asian culture, children are allowed to do what they want. They are the center of the world for the first few years. Americans view such child-centered living as wrong. It breeds selfishness. Children seem spoiled.
But at about six or seven, reality sets in and children conform. That’s culture – simply how things are done.
Culture is Learned When our granddaughter was a child she would say several times a day, “Oh, my word.” I asked her, “Where did you hear that? Who says that?” Her mommy says that. That’s learned culture.
Culture can be listening to Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, having a proper taste in clothing and knowing which fork to use at a formal banquet. We assign meanings to almost everything we do or say.
Greeting When two American men meet, they grip each others’ hands and shake. In Mexico, they would give each other a hug. In India, each puts his hands together, raises them slightly toward his forehead with a slight bow of the head. This is an efficient greeting that allows a person to greet many at one time with a single motion without the potential defilement of touch, India being a culture where a high caste person could be forced to undergo re-purification rites were he to touch an untouchable.
Platforms Consider the culturally determined attitude about platforms. Upon entering an auditorium to listen to a musical performance, an American will look until he finds a chair on which he can perch himself. If all of these platforms are occupied, he leaves the auditorium because it is “full.”
Obviously there are a great many places where he can sit on the floor, but this is not culturally acceptable, at least not at the performance of a symphony orchestra.
At home the American has different kinds of platforms for sitting in the living room, at the dining table and at his desk. He also has a large platform on which he sleeps at night.
When he travels abroad, his greatest fear is being caught at night without a platform in a private room, so he makes hotel reservations well ahead of time.
People from many parts of the world know that all you need is a blanket and a flat space in order to spend the night, and the world is full of flat places.
In the airport at 3:00 A.M., the American traveler is draped uncomfortably over a chair rather than stretched out on the rug. He would rather be dignified than comfortable.
Why this obsession with platforms? Behind all behavior are basic assumptions – in this case, that the ground and floor are dirty. This explains the obsession of getting off the floor.
This explains why: some people keep their shoes on in the house and mother scolds junior if he picks a potato chip off the floor and eats it. The floor is “dirty.” Even though it has just been washed, the instant food touches the floor, it becomes dirty.
On the other hand, in Japan people believe the floor is clean. Therefore they take their shoes off at the door and sit and sleep on mats on the floor.
When we walk into their home and leave our shoes on, they feel like we do when someone walks on our couch with their shoes on.
Time Culture determines how we approach the whole subject of time, and what constitutes being “on time.”
If you saw the Tom Hanks movie Castaway you may recall an opening scene in which Tom is loudly telling the local workers in another country that “these boxes must all be on that airplane before this big hand on the clock comes up to 10.” The locals – being from a non-productive culture – were used to sauntering about and getting to things when they felt like it.
When two Americans agree to meet at 10:00 A.M., being “on time” means being five (5) minutes early to five (5) after the appointed time for arrival.
If one shows up at 15 after, he is “late” and mumbles some kind of apology or makes some explanation. He must acknowledge he is “late.”
If he shows up after 30 minutes has passed 10, he should have a good apology. By 11, his offense is unpardonable.
In Cuba, where there is little industry, mañana is a way of life. After several trips to Cuba we landed on a phrase that helped us adjust to the local culture: Cuba Time, meaning relax, twenty minutes “late” was on time; buses run on Cuba Time, life moved at a relaxed pace. Eventually we took advantage of it and enjoyed as we escaped our American orientation to time.
In parts of the Arab world, if a meeting is to be at 10 A.M., only a servant shows up at 10:00 A.M. in obedience to his master. The proper time for the others is from 10:45 to 11:15, just enough time after the set time to show their indepen-dence, equality and station in life, since others must wait for the last person to arrive.
This works well when equals meet. But if an American and an Arab arrange to meet @ 10, and the American shows up at 10 as per the appointment, but the Arab shows up at 10:45 – not good. For the Arab, 10:45 is “on time” as he measures punctuality.
To the American, the Arab has no sense of time or appreciation for how much he has to accomplish today (which is false), and the Arab is tempted to think of the American is acting like a servant (which is also false).
Helpless Go to another culture and we are more helpless than a child. We can’t make a phone call, take local transportation, know how to order food in a restaurant, or the value of one coin versus another coin. Helpless; dependent. When students come from foreign countries to study in American universities, they feel helpless (what an opportunity to help them and loving speak the Gospel).