In his book on world leaders, Richard Nixon said that each culture believes it is superior.  It is what a given person knows;  how he lives. 

In this second article on culture, we continue to look at examples of how people live that we might better understand others.  

Cannibals    Consider the misunderstanding that occurred with a missionary in Zaire (Congo). Having trouble with building rapport with the people, he asked his African friends why .  They said, “When you came here,  you brought your strange ways. You brought tins of food:

  • Corn – “On the outside of one tin was a picture of corn.  When you opened it, on the inside was corn and you ate it.”
  • Meat —  “On another was a picture of meat, and you opened it and meat was on the inside and you ate it.”  
  • Babies —  “And when you had your baby, you brought small tins. On the outside was a picture of babies, and you opened it and ate other babies.” 

The people of Zaire mistook the missionary for a cannibal.

Private Space   Attitudes about physical space differ. South Americans tend to stand closer than we do. Four (4) feet is near enough to be heard and that tends to be close enough for North Americans. 

South Americans wants to stand closer, so they do. The American backs up. The South American moves closer.  

The South American comes away thinking the American is distant and cold;   the American thinks the South American is pushy and always under his nose.  Peoples’ behavior makes sense to them in their culture. 

In Bangladesh in 1993, I was cashing a Traveler’s Cheque.  The man next in line – well, there was no line actually – stood to my right within 6 inches and watched the entire transaction.  Different concept of personal space.  

Eating with Fingers   Most Americans are uncomfortable eating with their fingers.  Imagine going to a Thanksgiving dinner and being encouraged to dive into the mashed potatoes and gravy with your fingers. 

Some Indians were with Americans at an American restaurant and the subject of eating with finger came up. “Do you really eat with your fingers,” the Indian was asked with an incredulous tone of voice.

“Yes, we do,” the Indian replied, “but we look at it differently than you do.”  “We wash our hands carefully, and beside, they have never been in anyone else’s mouth.  But look at these spoons and forks, and think about how many other people have already had them inside their mouths.” 

Over-Paid House Help     A missionary was served by some local people in the Philippines.  He paid his housekeepers about double what other missionaries paid theirs.  He felt the wage the others Americans paid was improper and he was determined to compensate his help according to the Golden Rule.

Other Filipino house help found out about the generous wage and went un strike until similarly paid. This missionary was so principled about this issue – he refused to accept the culture in which he was a guest.  He could not “under-pay.” 

He could not accept the other culture’s direction.  He was operating on an American mind-set and could not adjust, so he came home. 

Florida Building Team in Cold Asian Country  A warm-weather team was building for a cold climate people. The Florida Team put the plumbing in the walls … just like at home.  While the Asians were grateful for their help, they spent a lot of time after the Floridians left removing the plumbing and getting it closer to heat so it would not freeze during the winter. 

Long Sleeve Shirt in Honduras    Charles Arnold and I were leaving for a Sunday morning preaching trip out of Tegucigalpa.  It was already very warm.  “Charles, can I wear Bermuda shorts?”  “Keith, you can, but people will think you are unsaved and they will witness to you.”  

So we drove for an hour,  hiked for an hour and arrived at a small village soaked in sweat. The pastor came out in a heavy, broad-cloth dress shirt.  

Having swallowed the cultural demands of a hot climate, I turned to another cool-down possibility.    I said to Charles, “Sandals would be so much cooler – why don’t people wear sandals?”  Charles said, “Sandals speak of servitude. These people wear shoes and socks as an indication of their rising status in society.” 

Alcohol and Room Temperature Coke – we were in Vienna. Our host said, “Would I offend you if I ordered some wine?”  This man grew up as a GARB Baptist.  Incidentally, when we asked for ice in our water, the restaurant people went next door to McDonalds to get ice. 

Much of the world drinks Coke, but they drink it at room temperature.  Much of the world drinks milk at room temperature. Some milk comes in a plastic bag and has a shelf-life of a month or more.  

Third Time Food Offered     In some cultures, a guest must wait until the third time a hostess offers a second serving before accepting.  To accept when she offers the first time is seen as gluttonous.  Even the second time a hostess offers, you can’t accept.  But the third time, you are free to enjoy what is offered.  

Slim Vs. Plump    A new missionary was exhorting the wives to keep themselves trim for their husbands without knowing the culture. Slim – so valued in the West – is seen in Korea a showing a woman is overworked and neglected.  But fluffy – that is interpreted as an indication of contentedness and prosperity.

Englishmen are Like Americans, Aren’t They?   The British call the trunk of a car a boot,  and they call cookies, biscuits. 

In English, bigger is not necessarily better.  England is small – small cars, homes, streets.  Tiny.  America had lots of land, so we have space, elbow room, and big cars.  The British reaction to American bigness is that increased quantity means lost of quality.  And for the Brits, quality is everything. 

Result?  An American church planter goes to England – steeped in his American culture — and encourages his flock to grow, grow, grow. But the British measure success by integrity, not size. 

British are crammed together on a tiny island, so their automobile traffic pattern reflects the necessity of harmony in close quarters. People are very disciplined about staying in their own lane.  British drive in concert because they value an orderly society. 

What do Americans value?  Individual freedom – drive in any lane they want.  And drive fast. 

Happy for the Moment Directions in the Philippines   Filipinos will direct you to any place you want to go.  Some years ago in an outdoor Filipino market-place I asked a man for directions.  He encouraged me to continue in the direction I was going. In another few blocks I asked another person who told me I was going 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  The first man made me happy for the moment,  which is a culture obligation.  He had to (1) offer direction to me and (2) make me happy for the moment.  He did both, but he had no idea how to help me find what I was looking for.  

Culture, culture!   We have to know peoples’ culture to serve them in a way that honors the Lord Jesus Christ.