Editor's Note: The article mentioned in this essay is part of the assigned reading for the course. Other reflections from this class can be found by clicking on the label "Ministry in a Multicultural Church" under Labels on the right.
When Getting Ahead is Not Good
by Zani Pacanza
Obstacles. Barriers. Hindrances. Stumbling Blocks.
In the article "Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication" by LaRay M. Barna, six main hurdles were mentioned in regard to interactions among people from different cultures. First is the assumption of similarities where you assume that what a certain gesture or word means to your culture is the same with another person's culture. Second is language difference, when the same word has two or several different connotations between different cultures. Third is non-verbal misinterpretation, where you pick up a non-verbal cue of another person wrongly.
Fourth is preconceptions and stereotypes, where you put someone's cultural orientation in a box based on your own labels. Fifth is the tendency to evaluate or to judge people's words and actions based on our own biases. Lastly, we have tension or high anxiety when we feel uneasy or uncomfortable interacting with people from a different cultural upbringing or background.
As I read each stumbling block, I realized one thing: all of it has a common denominator. Each stumbling block falls under the shadow of presumption, our tendency to presume the meaning of someone's behavior based on what we know from our own culture and from the stereotypes we know in regard to other cultures. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2004 edition), to presume is to "take upon something without warrant, to dare, to take for granted." In other words, to presume is to get ahead and interpret something without enough basis. My experience tells me that this is, indeed, the biggest reason why frictions or misunderstandings arise in intercultural communication.
I remember a time when I lived with an American family during my first visit here in the United States. I was shy and I didn't know what to say. They led me into my room and left me to fix my things and rest because I arrived very late at night and was obviously tired.
The next day, I woke up in time for breakfast. I didn't come out of the room because I was shy. Someone knocked at my door and when I opened it, my host mother asked me if I wanted to eat. In our culture, it's not polite to say yes right away. That was why even if I was hungry, I just said no. I was expecting her to insist but she just said, "Okay, we'll leave you to rest for now. But if you feel hungry, just go to the kitchen and grab some food, all right?" I smiled and nodded. She smiled too and left.
The truth was I was feeling really hungry at that time. However, I couldn't bring myself to say yes to my host because I really felt I would be very upfront to do that. On the other hand, I felt that my host was quite "uncaring" when she didn't insist. She must have suspected at least that I was actually starving due to my late trip last night!
I felt trapped and so I just stayed in my room. After more than two hours, my host told me that she and her husband would be going to work and the kids will be left at home with their nanny. When she and her husband left, that's the only time I went to the kitchen and looked for food, for I was really starving!
Days after, my host family initiated a talk about our cultures because they said they wanted to understand the Filipino way of life, like when it comes to practice of religion, politics, family and food. I was already comfortable with them at that time, so when I remembered my first "food experience" with them, I shared it. I told them that when they asked me if I wanted to eat, I said no out of being "polite" and not to be very frank in saying yes. I told them I was expecting that they would insist and so I could eat. I told them this is how most Filipinos behave in regard to invitations for meals.
They were surprised and were very apologetic. They told me that they picked it up differently. They said that Americans tend to be straightforward. A "no" is a no to them and a "yes" is a yes. So when I said no and even smiled, they thought I was just being honest. They did not disturb me after that because they thought I wasn't really hungry and that I just wanted to rest because I was still tired from my trip the night before.
Also, they didn't want to insist because as Americans, they value freedom of choice. Still, somehow, they were expecting that I would come out and eat. So all the time that I was in my room and they were in the dining area, I was waiting for them to call me out while they were waiting for me to come out of my own volition and join them as they didn't want to appear forceful and insistent.
Looking back at this experience, I laugh at the fact that I endured my hunger the whole morning, just because I presumed that my host family would behave the way I understand things to be. I can actually apply in my experience all the six stumbling blocks. First, I assumed that our concept of inviting people to eat is similar. Second, I thought that since we both speak English, they would understand when what I say as "no" in a shy manner is actually a "yes" (language differences) because that's how it is in my culture.
Third, they misinterpreted my smile (non-verbal cue) as an affirmation that I was really okay and wasn't hungry. Fourth, our preconceptions and stereotypes were very apparent. Fifth, I evaluated them right away as being "uncaring" when they did not invite me to eat a second time. Last, both our anxieties in meeting each other for the first time clearly got in the way. Because of both our apprehensions and presumptions, we misunderstood each other a great deal.
In the Scriptures, we know that while Peter ministered to fellow Jews, Paul went to the Gentiles, people of other nations and ethnicity. He immersed himself in a lot of foreign cultures but did not get in trouble with the locals there (except a few authorities who were threatened by the new faith he introduced, but that's a different story). In fact, he was welcomed anywhere he went. It was due to the fact that whenever he visited a new place, he went first to the local town folks of that place who could orient him with their culture.
In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul went to the island of Cyprus, he went to John Mark first, a local of that town. When he went to the town called Derbe, he went to a local folk named Timothy. When he went to the town of Philippi, he asked the help of Lydia who was a native of that town. When we went to Corinth, he first lived at the house of a local couple named Aquilla and Priscilla. Paul knew he was operating in a new culture every time and so he undertook to learn their ways of living first. In short, he never presumed to know how each city or town behaved. As a result, the people welcomed him and he was able to convert a lot of Gentiles and pagans to Christianity.
Nowadays, I try my very best to be understanding and unpresuming of other cultures. Now that I am here in another country with a culture quite different from where I grew up, I must learn how not to judge or assume thought-patterns, languages, and behaviors right away. Mount Angel Seminary is a good training ground to widen one's perspective of different cultures as this can be considered a melting pot of people from varied origins: Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Hispanic, Africans, and Samoans. The things I have gathered from my Ministry in a Multicultural Church class are definitely helping me in a lot of ways.
The broadening of one's horizon in interacting with many people from several different cultures is not easy. As the article states, "For most people it takes insight, training, and sometimes an alteration of long-standing habits or thinking patterns before progress can be made." Therefore, it is a daunting task.
Yes, it is quite difficult but not impossible. With open-mindedness, a little shifting of paradigm in terms of old beliefs and biases, understanding and acceptance that we are all created and loved equally by God, then it can definitely be done. As the author states, "The increased need for global understanding . . . gives all of us the responsibility for giving it our best effort."
If only we could all stop getting ahead and presuming other people's words and actions based on our own cultural biases, imagine how much better this would we live in would be!