So you’re heading off to Romania/Burundi/Ecuador for a mission trip/study abroad/backpacking adventure. You’ve got a guidebook, a new camera, and plane tickets. Or maybe you’re just spending time with people of a different culture than your own here in the U.S. You’re eager to get to know these people, but you’re a bit apprehensive.
Perfect. You’ve come to the right place. I’ve lived and served in Nicaragu and China and currently live in South Africa. I’ve spent time in Poland, Thailand, Lebanon, and Ethiopia. And along the way, I’ve made more mistakes than I will admit on the Internet.
Stepping into a culture different from yours can be jarring. But a bit of preparation goes a long way. Here are 11 things you can do before and during your cross-cultural encounter.
1. Know the rhythm. People usually go through a predictable sequence of feelings and thoughts when they enter a new culture. Knowing what you’re likely to experience internally allows you to prepare for it beforehand and also process it in a healthy way. Check out this tool that describes the process.
2. Start learning. Entering a new culture is an opportunity to grow in humility. You will feel out of your element. You will find that things feel unnatural to you because you’re out of your cultural home. Embrace that and start learning even before you go—it’s good practice, because you’re going to keep learning once you actually get there.
Find some websites for tourists that explain the basics of life in the country you’ll be in. In particular, pay attention to sections on the people and their culture. Do they kiss on the cheek when greeting each other? Are they prompt? Do they expect visitors to stay super late? You can also talk to others who have been there.
If you’re not crossing actual borders but rather cultural ones closer to home, this still applies—learn what you can from people closest to the culture you’ll be getting to know firsthand.
Take everything you read and hear with a little grain of salt, though. You don’t want to be unwittingly prejudiced against those you are with or lump people together in your mind into one big stereotype.
3. Speak up. Yes, you need to learn some basic phrases in the language of the people you’ll be with. Get those into your head before you go, even if the pronunciation is off (though do work on the pronunciation as much as you can). What’s even better, though, is to get a sense of how the language functions and what kind of sounds it has so that you’re able to start learning words and phrases from your hosts right away.
And if you’re heading somewhere with English as one of the main languages, be careful. Just because you can understand each other’s language doesn’t mean you understand each other.
4. Watch for the bumps. When you find something confusing or odd or unpleasant, take time to think about these “bumps.” Train yourself to resist making assumptions or labeling such experiences or differences as “bad,” “gross,” or “weird.” Rather, ask yourself, “Why might my friends do that?” (And see the “Approaching Differences” diagram above.)
5. Find an interpreter. Yes, you might actually need someone to translate the language for you. But you also need someone to explain cultural dynamics to you. Find someone who is open, honest, and friendly and start to develop trust with each other. See if you can find some answers to your questions about cultural differences. You might bump into this kind of person running a restaurant, traveling on a bus, or simply walking in your neighborhood. Just keep your eyes and ears open for someone who seems knowledgeable and kind.
6. Reflect well. As you learn more about your host culture, think about your home culture. You ought to be able to find some ways in which your home culture is just as seemingly idiosyncratic as your host culture. Then come up with a few examples of where you prefer your host culture to your home culture. This will help you accept some of the things that seem odd to you.
You also need time to process everything that’s going on. Everyone—even us extroverts—needs time and space to have a good think. (Again, see the “Approaching Differences” diagram.)
7. Take care of yourself. In addition to processing your emotions and the cultural dynamics, you need to be physically healthy. It takes a lot of energy to be immersed in a new culture. Sleep enough. Drink enough water. Eat well. And stay active.
8. Have an overflow valve. If you’re with a group of others going through the same experiences, you’ll find yourselves verbally processing everything together. If you’re flying solo, however, you may need a couple friends back home who will email with you to help you vent occasionally. But be careful this doesn’t degenerate into hateful, harmful thinking about your new friends and host culture. Red flags include not giving people the benefit of the doubt, jumping to conclusions, using “always” and “never” as you think and talk about your host culture, and a simple lack of peace and love while with others.
9. Stay engaged. People very commonly respond to cultural stress by trying to escape. When bombarded with a new culture, it can be tempting to hole up wherever you’re staying and message your friends elsewhere.
To overcome cultural stress, you have to do the exact opposite. Get out of your room, and go hang out with people. Asking new questions, letting locals lead you, and trying new foods are great for growing in love for people in a culture that’s new to you. Do the things that you do enjoy in your new context.
10. Pray a lot. Yeah, you knew this was coming. It’s not easy to realize your way is not the best way. It’s humbling. It’s tiring. So spend time with Jesus. Be honest with him. And listen to him. It’s worth it.
11. Take the grace. If you want to do this well, you’ll do fine. Yes, you will make mistakes. Admit them—to yourself, to your new friends, and to God—and move along. We know God is full of grace for us every day (hallelujah!), and in my experience, people in host cultures are incredibly forgiving and eager to extend hospitality to “foreigners” (like you and me). (Warning: they will also laugh at you.) But you also need to give yourself the grace to both make mistakes and bounce back from them.
This isn’t rocket science, folks. But it can be slow, messy, and hard. The good news is that these are real skills that you can learn. And the benefits from spending time outside your home culture—both to you and to others—are tremendous.
For more on crossing cultures, check out these resources: