Whether you’re going to another country or another cultural context within North America, you will encounter some cultural differences. Adjusting to these differences can be hard. It might be tempting to reject or judge parts of a different culture because you aren’t used to them or they make you feel uncomfortable. But if you’re prepared to engage cross-culturally—to make space for differences and the people who see them as normal—experiencing another culture is a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow!
Develop cultural agility
Connecting well with people who are different than you starts with cultural agility, the ability to adapt the way you connect with people based on cultural context. This doesn’t mean being an expert on every other culture. That’s a near-impossible task. Instead, cultural agility is being aware of your own cultural biases and able to manage them when you interact with people from other cultures.
Since most of us don’t really know how to explain our own culture, the first step toward cultural agility is identifying what makes your culture distinct. Think with your group about the traditions/customs, values, institutions, and worldviews represented in your culture. How might your cultural biases shape the way you think and act? For example, you may be offended if someone shows up to an event two hours late because in your culture, punctuality is important. However, being two hours late for an event is no big deal in many cultures. Being aware of your own biases will help you handle differences like this with humility.
Cultural agility also means being continually open to learning from the differences you encounter. For example, you might find that being less focused on time helps you relax and enables you to engage more fully with the people around you.
Study the differences
Before you leave for your trip, do your best to learn about the culture with which you’ll be engaging. Although you won’t be able to learn everything about the culture, this can help you prepare for some of the cultural differences you may encounter. Here are a few ways you can learn more about a culture:
- Read about the culture, or read books that take place in that culture.
- Watch a movie, documentary, or TV show about people in the culture. Research what you watch beforehand to make sure it portrays the culture accurately.
- Ask your host LOTS of questions.
- Meet with someone who is from the culture you’re going to visit. Ask them questions about their culture and how it is different from yours.
These activities work best in groups of people who have different cultural backgrounds from one another. The cultural agility activities will help you identify the different cultural identities within your group.
Cultural difference questions
The questions below deal with common cultural differences that you may encounter on your trip. Before you leave, we encourage you to either research or ask people who know the culture these questions.
- How do people like to be greeted?
- Are there any gestures that are offensive?
- What type of clothing do people wear? Do we need to be careful about what we wear?
- How does “time” work in that culture, and how does it affect things?
- Are there any cultural practices to know about when entering someone’s home?
- What cultural practices are involved with food?
- What is the makeup of the families? What do gender roles look like in this culture?
- Does the culture have any unique aspects of it?
- How does the culture react to tattoos? Jewelry? Piercings?
- Can we wear clothing with USA or Canada symbols and wording on it?
Want to learn more about cross-cultural engagement and short-term missions? Here are a few resources we recommend:
Handling Culture Shock on a Missions Trip by Mike Nagel
Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore
Understanding Culture Stress by Howard Culbertson