Which path are you on for cultural adjustment?

Sep 29, 2022 | 0 comments

One theme of my life could be described as, “from here to there.” Maybe you find the same true in your life. I have X amount of money today. How do I get “there” where I will have 2X amount of money tomorrow? 

I live in City A now. How do I move so that I live “there” in City B in the future?

I am fighting an illness here and now. What are the steps and who are the people who can guide me toward “there,” in this case health?

From “here to there” is also a theme in preparing for Great Commission work. Perhaps now you live with your own people and speak your own language. How do you move from “here” to the “there” where God is leading you?

I see three pathways from life “here” in your homeland to living and working “there” in the place where God is leading you.  In this post we want to take a quick look at these three paths from here to there.

Pathway #1 – The plan to have no plan

One way to move from “here” to “there” is to just relax and let each day happen. The plan is simply to have no plan.

This is my favorite strategy for vacation, but it doesn’t work out so well in Great Commission work nor for adjustment to a new culture. The problem is that when we are going into an unfamiliar culture without any understanding and without a plan on learning, we will default to our home culture’s patterns. In essence to have “no plan” is really to decide to trust the plan of living like you were in your homeland.

Several decades ago when my family and I arrived in our overseas location, we pretty much had that “laissez-faire” approach to learning our new country. We constantly compared the new place with what we remembered from our home culture. The first attempt to do any new task was in the same way that we would do it “at home.” The result of that approach was that we isolated into our expat community with others from our own national background. We understood how to work and live with them, but the rest of the country didn’t make sense.

Then one day I heard myself say, “I will never understand those people.” It shocked me to hear myself say that! I didn’t want to stay that way.

So I started looking for another way by studying culture and learning more about intercultural communication. 

Pathway #2 – The plan for each detail

A second strategy for planning is to imagine a detailed, GPS sort of fine-tuned specificity. The GPS tells you, “Turn here, now go straight for 3 miles, now turn to the left. . . “ 

Cultural training can take that form, too. You may wish that you had a rule book that described each step of life in the new land: When to shake hands, when to kiss, when to bow, when and how and where and what to eat. . .  how to dress. . .  when to arrive for appointments. . . what are appropriate topics for conversation. . . 

As we made our adjustments to our overseas life, we started looking at the plethora of cultural training materials that promise answers for the questions of life in that new culture. And it helped! Our neighbors responded well! We were increasingly understandable!

There are some times when that GPS-sort of approach is helpful. If you are making a two-week trip to an unfamiliar nation, you won’t have time to develop a network of people to coach you into appropriate behaviors and understanding. Knowing some of the differences between your culture and the new way of life can be a help. A “cheat sheet” of short “GPS” instructions can be helpful and appropriate. 

But that specific sort of “do this/don’t do that” training has built in weaknesses, too. For example, it assumes that all of the people in a given place will share exactly the same patterns of life. We lived in a rural part of our host nation, but the books were written from the perspective of the urban centers. The patterns of life were different! The GPS could tell me how to get around the city, but it turned out to be inaccurate in my small town.

Across generations there are also differences in patterns of life. The GPS approach is always going to be obsolete. Whatever is written about the patterns of life of a people today will change as a new generation starts to shift those patterns. Think about the patterns of conversation or greeting that you see with young people in your own culture. Whatever used to be “correct” is shifting before your eyes.

The GPS approach is like watching a novice cook trying to become a gourmet chef by painstakingly following each step of a cookbook. My wife and I enjoy watching cooking/baking shows. I noticed something about those really good chefs and cooks – they splash a bit of this, measure quickly a bit of that, decide to throw in some ingredient to make it their own “special sauce.” Even if they have instructions, those instructions are a guideline to point in the right direction – they are not a rule book to be precisely followed! The good cooks use the recipe as a general direction that they play riffs on with other spices, other textures, and a rough idea of measures instead of being overly cautious to measure exactly at each step. 

Then there are the other cooks. . . . like me. If it says “one quarter cup” I get so focused on ¼ cup that I miss the way that ingredient will mix with the rest of the recipe. I follow instructions and make a meal that can be safely eaten – not nearly the same way that a chef would create a work of art.

Too often the “GPS” approach to cultural adaptation leads to “rule book to always be followed” mentality, and the people around you are just so many actors who are expected to respond accordingly. Life just ain’t like that, though. Culture is a guideline and flexibility is an important part of adaptation. 

Pathway #3 – Clear on the goal, flexible on the details

Dr. James Plueddemann, in his book Leading Across Cultures, uses a word-picture he calls “the Pilgrim Model” of planning that really fits this idea. The pilgrim knows where he or she wants to get – they have a final destination in mind. But they also know that there is no direct path to get there – they will navigate waterfalls and mountains, maybe spend the winter in one spot instead of traveling. The goal is assured but the path is flexible.

Reality in culture learning is that it is a process, not a science – the goal is healthy relationships and clear ministry interaction with people whose ways of life are different than yours. . .  and the pathway to that goal is flexible. It changes from one person to another, from one region and language and city to another. The pathway forward is to know that you seek to understand the life patterns of the people around you, and that you will learn those patterns through a book here, a conversation at the market there, an insight from pastors in the host country’s churches here, an observation at a local lunch counter there. . . . . you are always learning the patterns around you and adjusting one step at a time as you get new insights. 

The tools for learning how to adapt to a new culture have to do with the goal you have in your mind and the ability to learn as you go. Not long ago I published a book called Culture Learning that points to how to live out that “learn as you go” model of cultural adaptation. 

My hope for you, wherever you are in culture learning, is that you have the joy of deep friendships and healthy relationships with people whose way of life is very different than yours!  And I can pretty well promise you that you won’t get to that joyful outcome by accident, nor by a highly specific, detailed plan to learn all that the sociologists and travel experts tell us. You will arrive at that joyful goal by deliberately interacting, and by learning from each interaction, until you find yourself adjusting to the way of life of your new community. There IS a path from here to there, but you discover that path one step at a time. 


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Photo by Marwan Ahmed on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of Culture Bound.. Husband. Life-long learner.

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