Prospering in another culture is learning how to celebrate difference. (Duane Elmer)
All of us are products of our cultural background and upbringing. Even if we grew up in a number or cultural contexts, we have been affected by those contexts. Our worldviews have likely also been shaped by our background and experiences. Our worldview usually influences how we approach different and new cultural situations. Westerners tend initially to categorize new experiences, places, habits, cultural practices as good or bad, right or wrong rather than different. Americans are very good at doing this almost unconsciously. We also tend to think other people think like we do and perceive things the way that we do. Frequently, we also suggest that others should think like we do and see like we do, whether or not we have reflected intentionally upon the roots of our own worldview and assumptions about how life should be lived. We are all, in other words, at least a bit egocentric and a little ethnocentric.
And when confronted with something new or different, people can categorize very quickly, sometimes within a few seconds. Living intentionally in cross cultural spaces will require a person to encounter much that is very different. In fact, when one first enters a new culture, the difference can be downright overwhelming indeed! It helps if we can be intentional about NOT immediately categorizing the new as good or bad, right or wrong. We can learn to be intentional about categorizing new customs or cultural practices and worldviews as different, at least at first. Then, we can begin to learn about those differences, by asking genuinely of others any number of questions, like; Why do you do this in that way? Why do you do it on that day, at that time? Why do people speak that way? dress this way? or that way? What do I do in response to that gesture? invitation? As we adopt a learner’s posture in new cultural situations, rather than a purely ethnocentric one, we may discover many features of a new culture that are both different and worth celebrating. Of course, as we learn and inquire, we may find aspects of the different culture that cannot be celebrated, even some that deserve universal reproach and condemnation. Living intentionally in cross cultural spaces does not require embracing cultural relativism. Living intentionally in cross cultural spaces does include adopting a learner’s attitude that postpones an immediate judgment and looks intentionally for differences that can be celebrated and eventually enjoyed. That, according to Duane Elmer, is how we begin to prosper in another culture.