In IFI, particularly at events to welcome new students, we start to get to know people who don’t look like us and don’t see the world the way we do, to experience life with them while they live among us. Our desire is to be an effective and authentic living picture of Christ to those who are different from us, to express love in respectful and meaningful ways. It is an ongoing journey, a lifelong quest of becoming more like Christ in how we interact with those unlike us.
The biggest challenges in cross-cultural ministry are miscommunication and misunderstanding. We have blind spots. We do not intend to offend, but occasionally we make blunders out of ignorance or carelessness.
Christ and His Kingdom transcend culture, but love is expressed culturally. We have Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 9 that he has become all things to all people so that he may by all means save some. He defines what love is (I Corinthians 13) so that we, too, can behave in ways that speak love languages that are meaningful to others.
Behavior springs from our understanding, thinking, and motivation. As Jesus in us deepens our understanding of His love for others, changes our thinking, and provides godly motivation, He enables us to be ourselves yet express His love and show others who He is. He helps us remove barriers to clear communications and be authentic. He can show us when to flex and when not to flex.
Being aware of our own upbringing, cultural heritage, and personality helps us restrain our behaviors that spring from racism, stereotypes, prejudices, etc. Jesus helps us monitor ourselves yet act selflessly! Staying rooted in the truth that each of us is made in the image of God enables us to cross great differences to express love effectively to those who are different.
When meeting and mingling with international students and scholars, be alert to indicators that they may be feeling uncomfortable, e.g., stepping back, crossing arms, looking away or at one’s phone, or silence. (Not meeting your gaze may express politeness rather than rejection. In many cultures it is rude for younger people to meet the gaze of their elders for more than a brief moment.)
Here are three keys to turning potential blunders into bridges to healthy, deepening relationships:
1. Connection (A Cordial Welcome)
Since a person’s name is closely tied to his identity, make an effort to get to know it; ask him to help you pronounce it correctly and understand its meaning. Taking time to appreciate his name communicates that you value his culture and him as a person. Even if he has an English name, try to learn his given name (the name his parents call him). Keep working at the pronunciation! And let him know what to call you. Once you’ve made a great connection, it’s easy to get caught up in the conversation and assume that you will see him at the next IFI activity. Pause a moment to ask him for the best way to connect again so you may get to know him better and build a relationship. Get his contact information – phone number and/or email or WeChat or other address.
2. Context (A Comfortable Space)
Creating an appropriate physical place conveys welcome to new students. Touch only the hand or shoulder—no hugs, please! Smile, shake hands, bump fists, bow, or nod as a greeting. When giving or receiving a gift, use both hands to show respect. Using your index finger is fine for spelling words on your palm but pointing it at someone may be offensive. Better to gesture with your whole hand or arm. Both males and females should dress modestly—nothing tight, very little bare skin.
At welcome events, aim to talk to at least five students. Don’t latch on to just one. Keep moving – don’t stay with one student for more than 10 minutes unless you sense strongly that God wants you to. Before moving on, introduce the student to another volunteer, another student in his major or from his home country, if possible. Do not give students materials about activities or groups not associated with IFI.
3. Conversation (A Courteous Exchange)
While there may be cultural commonalities, we need to lay our assumptions aside and treat each person as an individual. Get to know her personally. Talking very little about yourself and asking much about her says you value knowing her and what she has to say, and that you want to learn from her. When we dominate the conversation, we miss out on an opportunity to connect with the heart of the person we are with.
Asking questions helps to get the conversation going. Here are some suggestions:
- Speak slowly. When you ask a question, pause about 15 seconds to give the student time to respond. (She may be translating your question and her answer in her head!)
- Don’t interrogate (ask rapid-fire questions). Ask open-ended, not yes-or-no questions. Listen carefully to the answers.
- Think before asking. One student was quite surprised when asked if there were airports in her country! Knowing a few facts ahead of time about your friendship or conversation partner’s country will open doors to informed discussions.
- What is her study program and how long should it take? Asking when she will leave is not a welcome!
- Has she found other students in her major field of study? Be alert for students studying the same major or from her home country and try to connect them.
- How is her family? How does she communicate with them? Whom will she miss the most? Ask about the student’s family’s spiritual beliefs. Mention that IFI hosts Bible discussion groups once a week and ask if she would be interested in visiting a group. If she seems interested, help her to make arrangements for the visit. Other than that, don’t engage in a discussion of religion.
- If meeting a student as a conversation or friendship partner, bring spiritual topics into the conversation naturally. Don’t force the conversation or be too eager. Don’t be in a rush to invite to a Bible study; your enthusiasm may scare her away!
- Some topics can be uncomfortable. Safe conversation starters: Food, customs and traditions, hobbies or special interests beyond her major. See Conversation Starters and more resources on the IFI Partners website.
We seek to be wise, aware, and culturally sensitive. We are complete in Christ and we must be the best we can for Him. When we make blunders, a humble heart, acknowledging our mistakes, and a polite attitude speak volumes. We realize they have come here to study, and we, too, are learners!
Patty Lane, A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multicultural World
David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence, especially the last chapter on 24 ways to advance your cultural sensitivity
Timothy Shultz, Disciple Making Among Hindus: Making Authentic Relationships Grow
IFI Blog: 7 Ways to Love People from Honor-Shame Cultures