Improving Cross-Cultural Communication — A Basic Overview for Christian Missionaries

In this essay, I attempt to give a basic overview on the subject of cross-cultural communication. This essay is aimed at would-be Christian missionaries, who may have read of its importance in the mission field.

According to Wikipedia, cross-cultural communication is the “field of study that looks at how people from differing cultural backgrounds communicate”.

There are 3 concepts that are closely associated with cross-cultural communication, and they are defined below:

Cultural sensitivity:  Knowing that cultural differences as well as similarities exist, without assigning values (i.e. better or worse, right or wrong) to those cultural differences.

Cultural awareness:  Developing sensitivity and understanding of another ethnic group. This usually involves internal changes in terms of attitudes and values.

Cultural knowledge:  Familiarisation with selected cultural characteristics, history, values, belief systems, and behaviours of the members of another ethic group.

The way I see it, the key to improving cross-cultural communication is, firstly, to be culturally sensitive (that is, to be aware that differences exists between cultures, as opposed to being ignorant of differences, or worse, to gloss over them), and next, to increase cultural awareness and knowledge of a culture of interest.

This begs the question of how can one increase knowledge of a target culture.

One can, of course, perform a search over the Internet, but, I think the best information out there is available in book form. Specifically, I would recommend the book Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries and the CULTURESHOCK! series of books by the publisher, Marshall Cavendish.

Besides reading up on a culture of interest, I think that awareness of a target culture (vis a vis one’s own culture) can be increased through the use Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture model.

According to Hofstede, every national culture can be characterised based on 6 dimensions, and are as follows:

  • Power Distance Index
  • Individualism versus Collectivism
  • Masculinity versus Femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index
  • Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation
  • Indulgence versus Restraint

Full details of Hofstede’s model are available in his textbook, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition, however, I think the book would be more suitable for academics studying cross-cultural communications, than for people in the missions field. (Nonetheless, I bring it up because, for readers living in Singapore, the book is actully available for loan at the National Library).

One major plus point about using Hofstede’s model is that Hofstede’s website (http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html) allows one to do country versus country comparisons.

So, for example, if one is a Singaporean who is interested in becoming a missionary in the United States, the ‘country versus country’ comparison tool in Hofstede’s website would give one an indication of the differences between the two cultures:

Singapore versus America_Cultural Comparison

Source:  The Hofstede Centre (http://geert-hofstede.com/)

The greater the difference between one’s culture and the culture of the one’s mission field should not dissuade one from entering the field (after all, one should obey the Lord’s call), but it should perhaps serve as a warning of greater preparatory work needed (e.g. in studying the culture and in prayer). The greater the cultural differences, the higher would be the risk of misunderstandings and grievances — thus, the greater need for prayer.

Finally, numerous textbooks on cross-cultural communications have been written, and most are secular, but there are a couple that are faith-based, and these include the following:

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