A few months ago, I was invited to a networking meeting by a group of churches that actively work with and welcome refugees. They asked me to answer some culture-related questions and share insight about culture that would be helpful in their ministry. Needless to say, I loved this opportunity because it gave me the chance to help people build bridges for better communication. In one way or another, the questions they asked all revolved around cross-cultural competency. To put things in perspective, I’m talking about churches that have an open heart and a willingness to help but exist in the deep Midwest or in small towns where you don’t see diversity or a mixture of various cultures as you would see in, say, LA or New York. I’ve put together some notes that had sprung forth from the concerns I heard in that meeting, and I’ve decided to share them with all who may wonder about the cross-cultural elements of refugee and hospitality ministry. However, my notes are very generic, providing basic awareness and a few elementary concepts. So if you have questions about this matter that run deeper than just the basics, then either email me or comment and ask. I would be glad to share my experience to help you build better communication.
Cross-cultural competence is a way of interacting with people from cultures other than our own to help us lessen the impact of culture-based misunderstandings and increase the efficacy of communication. It requires a general understanding of widely practiced assumptions around the world and the norms of behavior.
Guilt-And-Innocence Cultures vs. Honor-And-Shame Cultures
Based on how they define relationships between people, cultures are divided into either guilt-and-innocence cultures or honor-and-shame cultures. Many western cultures belong to the guilt-and-innocence category while many Asian societies belong to the honor-and-shame category.
In guilt-and-innocence cultures, a person’s self-worth is greatly affected by the way he perceives himself. Others’ perception of the person is less important. In these societies, if person thinks he or she is right, that person would defend his stance without regard to how society thinks about that choice. Feeling guilty about your own wrong choices matters more than whether others know about your wrongdoing or not. These societies tend to be more individualistic.
In honor-and-shame cultures, a person’s self-worth is greatly affected by the way he is perceived by others. Losing face is a big disgrace, and honoring people who have to be honored is extremely important. As long as your wrongdoing is not exposed, you are not shamed. Even if a person did nothing wrong, shaming him or her publicly would affect that person’s self-worth and society’s treatment of that person. Maintaining public decorum is very important.
What Does This Mean for Our Relationships with Refugees?
Most refugees come from honor-and-shame societies. The way they perceive themselves is very much affected by the way you perceive them, so maintaining an honorable behavior is important to them when in fact it may work against them. Here are a few concrete guidelines that will help you avoid any misunderstandings.
Encourage them often and affirm their right choices.
If you notice wrong behavior and want to bring it to their attention, try to do so indirectly.
Avoid confronting parents in the presence of their children or other relatives unless you know they don’t mind that.
Present information or discuss matters that expose their potential vulnerabilities (financial needs, health care needs, etc.) with care, and leave room to change the subject if they seem uncomfortable.
When in doubt, ask as politely as possible. Do not assume that a behavior that may be outwardly okay or not okay in Western culture has the same value in their eyes.
Obey their cultural norms about gender and age discernible among their family members just by observing and following suit or actively seeking out the information.
Cold Cultures vs. Hot Cultures
Depending on time for relationships and everyday work, societies are grouped into cold cultures and hot cultures. Cold cultures are often time- and work-oriented. Events are made to fit into your schedule and work. Scheduling, work, and the clarity of who does what matter greatly in these societies. Western societies tend to be cold cultures.
Hot cultures are event- and relationship-oriented societies in which the concerns of events, relationships, and groups override the concerns of time and work. An example: in the US, you don’t usually go to your friend’s home uninvited. It is considered impolite. But in Turkey or Afghanistan, you can visit your friend’s home often without planning, and most likely the family will welcome you. Meetings in these societies may start late and run into another planned event if something important during the event comes up that people have to discuss. Keeping your promises is extremely important.
What Does This Mean for Our Relationships with Refugees?
It takes some time for refugees to understand and internalize the time and work norms of the US. They may not come to your home without calling, but they may often expect and find it normal for you to visit them without calling (especially in the beginning).
Be patient; if they don’t seem to keep up with dates or if they call during a time you would consider unacceptable, explain to them the cultural expectations in the US and connect it to their interests so that they don’t easily dismiss it.
Visit them often; participate if they invite you to eat or have tea/coffee. By doing that, you will confirm that you are their friend, and you will in turn receive their hospitality.
Invite them to your home or a place to socialize. Share food, have some conversation, and accept whatever they may bring as a gift.
Always keep your promises if you can, especially if what you promised may expose their vulnerabilities or put them in a shameful situation.
When you plan events with them or for them in a community (something that does not intrude on a third party’s schedule), leave some room for spontaneity and informality. Give yourself plenty of time before and after the event as a buffer in case the event takes longer or the refugee family arrives earlier.
Don’t expect your relationships to end abruptly after the church’s or community’s help (time period) to the refugee family or person has officially ended.
Notes on Language Usage and Religion
Religion is still important to societies outside the West. Unless you are sure that the family is open or comfortable, avoid explicit evangelization. However, if the family is Christian or feels comfortable, then usually faith is one of the best ways to convince or motivate people who come from religious societies into action.
Refugees who don’t speak English well may feel ashamed of their English and may withdraw from interaction or talk less than they would usually do. Encourage them to speak in English and correct their mistakes as gently as possible. Under no circumstances ridicule their language skills. Unless they are comfortable with you or they explicitly allow you to do so, avoid making jokes that highlight their vulnerabilities (their need for doctors, their mispronunciation, or their need for financial help).
Above all, just be open, communicate clearly, and practice patience.
If you liked this blog post you may like these two linked below too.