A few years ago I (David Smith) was in New Zealand leading a workshop for teachers. The topics I was addressing included intercultural learning. The first morning seemed to go well, but as the session ended, one of the participants came over to me with a slightly anxious expression. “I thought you ought to know,” she confided. “There are Maori in the room.” I knew that Maori were the native peoples of New Zealand, but something in this teacher’s manner gave me the sudden sure sense that this was not just about naming who was there. Apparently I had done something wrong.
I asked her to tell me my mistake. She apologetically explained that during the first session I had perched on the corner of a table at the front of the room, and that for Maori sitting on a table is quite rude behavior. After talking some more and researching later online, I learned that in Maori culture, tables are categorized as food surfaces. Placing one’s posterior on a table is, to be blunt, gross. One account described it as a little like watching someone clean their teeth with a toilet brush. So much for my role as the expert on intercultural learning! But I apologized, became more careful about what I did with my hindquarters, and we had a friendly and productive day together.
This incident illustrates a number of important features of intercultural encounters. When we interact with someone shaped by another culture—whether overseas, in our workplaces, churches or our own home—our words, our actions, our gestures and even our silences can be interpreted differently from how we intend them to be. Conversely, we may be puzzled or annoyed, exasperated or scared when we encounter cultural differences. Even if we are well intentioned, we can fail to understand what is really going on in an encounter with other peoples, traditions and cultures. Often we need someone other than us with different expertise and experiences to help us understand.
Our experiences with other cultures may be personal—during a trip, at a store, on campus, in our families—or from a distance through newsfeeds, headlines and social media. When we encounter otherness, we have an opportunity to learn. Learning and understanding other ways of being and doing in our world does not mean we accept everything as equally good. Every culture has flaws and blind spots. When we engage and interpret knowledgeably across different cultural lines, we gain insights into our own cultural identities: who we are, what we believe and why. We may find pieces of our way of doing things that need to change; we may also learn to recognize and embrace core elements of who we are.
When we engage and interpret knowledgeably across different cultural lines, we gain insights into our own cultural identities.David Smith ’
But why not just stay comfortable in our micro-cultures? Why bother trying to understand other peoples, cultures or languages? Learning about the peoples and cultures in our cities, countries and world is critical if we are to engage well in the conversations and communities of our times. To remain un-knowing about those other ways of life, those other peoples and cultures, disables us from being salt and light.
In our Calvin Shorts volume Christians and Cultural Difference, we offer a brief exploration of our calling to engage with others, how to do so gracefully, and why growing our intercultural capabilities is an important task for Christians. We consider some theological facets of the dynamics of cultural difference, as well as the practical intercultural skills involved in extending hospitality and becoming peacemakers in the world. We hope that it inspires us to pursue intercultural learning, so that we can reach across cultural lines with hands and hearts in effective and caring ways.