“Choose not to be offended. Instead, look for ways to understand what happened.”

 Diane Lovell, Translation Consultant-in-Training, SIL Southern Africa

I serve in Bible translation with SIL SOA and also work as Dean of Students at George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa. I live and work in a multicultural family of Christian believers who all have ample opportunity to intentionally or unintentionally hurt each other. I’m convinced that if we see each other as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will make an effort to understand each other even when we are confused by someone’s actions and even when we are deeply hurt. 

South Africans know that cross-cultural relationships come with opportunities to hurt or help each other. It can be easy to assume the worst about the intentions of another’s actions. Two observations have helped me navigate cross-cultural relationships, particularly those with a mentor-mentee shape. 

First, cross-cultural sensitivity does not mean harmony at all costs. It’s not about erasing my cultural identity and assimilating wholesale to the other. We all know that we should be intentionally aware of our cultural worldviews and notice the differences. Yet, we might think harmony is achieved if we shrug off what makes us different and take on a new way of thinking out of courtesy to the other person. Alternatively, we might think respectful distance between cultures will avoid conflict and sharp division. South Africans are unfortunately all too familiar with enforced social walls between different ethnicities, even in our churches.

Neither path works. Instead, both parties must work towards Christian sanctification, the redemption of their different cultures, and being open to being shaped to be more like Jesus through their encounters with colleagues (2 Cor 3:18; Rom 12:1-2). The different cultures within the church need each other (1 Cor 12:12-31). Practically, this is much more than just cultural intelligence or intercultural competence. Healthy cross-cultural relationships require that both mentor and mentee are willing to learn from each other and are willing to change. 

Secondly, we must take the time to understand the other person and what is happening verbally and nonverbally. I like the cultural iceberg metaphor: above the water are the readily identifiable cultural differences like food, dress, mannerisms, and language, but like an iceberg, there’s far more under the water. We have complex value systems, deeply rooted attitudes, and values for things like work, time, relationships, justice, communication styles and unsaid but assumed rules and taboos. It’s easy to make wrong assumptions about why someone shows something different above the water if we assume they are the same as us below the water. I think the answer is time; time spent suspending judgment long enough, but not forever, time that is long enough to understand the iceberg. This can be very hard when we feel hurt, but it’s one of the ways God uses to shape our own iceberg. 

Even though these cross-cultural relationships can be difficult sometimes, God challenges us to love those who are different from us. He honours the work we put into those relationships by changing us too, but not so we will all end up the same. Mentoring is not a carbon-copy process. We’re not replicating. We’re growing. He does it so that we can all take our unique place in the body of Christ.


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Banner photo by Zusana Ruttkayova on Pexels

Iceberg photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

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