Whether you have traveled abroad or not, you are probably familiar with the “ignorant American” stereotype. It’s almost assumed in movies that the American character will talk too loud or jump to the wrong conclusions or commit the unspeakable cultural faux-pas. I know in my travels, I have been conscious of how I might come off as insensitive or prideful. But even when we try our best to show respect and kindness, we often still witness (or take part in) some form of cultural insensitivity. Misunderstandings abound anytime you introduce one culture to another.
Instead of resigning ourselves to offending somebody at some point, let’s consider how to show the love of Christ before we enter a new culture. Three primary ways we can do this are by researching cultural values and forms of communication, recognizing the invisible baggage we carry, and respecting the input of locals.
1. Research cultural values and communication methods.
We can avoid cultural insensitivity by researching the cultural values in any country we plan to travel to. We can be tempted to expect locals to operate like us, becoming frustrated when their actions diverge from the American way of doing something. We want them to function on our timetable and speak English if possible, forgetting that they have their own framework for life and their own ways of expressing themselves.
Some practical ways to grow in our awareness of others is to learn simple phrases in our host culture, to practice pronouncing local names correctly, and to familiarize ourselves with nonverbal communication patterns. In some Middle Eastern countries showing the bottom of your foot to another person is considered very offensive. I don’t make a habit of holding my foot up to strangers, but it does require conscious effort not to cross my legs in a host’s living room.
2. Recognize your invisible baggage.
A second way to avoid insensitivity is to acknowledge the invisible baggage that Westerners carry. This cultural baggage is especially heavy for white Westerners. In his article “The Problem of Power in Ministry Relationships,” Larry Jones helpfully explains why skin color can be associated with a history of colonialism and terrible injustice. He notes that “[w]hether the United States itself was involved in a particular country’s colonial experience is beside the point. The mere color of our faces reminds [locals] of a painful history.”
Many of us might feel that it’s not fair to be associated with a practice we condemn and took no part in. Jones answers this contention very well by explaining:
“As American individualists, our hearts instinctively cry out, ‘It isn’t fair! Why should I bear guilt for things I didn’t do?’ The very phrasing of the question reflects our cultural bias toward the individual and our reticence to see ourselves inextricably tied to others in a corporate identity… Many other cultures around the world place a priority on corporate identity over the individual. Thus we almost never start an intercultural relationship with a clean slate—our identification with various groups carries with it interpersonal baggage whether we know it or not.”
Traveling forces us to recognize that not everybody looks at the world from an individualistic perspective. Simply because we don’t associate our skin color and culture with colonialism doesn’t mean our presence won’t remind others of a painful past. Refusing to acknowledge the historical legacy of other countries’ pain reveals a heart that values pride over compassion.
3. Respect locals’ input.
Finally, we can avoid cultural insensitivity by respecting the input of locals. Sometimes we forget to stop and consider if our way of doing things might inadvertently belittle locals. Maybe when you rushed up to hug that little kid in the village you disrespected his mother by not greeting her first. Maybe when you insisted on keeping a tight schedule on that mission trip, you inadvertently communicated to the local pastor that you cared more about the project than him.
Possibilities like these are why it is so important to ask trusted local community leaders for advice. They will always know their context and culture better than you. What may look like the right thing to you as an outsider could actually be harmful. The insider knowledge of a local community leader can help you avoid cultural insensitivity.
Recognizing ways we’ve unintentionally made ourselves big and others small can be discouraging. None of us wants to be the stereotype. We travel around the world because we genuinely want to learn from people who are different from us! But mishaps happen often when we haven’t put in the legwork to express respect and kindness in a context different from our own. It’s worth the effort to proactively learn how to affirm human dignity in the places we travel. We might just learn something new about ourselves and our own culture in the process.**A version of this article was originally posted at intersectproject.org.