If you’ve ever considered traveling internationally, you’ve probably heard tales of the infamous “culture shock” upon arrival in a new country. Maybe you’ve even experienced some level of cultural adjustment yourself. While some cross-cultural stories are outlandish, many boil down to a simple “I never knew people could do it this way.” Recognizing the symptoms and stages of culture shock can help us adjust more quickly to those differences. Suddenly the extreme and unbelievable becomes more relatable and even enjoyable.
127 Worldwide equips Westerners to partner with non-Western Christians who are caring for the vulnerable, so a working knowledge of culture shock aids transition and collaboration for both groups. You may have never thought about it this way, but 127 partners also have to adjust to culture when they visit America or work with GO Teams too!
On a short-term trip, we’re all likely to experience one of two extremes– temptation to exaggerate the positives or to dwell on the negatives of our host culture. There will likely be things about the country you visit that you really don’t like, and you may find yourself missing the comforts of home. It can be tempting to resort to criticism, making a mental list of all the ways “ours” is better than “theirs.” We have to be quick to catch the complaint on our lips and seek to humbly learn even when we’re squarely outside our comfort zone.
On the other hand, visiting a new place can be exciting and novel, often exposing blindspots about our own culture we’ve never recognized before. You may find yourself thinking, “I love this so much I could move here!” or “If only Americans could be as hospitable and people-oriented as Kenyans. We’re too consumed with time!” Beware of those responses. It’s easy to don rose-colored glasses about a new experience while turning a critical gaze back toward our home culture. Healthy cross-cultural engagement requires the humility to recognize we are not experts after our visit, and first impressions rarely tell the whole story. We have much to learn from the cultures of our local leaders, but the most valuable lessons are usually very nuanced.
Humility safeguards us from returning with an elevated sense of our own understanding. It makes us think twice before wearing that African headwrap we bought at a local market to the office. What would people in Kenya think if they saw me wearing this here? Does this communicate respect and excitement to my coworkers or just come off as cultural appropriation? It infuses our advocacy with gentleness because we’re aware that we don’t have a PhD in vulnerable community care. Humility is what keeps us coming back to the table to ask questions and continue to learn. A humble spirit is the most important ingredient to cross-cultural engagement and personal growth.
- Give an example of a time you’ve experienced one of the two responses to culture shock listed above. Did you handle those feelings well? What would you do differently when you experience either distaste or euphoria toward your host culture?
- What are ways Americans can advocate zealously for partners while remaining humble and sensitive about our cross-cultural experience after they return home?
- Can you give an example of a picture or story that taken out of context could encourage the recipient to stereotype an entire people group?
- Which extreme do you think you’re prone to after cross-cultural engagement– exaggerating the positives or negatives of a host culture? How can you safeguard yourself from making conclusions (good or bad) about a country and people you’ve known for such a relatively short period of time? What would it look like to embrace nuance and approach your time as a learner rather than an expert?