Cultural matters

If you’re going to build a successful relationship with a church or community in another part of the world, it’s essential to understand their culture and be sensitive to it. If you don’t, you can damage the relationship by your words or actions without even realising it.

Remember that in another culture, people think differently. Values, behaviours and expectations are likely to be different to what you’re familiar with in your own culture. Take the trouble to find out about these differences before you go.

When you’re there, respect the local culture: don’t try to impose your own on the people whose home it is. Put yourself in their shoes: what behaviours of yours could be offensive, distressing or embarrassing to them?

Ways of living, dressing, relating – and being church – vary around the world: be sensitive to other people’s culture.Take appropriate clothing, not just for the climate but also for the local culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wear local clothes (although in some contexts this might be recommended by those who know the place well), but it’s generally wise to dress modestly and unobtrusively, in a way that respects the local culture and doesn’t offend. Avoid displays of ostentatious wealth in your clothing or accessories, especially when in poor places.

Remember it’s not just outward things like dress that count, but inward attitudes.

For example, westerners tend to be task-oriented, while another culture may place greater value on relationships – if you’re not sensitive to this you may experience frustration and cause offence.

Gifts are exchanged in Tanzania as people meet for the first time
Gifts are exchanged in Tanzania as people meet for the first time

Before you go, find out if there are any specific dos and don’ts in the culture and be careful to conform to local expectations. For example, in many cultures where the norm is to eat with your hands, it’s customary not to eat with your left hand. Elsewhere it may be offensive, for example, to sit on the floor with the soles of your feet pointing at someone else. Take care with your hand gestures: something quite innocuous in your own culture can turn out to be highly offensive somewhere else.

When you’re visiting churches, be aware that they’re likely to have their own culture. Be sensitive to this as well as to the general culture. This may concern, for example, local expectations about how to dress and behave in church. It also applies to your behaviour outside church meetings: for example, in your own culture it may be acceptable for Christians to drink a moderate amount of alcohol, but elsewhere it may be totally inappropriate.

Be careful to gain permission for recording people's stories
Be careful to gain permission for recording people's stories

Be particularly sensitive to local cultural expectations about how to relate to someone of the opposite sex, so as not to offend or give wrong impressions about your attitudes or intentions. Behaviour (and dress) which may be normal and acceptable in your own circles at home may be offensive or gravely misunderstood in another culture.

Try to learn something of the local language: it may be convenient for you that your hosts have taken the trouble to learn your language, but learning even a few words of theirs is a way to show respect for them and their culture.

It can be difficult to know how to act in specific situations such as tipping for service (e.g. at airports), haggling in markets or responding to beggars. Take trusted local advice on what is appropriate behaviour for a visitor.