I find other cultures fascinating. Perhaps this goes with the territory of being a missionary. But the simple fact remains: crossing cultures in any meaningful way is very difficult work (some postmodern philosophers consider it impossible). For example, frustration can ensue from the African “lack of regard” for phoning before arriving at your door. Incredulity and teenage-esque humor can arise upon finding “untraditional” animal parts in your dinner portion in East Asia. Exasperation can follow from the unspoken expectations in relationships with people from the two-thirds world. Confusion can result from the difference in mentality regarding individual liberty and group concerns. And stepped-on-toes can result from our Western directness and quickness to identify flaws and mistakes.
Enter Duane Elmer and Patty Lane to save the day! Both authored IVPress books on crossing cultures: Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World (Elmer) and A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multi-Cultural World (Lane). I wanted to know which book to recommend to my volunteers, so I asked IVP for review copies of both in order to assess and compare the two, side by side, right here, for your viewing pleasure 🙂
Before getting into specifics, I’ll give a spoiler: Both books are worth your while, though they both have differing strong points and weak points.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The books are roughly equivalent in content and purpose, though the terminology differs. It seems that Elmer has written largely for overseas workers (i.e. places in which you are the minority). I would say Elmer is helpful no matter where you work, but his talk of “culture shocks”, “reentry” and other factors make it sound more like he’s talking to overseas workers. Lane, on the other hand, has written largely for domestic workers in multicultural settings (i.e. places in which you work among the minority), though she will also be of immense help no matter what your theater of action!
For books on culture, you would expect a clear definition of culture at the outset, or at least somewhere in the book! So I was quite surprised to find that Elmer does not define culture, at least not clearly. Perhaps you leave his book with a sense of what makes cultures different, but he doesn’t come out and define his terms very well. That is my largest complaint towards his book. Lane, on the other hand, is well organized and clear, providing a useful, working definition of culture at the beginning which she builds upon throughout.
Both authors spill copious amounts of ink on the topic of differing cultural values. Elmer refers to them as “cultural differences that confuse”, while Lane calls them “lenses for understanding cultural differences”. I’ll list the major ones, and then give you the terminology each author uses to describe them.
- Lane: “What Drives Us? The Value of Activity” (Chapter 4)
- Elmer: “Task and Relationship” (Chapter 14)
- Lane: “Who’s in Charge? The Influence of Authority” (Chapter 5)
- Elmer: “Achieved Status and Ascribed Status” (Chapter 18)
- Lane: “Who Am I? The Source of Identity” (Chapter 6)
- Elmer: “Individualism and Collectivism” (Chapter 15)
- Lane: “When Do We Start? Our Sense of Time” (Chapter 7)
- Elmer: “Time and Event” (Chapter 13)… I need to comment briefly on this one! There are so many important topics, but this one helps us understand why our friend “didn’t show up”, or didn’t “do what he said he’d do!” This is true in much of Africa. Why? Because if you have an appointment, but an actual person shows up at your door, that takes precedent. Period. No explanation necessary!
- “Where Are We? The Importance of Context” (Chapter 3)
- “What’s Really Real? Differences in Worldview” (Chapter 8)
- “Categorical and Holistic Thinking” (Chapter 16)
- “Logic: Straight or Curved?” (Chapter 17)
- “Guilt and Shame” (Chapter 19)… this one actually has enormous bearing on how we share the gospel (see my upcoming review of Jackson Wu’s Saving God’s Face: A Chines Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame).
- “Worship Expression: From Low to High” (Chapter 20)
As you can see, there is significant overlap. Each author approaches the topics in question from a slightly different angle, but both are well worth your time. Also, each author touches on other topics that the other spends less (or no) time on. It is almost an unforgivable sin to leave out discussion of honor and shame in a book on crossing cultures, and that is the only real complaint I have so far about Lane’s book. (Maybe she discusses the subject and I just haven’t found it yet).
Keep in mind, the cultural differences section I just highlighted is only a portion in each book. The authors explore other subjects as well, such as understanding the meaning of culture (Lane), understanding your own culture (Lane), cross-cultural conflict resolution (Lane), attitudes for successful culture crossing (Elmer), and reentry into US culture (Elmer), to name just a few. These are all areas of immense importance for any cross-cultural or multicultural work, so you don’t really want to miss any of it.
Allow me to offer a sampling of just a couple points from each author that helped me personally.
- Lane compares culture to an iceberg, which is an image that sticks in the mind and gives the reader good bearings (p. 18). There are “objective” aspects to culture that are visible to the naked eye, and this is like the part of the iceberg that is seen above water. But that is only the “tip of the iceberg” as they say! There are also “subjective” aspects to culture that are less visible, but more foundational and probably more significant. Even if someone comes to the US and becomes “like us” culturally, all that means is that their “objective” culture has shifted. You may be surprised to realize how much their “subjective” culture has remained the same, and recognizing this will help you better relate to them! Take a look at the photo:
- Lane discusses the process of cultural assimilation–what it looks like and how long it takes. This is particularly helpful for domestic workers in multicultural settings, like my current work with Somali refugees in Minnesota. She notes four stages that correspond to generations: The first generation is “total ethnic”, the next is “ethnic-American”, the next is “American-ethnic”, and finally “American” (p. 24). This process takes generations, in other words, and “red blooded Americans” need to be patient with their immigrant neighbors!
- Lane’s discussion of “misattribution” is something everyone needs to read, seriously. She says, “By definition, misattribution is assigning meaning or motive to someone’s behavior based upon one’s own culture or experience” (p. 27, citing Huang and Nieves-Grafals). She notes how we develop our skills and lenses for understanding our cultural surroundings from a young age (age 0 actually!). These lenses help us function in our world, “unless that world is made up of more than one culture” (p. 29). How true! Her book helps us put on different lenses.
- Elmer has a good discussion on “frame of reference” (p. 39ff). “We usually communicate from our own frame of reference”, which can debilitate us when we’re trying to communicate across cultures! He offers 6 principles to understand in order to help us step away from this as much as possible when crossing cultures: 1) We’re all products of a cultural heritage; 2) We assume everyone sees the world how we do; 3) We’re quick to judge on these bases; 4) When we learn instead of assume, we’re more likely to understand others; 5) Withholding judgment is of chief importance; 6) Ask “why?” and you’ll begin to to understand another’s frame of reference.
- Elmer also suggests that there are some aspects of our culture we need to “leave behind” and in turn some aspects of our “host culture” we need to adapt if we want to communicate their worth and our intention to relate to them as equals. He says, “We’re always communicating, verbally and nonverbally” (67), se we need to take great care to send the right message, particularly in another culture! If we “lose” some of our culture but “leave behind” the aroma of Christ, then we’ve gained much more than we’ve lost (p. 69)! Wow…so profoundly important!
- I appreciated Elmer’s “cultural adjustment map”, which speaks for itself (note the upper and lower “tracks”):
Before I conclude, I want to list a handful of smaller quotes from each book that I found particularly compelling.
When we see the differences of others, we may well be seeing more of God. He cannot be contained in or explained from only one cultural perspective (Elmer, 45)
God apparently loves difference; He created so much of it (Elmer, 64)
In much of African, Hispanic and Asian culture, setting a time, place and agenda for an evening together signals that you want a more formal, prescribed relationship, not a friendship. One signals a desire for friendship by stopping by the person’s house, unannounced (Elmer, 100)
Whereas independence is an important value to Americans and Westerners in general, interdependence is the way of most societies of the world (Elmer, 136)
From a cultural perspective, assimilation represents the death of one’s heritage and identity. No matter where people live, they are generally proud of their heritage and cultural background…Forced assimilation can have devastating consequences and history shows it has led to violence (Lane, 23-24)
It is easy to believe that one’s own culture is the best–because it works so well for you it seems impossible to think that it would not be best for everyone. The truth is that all cultures are equal in their ability to work for the people of that culture (Lane, 37)
Acceptance is good but God calls us to do more…Celebration extends beyond accepting and tolerating to embracing and valuing (Lane, 42)
I suppose Lane wrote a slightly better book in terms of clarity and organization, so read her. But Elmer offers wonderful additional insights too, and being the seasoned and respected authority he is, you’d do well to hear him out. So read both! I’ll temper that: If your work is overseas, read both books. If your work is in the USA, you could get by just reading Lane, though you really don’t want to miss some of the things Elmer discusses and Lane does not (such as honor and shame, for instance). I hope this helps if you’ve waffled between the two as I have!
I’ll throw one more in for good measure. I have not read it yet, but it is so highly recommended that it was given to me and is currently waiting for me on the shelf: Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- And Cold- Climate Cultures by Sarah Lanier.
Also, Elmer has written two other highly acclaimed books for cross-cultural workers: Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility (a real winner); and Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry (on my reading list).