(This post comes from Andy Harker, an Emmanuel mission partner working with iServeAfrica in Nairobi, Kenya)
The biggest cultural surprises we’ve had and mistakes we’ve made in Kenya have been around the issue of communication.
In every culture there are some things people are happy to talk about and some things they don’t talk about. Some things are safely in the box marked very private or completely taboo. Other things are ‘out of the box’ – we’re happy to talk about them quite openly. Normally we don’t give much thought to which are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ – it’s just ‘obvious’. Until you meet someone of a different culture and realise that their lists of ‘in’ and ‘out’ are completely different and for them too it’s ‘obvious’.
Which of those subjects are you are very happy to talk about and be asked about? Which are you uncomfortable to talk about or be asked about? Now what if you are communicating with someone from a culture where the lists are the reverse of yours? How do you feel about that?
The danger when I’m confronted with a very different communication culture is the reflexive defensive impulse – “That’s just wrong.” Well maybe. But often it’s just different. At the very least it opens a helpful window into the value system and dynamics of a different culture – perhaps the way in which knowledge is viewed (personal property) or marriage or death – and at the same time opens a window onto my own culture – perhaps the way in which possession and choices are valued and privatised.
A parting challenge: where do we put our ‘religious views’, our ‘faith’, our relationship with Jesus? Is it in the box or out of the box? I’m very challenged by our Kenyan brothers and sisters on this one.