How to Prepare to Cross Cultural Boundaries

Most of us remember an experience that made a trip to another country memorable. Often it is some aspect of the new culture we had not yet learned: for example, greeting our foreign host, perhaps being unable to speak the new language, or feeling unsure how to respond properly to the invitation to join the family for dinner.

To be an effective missionary we must understand how culture influences every one of us and learn to be sensitive to the ways of our host culture.

What Is “Culture?”

What do you think of when you hear the word “culture?” In everyday language we sometimes use the term “culture” to refer to the behavior of the rich and educated elite.

They are cultured because they know how to eat with the proper spoon and fork at a banquet, they know how to dress properly, and they listen to classical music.

In the context of studying people, anthropologists have broadened the term “culture” to refer to the way a society lives and thinks.

A Model of Culture

Culture affects all dimensions of our life. To help us think about the different dimensions of culture we will use a simplified model of three circles which are like the layers of an onion.

We will see how each layer becomes less conscious but is an extremely important foundation to what is more obvious on the outside.

  • The outer layer: visible behavior, products, and institutions
  • The invisible layer: worldview
  • The deeper layer: values, beliefs, ideas, and feelings

The Visible Layer: Behavior, Products, and Institutions

What is the first thing we notice in another culture? It is people’s behavior. People eat, greet each other, sleep, walk, read, and work. We may also observe that there are patterns of behavior. People greet each other in a certain way. All these behavior patterns are learned rather than biologically determined. The products of a people and the institutions of a nation are also part of that outer layer.


  • In America people shake hands.
  • In Mexico and France people embrace.
  • In India people may put their hands together and raise them to-ward their forehead with a slight bow of the head, allowing them to greet many others with a single motion.

The Deeper Layer: Values, Beliefs, Ideas, and Feelings

How can these differences in behavior be explained? They are determined by the values, ideas, and beliefs a society holds about life, the world, and people.

These ideas could be likened to inner mental maps that guide people’s behavior and actions. Without understanding these more implicit dimensions of culture, many behaviors remain a mystery to the newcomer.


  • The Indian way of greeting is important in a society where the touch of an untouchable defiles a high-caste person and forces him to take a purification bath.
  • Muslims eat only after sundown during Ramadan, the month of religious fasting.

The Level of Assumptions: Worldview

At the deepest level cultures provide answers about what is real. These answers help people form their views about the questions of meaning and origin, what causes sickness and death. Cultures are not a random accumulation of ideas, behavior patterns, and values, but systems integrated around fundamental assumptions about reality and life.

Each aspect of culture is inseparably linked with other patterns. Even though there are always “loose ends,” inconsistencies, and constant change, cultures function wholistically.

How We Learn Culture

To summarize, we can define culture as “the more or less integrated systems of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people” (Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 30).

But you may ask, “If worldview and culture have shaped us so fundamentally, how did we learn culture in the first place?”

Most aspects of culture we learn in early childhood before we know how to reason. We learn everyday things like how to greet; how to dress; what, when, and how to eat; when to go to bed; how to say “no” politely; and how to relate to strangers, friends, and people in authority.

Our concepts of family, friendship, relationships, property, privacy, time, and space are developed through parental training and reinforced through social interaction. Rules of proper behavior are reinforced through sanctions.

Additional skills we learn in connection with schooling and career training. All these ideas and skills help us to make sense out of life and solve daily problems.

In the end we feel that life is “normal” as long as we can integrate what we learn into our cultural frameworks of understanding.

What about you?

Have you ever gone to a new place where you were not known? Do you remember what it felt like?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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