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Your Cultural Adjustment Path

September 30, 2022

Mark Hedinger

Ever heard the phrase, "from here to there?" This saying is a theme of my life.

Maybe you find the same true of your life. You might be aiming to go from a certain financial situation to a better scenario. Maybe you're wanting to move from where you live now to another place. You might be fighting a sickness now and thinking of the days when it will be over.

"From here to there" is also a prominent theme of global workers following the Great Commission. You begin at home with the culture and language that you know innately. You feel called to move "there," where people have different life patterns and ways of speaking. How do you transition from here to where God is leading you?

I see three paths from life "here" in your homeland to life "there" in the place where God has called you. Let's take a look at these.

Path #1 - The Plan To Have No Plan

One way to move from here to there is to go day by day with nothing specific in mind. The "plan" is simply to have no plan.

This is a great strategy for vacation! It doesn't work out so well, however, when attempting to adjust to life in a new place. When no plan is in place, you will default to the life patterns that you know and will make little-to-no progress integrating into the new culture. To have no plan is really to decide to live the same way you always have.

Several decades ago when my family and I arrived in our overseas location, we pretty much had that "laissez-faire" approach to learning our new country. We constantly compared the new place with what we remembered from our home. We would address every new task with the same attitude we had at home. The result of that approach was that we isolated ourselves in our expat community with others from our own background. We understood how to work and live with them, but the rest of the country didn't make sense.

One day I heard myself say, "I will never understand those people." It shocked me to hear those words come out of my mouth! I truly wanted to build relationships. I realized the plan to have no plan wasn't going to work. So I started studying culture and learning more about intercultural communication.

Path #2 - The Plan For Every Detail

A second strategy for moving to a new place is to plan to the extreme. Think about a GPS. It gives you step-by-step instructions for how to get to your destination. In the same way, you might want to study, write notes, and create detailed plans for integrating into a new culture.

You may wish that you had a rule book that described each step of life in a new place. It would explain when to shake hands, when to bow, when and how to eat, how to dress, when to arrive for appointments, what are appropriate topics for conversation, and more. Unfortunately, this kind of guide is impossible.

There are some times when the GPS approach is helpful. If you are going to a new place for two weeks, you won't have time to develop a network of people to coach you. Knowing some of the differences between your culture and another is helpful. But that specific type of training has weaknesses, too. For example, it assumes that all of the people in a given place will have exactly the same patterns of life. In reality, patterns vary greatly depending on your exact community. A GPS guide could tell you how to act in the city, but will mostly be inaccurate in a small town.

Additionally, time plays a huge role in cultural trends. From generation to generation, things can change drastically. A GPS guide will be outdated very quickly. Think about the patterns of conversation or greeting that you see with young people in your own culture. You can be sure that the parents of those young people behave much differently.

The plan for every detail does not address nuance and flexibility. Have you ever seen a cooking show? The professional chefs can adapt and change based on the situation, ingredients, time, and even their own feelings. They splash some of this, throw in some of that, and sometimes will measure when absolutely necessary. They use the recipe as a guide, but are often forced to improvise.

The GPS guide for cultural adaptation guide is like a chef who only follows the recipe exactly, stopping frequently to measure and double check that everything is perfect. This chef would decide to start over if they used even one teaspoon too much of an ingredient. Too often the GPS approach leads to the "no flexiblity" mentality. This is not realistic when dealing with real life and real people. Nuance is built into every person, every situation, every day, every hour, and every minute. Culture is a guideline and flexibility is an important part of adaptation.

As my family made our adjustments to life overseas, we started looking at the plethora of training materials that were specific to the new culture. It helped! Our neighbors were increasingly responsive. We didn't treat the books and lessons as a GPS, but used them to begin to build relationships and relate with the people around us.

Path #3 - The Plan With A Clear Goal And Flexible Details

In his book, Leading Across Cultures, Dr. James Plueddemann uses a word-picture he calls "The Pilgrim Model." The pilgrim knows where he or she wants to go; they have a final destination. They also know that there is no direct path to get there. They will navigate waterfalls, mountains, winter, summer, storms, heat, and more. The destination is set but the journey is undetermined.

Culture learning is a process, not a science. You go in with a clear goal: healthy relationships and ministry interaction with people of a different culture. The path to accomplish that goal is ever-changing. You adapt from one person to another, from one region to another, from one language to another, and from one city to another. You can learn the life patterns of people through a book here, an experience at a market there, a church meeting here, or a sporting event there. You are always learning and adjusting one step at a time as you gain new insights.

Adapting to a new culture depends on the goal you have in mind and your ability to learn as you go. I recently published a book called Culture Learning that explains this "learn as you go" model of cultural adaptation.

My hope for you, wherever you are in culture learning, is that you have the joy of deep friendships and healthy relationships with people whose way of life is very different from yours. I can promise you that you won't get to that joyful outcome by accident or by highly specific, detailed plans. You will arrive at that goal by deliberately interacting and learning from each interaction until you find yourself adjusting to a new way of life. There IS a path from here to there, but it takes focus, flexibility, and faith.

Mark Hedinger, DIS, is Executive Director of CultureBound. Mark and his family spent 12 years living and teaching in Mexico. Since then, he has taught in many international locations and leads culture training programs at CultureBound. With his Spanish language background, he serves in a multicultural church in Portland, Oregon.


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