One of the most humbling aspects of working cross-culturally is working with people from radically different backgrounds, and then inserting oneself into that pool of different mindsets and trying to make sense of it all. Duane Elmer and Richard Lewis have added to the cross-cultural conversation in their books Cross-Cultural Servanthood (2006) and When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures (1996). Both books attempt to explore the intersection between cultures, but while Elmer explores culture through his Christian vocation as a pastor and missionary, Lewis explores culture through his secular vocation as a teacher and businessman. While both authors approach the topic with radically different points-of-view, they do offer consensus on a select few areas, namely the need to separate oneself from the primary culture (home) so as to embrace the secondary culture (foreign), as well as emphasizing that while cultures can be different from each other, at the core cultures consist of people in their most fragile and malleable forms, capable of both corruption and beauty, no matter the culture or country.
While the old adage may be true: “people are just people no matter where they live,” cultures vary primarily because of three functions: history (collective experience), environment (physical surroundings), and language (communicated personalities). Lewis (1996) argues that cultures at their core function from a foundation of myth: “Germans believe in a world governed by Ordnung, where everything and everyone has a place in a grand design calculated to produce maximum efficiency” (Loc 1970). In his exposition of German culture, Lewis claims that this mythical perception of Ordnung permeates each person with the collective experience that is Germany, in the same way that Confucius permeates people from Asia (Loc 2904) and the establishment of the Napoleonic École normale supérieure defines how the French view leadership expectations (Loc 2016). From myths such as the Founding Fathers in the United States, to the old Viking Code in Sweden, to the tales of King Arthur and the Welsh stories of the Mabinogi in the United Kingdom, philosophies and cultural mythology form a very strong bond between people who claim a certain lineage, regardless of blood. Cultures may vary, but all people are flesh and blood and operate from a basic survival mechanism for the need of food, shelter, clothing, and security. Beyond even those four basic needs, people are connected through an even stronger link: their experience as human beings. Elmer (2006): “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendors” (Loc 600). To only accept that people are different and move on is not enough; transformation, regardless of station, is what divides human beings from trees, mountains, and even animals. Elmer argues that true transformation comes from Jesus Christ, but while Christ is the inspiration, servanthood (through Christ) is the only truly cross-cultural attitude can that reach across the divide and transform people (Loc 1476). Cultural concepts of servanthood must be abandoned however, and instead Elmer relates serving to learning, “seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways to support the fabric of the culture” (Loc 1130). Serving others by honoring their ways fosters trust (Loc 947), and as trust operates different in each and every culture (Loc 855), the process for gaining trust must be inductive rather than deductive through experience and an approach of humility rather than superiority.
Intercultural competence is not only a process of education but of immersing oneself into a culture so as to embrace that culture personally. While cultures are different and can only be accessed through a humble attitude of learning, action within a culture must acknowledge the secondary as primary (see first paragraph), as cultures operate not only from a historical and environmental vantage, but also through a linguistic medium. Language is more than a mere collection of sounds, but contains an entirely different philosophical approach to life (Lewis, 1996) and often trains people to act in certain ways by altering personality to fit appropriateness of speech (Loc 2288). Beyond adapting to the personality of the culture however, Elmer (2006) also encourages the art of listening: “You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered” (Loc 1217). These two aspects of language (a sensitivity to spoken personality and listening to learn) constitute the two most immediate needs for intercultural competence, and if trained successfully would solve innumerable issues in cross-cultural work.
The most dangerous pitfall for cross-cultural workers, however, is adopting the mentalities of us versus them, superiority complexes, and stereotypical generalizations. Elmer and Lewis fall prey to all three of these issues in their books. Elmer (2006) struggles with perspectivism, a strategy he believes is helpful where a cross-cultural servant makes “two or three local friends” in order to find a basis to work from (Loc 1359), while Lewis (1996) falls much further into the pit, eradicating his reliability through multiple outlandish statements that were probably written more for satire than education, but come off oafish and insecure (Loc 1749, 2274, 2691, 6326, 9152, 9199). I won’t bother with rehashing his statements, but the selection in the latter sentence are only a few of Lewis’s egregious errors in generalization he happily bounds through the bulk of his otherwise very helpful cultural tome, a trivial selection of far more than I wish to list in this short essay.
Regardless of these trite statements from the two authors, their books are worth reading and studying, as both men acknowledge that the importance of understanding differences in culture are ingrained deeper than just etiquette and restaurant menus, but serve much deeper foundations, from politics (Lewis, Loc 2912), history (Loc 6982), and even differing perceptions of servanthood (Elmer). To cross that boundary between culture, to learn from another culture through the process of serving and transforming the self into a different perspective, is the first step to synergy, Elmer believes (Loc 1033), and synergy is the key to operating at full value when working abroad. Lewis (Loc 2314) believes that an international team can only operate at full power when each member of the team not only is willing to work with one another, but respects one another for who they are at their core. Core beliefs are not something a person can be induced to give up unwillingly, and quite often are so deeply built into the core mindset that awareness of those core beliefs is as foggy as the foreign culture; the goal then, is for the cultural worker to adapt him or herself to the culture they are either operating in or interfacing with, rather than expecting the secondary culture to transform around the primary culture.