3 Suggestions for Dealing with Frustrating Cultural Differences

I was exercising the other day in my local gym when I noticed a couple of workers huddled by the wall. One, an electrician, was there to work on a wall outlet. He and the other young man, who worked as staff in the gym, struck up a conversation. There was nothing particularly novel about the two men talking, but the interesting part was how the electrician “worked” while engaging the staff member.

All of his tools were in front of him, as was the electrical outlet he was supposed to be working on. However, there must have been some unwritten cultural rule that says when a fellow countryman is talking to you, you cannot work but, instead, must pay complete attention to him. Several times during the next few minutes, the electrician picked up one tool or another to do some work, only to have the gym staff guy start talking. Down went the tools. A couple of minutes later, same process—pick up tools, move towards work assignment, conversation starts, tools down.

I watched it over and over again and could only chuckle, as I have seen a variant of this same scenario countless times during my years overseas. When I finally walked out of the gym that day, the tools were on the ground, the conversation was in full flow, and the outlet was still untouched.

When Cultures Collide

I have lived in various places in North Africa and the Middle East for many years now. Although I now have adjusted to the cultural differences on this side of the pond, it was certainly not so during my earlier years on the field.

First, I come from a building engineering background where a full eight hours, if not more, of hard work is the norm. We in the West generally understand that if we don’t carry our workload, there is someone right behind us ready to replace us. This is often not the case overseas where eight workers are assigned to do a one-person job and often take longer to complete the task. Time is viewed with a different perspective here. If we as outsiders don’t learn to work and participate at their pace, we will set ourselves up for endless frustration—and that is just not worth it. Relationships far outweigh projects getting done on “your” time.

Another way the Lord challenged my cultural conditioning was in my concept of “doing it right.” In one of my first assignments in Africa, I was tasked with leading the construction of a church building. When I arrived at the building site the first day to check out the foundation, I saw there was no rebar in the trenches. Upon my insistence that there absolutely must be steel in the concrete, I was met with great resistance.

The work halted until a couple of days later when the workers showed me a one-hundred-year-old building without a crack in it—or any rebar in the foundation! Lesson learned. Different culture, different practices. Spending time to go with the workers to the site an hour away spoke volumes to them and taught me the value of understanding their culture. They, in turn, appreciated that I was a learner in their culture even though I was the “expert” builder.

“The way I react in tense moments of cultural unfamiliarity is a reflection of the One I came to represent.”

One of the biggest cultural differences I had to overcome is my perception of my host culture’s mentality of “whatever I’m doing is more important than what you need.” I often walk into a government office or a place of business for assistance in this or that. Instead of helping me, the workers typically ignore me for a while so they can continue watching YouTube videos, drinking coffee, or chatting with their friends on their phones. The customer who just walked in their door is seen as an inconvenience as opposed to someone who needs their assistance.

My frustration levels can really escalate fast when I feel my needs are way more important than their pleasure. It’s at times like this when we really have to relinquish these situations to the hands of the Almighty. When I am trying to be an ambassador for Jesus in this country, everything I do and say is on wide-screen display. The way I react during tense moments of cultural unfamiliarity is a reflection of the One I came to represent. It’s important when the people I serve and work alongside see me, they see Christ’s character on display.

Advice for Adjusting to Cultural Differences

By God’s grace, I’ve learned to take these cultural differences in stride because there’s more at stake than timely electrical outlet repairs or my view of good customer service.

Maybe you are preparing for a short-term trip or long-term service to a place like where I serve. Or maybe you’re trying to get to know someone from the Middle East who now lives near you. Here are three suggestions I have for adjusting to their culture so you can thrive and represent Christ well.

  1. Take time to get to know the culture.
    The “being a learner” stage never ends. Continually observe and interact with locals, even when the situation may not feel like fun. They have reasons for why they do what they do. Understanding their rationale will help you digest challenging differences or at least know how to better relate to the people in ways that make potentially tense situations less frustrating.
  2. The Western way isn’t the only way.
    There is no one correct way to do most things. Buildings are built differently, governments operate differently, and people respond differently. If I had continued to insist that they place rebar in their concrete foundations, I would have undermined the locals’ legitimate expertise and imported an air of cultural imperialism into my relationship with them. Neither is good. So, let nationals show you how they do things and why. You may learn something new that will help you fit in with the culture you’re trying to serve. And the odds are pretty good that somewhere down the road they may even ask you how you would do it.
  3. Maybe it’s not about the job after all.
    Just because the electrician didn’t get any work done while I was observing him doesn’t mean that nothing was accomplished. Relationships were being built or renewed, communication was happening, and fellowship between two human beings was obviously being enjoyed. These purposes often define cultures outside the West, so they trump our need to form orderly lines at bus stops or get paperwork filed at a government office. Let’s remember our zeal to “get work done” shouldn’t create obstacles to relationships in which we can share the good news.

Mick Mocha has lived in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East for the past twenty-five years. He enjoys scuba diving, tennis, and sitting in coffee shops with nationals talking about life.