Cultural Differences: How to improve intercultural relationships and our shared identity as children of Christ

Cultural differences and its consequences:

In this blog post we will talk about cultural differences and how we can raise our own awareness of our own culture and the culture of others in order to strengthen relationships and reduce conflict.

There are many definitions of culture but simply put culture is defined as a set of shared meanings on the way people see and do things, including a set of practices, traditions, customs, rituals, beliefs, values and rules for life.

A lot of the problems we see today involve cultural differences. When people are faced with cultural differences, it can cause conflict and disagreement rooted in unconscious bias where we are preferential to people who are more similar to us.

It can lead to discrimination or racism, as well as a sense of “in-group” and “out- group” or “us versus them” mentality. It can also lead to social isolation and segregation where people start feeling marginalized and “different” in the society they live in. It can lead to targeted hateful acts and violence. On a societal level, it can also lead to war.

The Culture Cycle:

Hamedani & Markus (2019)

Culture is interactive and recursive and is based on the ideas, institutions, and interactions that guide and reflect a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. People’s thoughts, feelings, mindsets, biases, and behaviors are shaped by the interactions we have with people and the cultural artifacts in their daily lives. A cultural artifact are the symbols and objects that are created as a result of culture (i.e: the type of utensils used to eat food vary from country to country). How we interact with those artifacts and the people also shape the customs and rituals that are developed. On a macro perspective we can see that the government laws, policies, educational systems, and the media are all influenced by the interactions that individuals have and the cultural artifacts, norms, and practices that come from that.

Culture can be shaped at the “idea” level, meaning the beliefs, values, and moral codes that have been shaped through history about what is right, good, powerful, and natural. Oftentimes these ideas are unseen. These are established and developed through history and become ingrained in a culture. How individuals interact with and ascribe to these ingrained ideas will influence their interactions with others on a personal level, but also shape societal and cultural norms, which then goes on to influence on a macro level social policies and laws enacted by the government. In other words, culture is king.

Visible and invisible aspects of culture:

There are visible aspects of culture, as well as the invisible aspects of culture.

Some visible aspects include languages, food, music, clothing, ceremonies, holidays, objects – things that we see and often form ideas, biases, judgments, or assumptions about. This is only one aspect of culture however, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg.

Invisible aspects include the values, philosophies, beliefs, norms, unspoken taboos and behaviors that one only learns after growing up and spending a significant amount of time within that culture.

Often a mistake that we make is that we form general assumptions and treat others simply based on what we see from just the tip of the iceberg – the visible parts of the culture. We need to make a better effort to understand the deeper, invisible aspects of culture to increase intercultural understanding and minimize stereotyping and misunderstandings.

How to develop intercultural awareness:
How can we develop intercultural awareness so that we can minimize conflict and strengthen relationships with those different from us? There are some strategies and ways of thinking I would recommend:

  • Admit that you don’t know everything: Not knowing everything about another person’s culture is completely okay. Acknowledging your ignorance is the first step towards learning about different cultures and opening up new worlds.
  • Increase knowledge of your own culture: Try and understand the characteristics that define your own culture. Ask yourself: what are your country’s general attitudes towards important topics such as gender roles, familial expectations, child rearing practices? What is the working culture in your own country like? What is your country’s attitude towards modesty? What aspects of your own culture do you like and dislike?
  • Take an interest and start asking questions: Try to get a better understanding of other countries and their cultures and begin to note both similarities and differences. If you know others who come from another culture, ask them neutral questions about their culture to get more information.
  • Don’t make judgments and have empathy: When you take an interest and start collecting information about another culture, avoid making judgments about the culture. Try to find connections and similarities as well as have an empathetic approach and try to see yourself in the other person’s shoes living in that culture.
  • Systematically review your assumptions: Are the beliefs you currently hold simply stereotypes? Are they true or untrue? Try to ask colleagues and friends who are from that culture or know more about that culture if you need clarification.

In the beginning of this post, we talked about how cultural differences can lead to conflict. However, on the flip side, celebrating cultural differences and endeavoring to strengthen intercultural awareness can lead to many positive changes and aspects to your relationships including celebrating new customs and traditions, more diverse and innovative teams, healthier and more inclusive workplaces, greater understanding of the world, and development of empathy and reliability.

Cultural differences through the gospel lens:
Cultural differences can be a catalyst for dynamic growth and synergistic relationships that further the Kingdom of God. Satan has used cultural differences throughout the ages to bring about war, break down families and hurt
the body of Christ, while God has used cultural differences to teach us the mystery of gospel and raise disciples in all nations.

The gospel-centered understanding we should have about culture: God’s original intention for humankind’s creation was to enjoy a relationship with Him that honors Him. It is supposed to glorify God. Humankind’s identity is inextricably linked to God. However after the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, our identity as humans is now twisted and the image of God inside of us has been distorted. Our priority for living is no longer God but is set to ourselves and our group.

The Biblical start of diversity, language, and different cultures can be traced back to Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel when God confused the language of Babylonians and the people scattered to disparate parts of the Earth. Even today in this present moment in time, it is impossible to understand deeply every culture and language – even if you are a cultural researcher like Geert Hofstede.

However, through Christ our identity can be completely changed. We find our sense of self back with God, our Creator and have been given new life. We still have our new body, cultural background, scars, personality; but in Christ, we have a new purpose. We are no longer living for ourselves, our families or our chosen communities, but for the glory of God – first and foremost.

Knowing this, how can cultural differences be a way to honor God? First, through conflict and pain (which is inevitable in our current times) we see the reality of our fallen state. The conflicts allow us to see our sin before God, not just from shame from the community. It is important to see the cultural underpinning of our conflicts but to always see the spiritual aspect as well. There can be no true peace and reconciliation without coming back to a relationship with God first. Therefore, Christ is our true mediator with God, and also the mediator with human relationships. Secondly, when we are genuinely hurt by cultural conflict, we are forced to stand before God again – not as victims as other people’s insensitivity or attacks, but as recipients of God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness. He has forgiven all our sins and transgressions. Perhaps God is pushing us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Gospel which gives us the power to forgive and transcend cultural boundaries. Perhaps instead of taking it personally, feeling bitter, and then judging people right back, perhaps we should take a step back and see more factors that are involved and have positive intent. Try to understand the deeper motives and have compassion instead of resentment and hatred. Our personal experiences can help us be more empathetic and understanding for those undergoing similar conflicts.

We are licensed psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and psychotherapists that believe in integrating the Gospel message into mental health treatment and counseling, as well as reducing the stigma and prevalence of mental health disorders. Contact us now to learn more about treatments, or just to receive a brief consultation about the need for treatment.

Found this post useful? Please consider donating to Oak Health Foundation, which is a 501(3)c nonprofit dedicated to providing resources regarding holistic mental healthcare and subsidized treatment for those in need.

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