Culture has been likened to an iceberg with some of it visible, above the surface, but much of it invisible, below the surface. The visible aspects of culture include arts, literature, music, drama and also things like how to behave, what is acceptable to eat and how to eat, how to greet people, how to celebrate and standards of dress in different contexts.
These visible things are all influenced by what is below the surface – our values, beliefs and assumptions. For example, in Australia we believe that having personal space is important. When standing next to someone and talking to them, we try to keep a little distance between us. In other societies, personal space isn’t important and it’s fine to stand close to people.
What can go wrong if you aren’t aware of cross-cultural differences?
• People are offended by your behaviour and not prepared to listen to what you have to say.
• People listen but think all Christians are insensitive or rude because your behaviour was inappropriate.
• Your behaviour can distort the message and Christianity itself.
• You are thrown in jail for doing something illegal.
Therefore, when relating to people of other cultures it is important to learn about their culture and how to relate in culturally appropriate ways. This applies in Australia as well as when in another country. For example, I once heard some women talking about trying to share the gospel with ladies from a culture where dress is conservative. They hadn’t paid too much attention to how they dressed because they were in Australia. However, a colleague pointed out that the ladies they were talking to would probably dismiss their message if they considered their clothing inappropriate.