On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I undertook a course at the United Theological College entitled Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry. Effectively, it was a three-day course on the basics of how to lead a congregation through change. It is actually part 1 of a three-part process to become an accredited Intentional Interim Minister, which is a speciality of ministers focusing on short-term placements in congregations going through significant change or trauma. This is not necessarily where I see my call, but this first course was deeply inspiring and educational. After all, isn’t all ministry transitional ministry these days?!

One of the things we talked about was the concept of the Cultural Iceberg, introduced by Edward T Hall in 1976. Culture can be defined as a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations and norms for behaviour that we learn as we grow up. Hall suggested that culture is similar to an iceberg, where only 10% is visible above the waterline. Surface culture like behaviours, traditions, customs, food, dress and so on are easily seen, and it can be easy to make assumptions or develop ideas about another cultural community without really understanding what else there is. But there is much deeper, internal culture at play – things like core values, attitudes, beliefs, priorities, and other things difficult to observe.

West Epping Uniting Church exists within a multi-cultural community, and most of the people we engage with through our missional activities (mainly music, Playgroup, ESL) are from non-Anglo cultural backgrounds – even those who were born in Australia to migrant parents, like myself. Once people from two different cultures come together, anxiety is raised around understanding cultural differences.

Here are some ideas for how to go beyond superficial niceties with people from other cultures that we engage with:

  • Be aware of different communication styles: in some cultures, looking someone in the eye is considered rude, as is standing face to face with someone.
  • There may be differing social values and status symbols: our culture is more egalitarian than hierarchical, but in power-based, hierarchical cultures, there are degrees of superiority to be recognised.
  • Not all cultures are accustomed to making decisions quickly and efficiently.
  • Not all people see time as money or as a commodity.
  • Be aware of silences, body language and personal space: people from different cultures have different “comfort zones”; learn the differences in the ways people supplement their words with body language.
  • Some cultures rely far less on verbal communication and more on the context of non-verbal actions and environmental settings to convey meaning, while for others, what they say is what they mean.
  • What is polite in one culture may be considered rude in another; watch and learn.
  • For some cultures, “corruption” is a way of life, and those who are used to it are often suspicious of those who don’t practice it, so cannot understand what you are “getting out of it” and assume there must be a hidden agenda to your question or generosity.
  • Be aware of language barriers; even if you both speak English, you may not both speak Australian English.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to understanding and transcending cultural differences. Still, in order to engage even better with our mission field, and treat the “other” with love and not charity, this work is necessary. And remember, when in doubt, just ask!