Stepping Out and Fitting in Around the World


Duane Elmer

InterVarsity Press, 2002, 215 pp. 


ElmCros 02-12-139

Duane Elmer has taught and conducted reconciliation efforts in a number of countries.  He is a professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the author of Cross-Cultural Conflict.  This book is a helpful introduction to developing cross-cultural skills.  The stories most effectively demonstrate the issues.

Elmer uses the story of the well-intentioned monkey who “rescues” an obviously struggling fish to establish the importance of understanding another’s culture.  “In my opinion, most of us do not set out to be ugly Americans as we enter another culture.  We simply do what comes naturally to us, not realizing how we may be tearing the fabric of the local culture and inadvertently stomping on local values.  So most of our problem grows out of being naïve and well motivated but uninformed…like the monkey.”  (203)

We have clear categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and we tend to categorize things like me as ‘right,’ and things unlike me as ‘wrong.’  “The issue in crossing cultures is the tendency to judge cultural differences as wrong and to do so with little thought or understanding.”  (25)  It may be a life-long struggle to know where the lines are. (26)  Many of our convictions about what is right, wrong, or different are culturally based. (28)

“Entering another culture is about encountering differences, every day, all day.  How you handle them determines your level of comfort, ability to function, level of satisfaction and degree to which God can use you.”  (29)

We tend to make quick and subconscious judgments that something is wrong. We reject it without learning from the culture.  (29)

“One expression of wisdom is knowing more and more how to interpret and respond to life’s experiences.” (31)  “Maturity is knowing more and more what is worth fighting for and what is not worth fighting for.”  (32)

“All ministry, whether it is digging ditches or closing a business deal, is for and with people, so ultimately work/ministry is relational.” (36)

“You communicate all the time, but most of it is without words—nonverbal communication.  People read you all the time.” (36)

Principles for dealing with a different frame of reference:

1.     We all see the world through the experience of our cultural heritage.

2.     We tend to think everyone else sees it the same way and when people’s responses don’t meet our expectations we are confused.

3.     We judge quickly and negatively about others.

4.     When we learn about their cultural heritage we are better able to understand and accept them.

5.     Withholding judgment allows us to stay open-minded in order to learn.

6.     Asking questions can help us understand their heritage and response and communicate more effectively.  (39-40)

Ch. 5. Culture Shock

Culture shock often inclines us to withdraw.

“The more we retreat from the culture and the people
the less we learn about them;
the less we know about them,

the more uncomfortable we feel among them;
the more uncomfortable we feel among them,
the more inclined we are to withdraw.”
   Craig Storti  (43)

“Lost!  That is the feeling of culture shock.”  (44)

“Culture shock is when you experience frustration from not knowing the rules or having the skills for adjusting to a new culture.” (44)

“Culture shock is the disorientation we experience when all the cultural maps and guidelines we learned as children no longer work.”  (44)

“We can handle one or two differences, but it is when the differences collectively descend upon us that we have difficulty coping.”  (48)

“We are tempted to employ our own tactics to put distance between us and the things that confuse or frustrate us in the new culture.  Such behaviors send loud negative signals….”  (51)

Ch. 6.  Identifying Expectations

We are usually not aware of our expectations but every disappointment is a result of an unfulfilled expectation.  Unfulfilled expectations can be devastating!  How can we identify these hidden expectations and cope with the unexpected?  Elmer provides a list of life categories for us to explore and write down “my expectations,” and most likely “reality.”  The wider the gap, the more difficult your experience.  (54-57)

Because we think of ourselves as normal, we tend to judge everything against us, “the norm.”  Our negative judgments may be shouting, “That’s not like me, therefore it is inferior, wrong and unacceptable!”  (59)

To deal with violated expectations, stop; suspend judgment; ask why.  This can lead to fascinating and wonderful discoveries.  (60-62)

Ch. 8. Cultural Adjustment Map

There are two basic tracks for encountering another culture.  The upper track begins with openness, acceptance, and trust.  It processes the inevitable frustration, confusion, tension and embarrassment by observing, listening and inquiring, which results in rapport and understanding.  The lower track approaches with fear, suspicion and inflexibility and interprets the frustration via criticism, rationalizing, and withdrawing, which ends in alienation and isolation.  (72)

Although equality has a high value in North America, we believe our country is superior.  It shows.  “Many Americans are outspoken, task oriented, goal driven, decisive and assertive.  Many believe these qualities made America great, and promote and reward them.  However, in most Two-Thirds World countries, those qualities are not valued so highly.”  (79)

Ch 9-11. Openness, Acceptance, Trust

“Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and help them feel safe.”  (87) Openness, acceptance and trust are expressed differently in different parts of the world.  Eye contact communicates openness in most Western cultures, but it communicates arrogance or insolence in other cultures, even sexual overtones, particularly for young people (or woman) to look an older person (or man) in the eye. (88)

“Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, regard, worth and respect to others.  It is the ability to make people feel significant, honored and esteemed.”  It is proactive and intentional.  (94)

“The power of acceptance may be seen more clearly by looking at the opposite: rejection.  Rejection ranks among the most painful words in the human vocabulary.”  (96)

“People will take you seriously only if they trust you.”  (98) Trust is built differently in different cultures and among different individuals.  (101) Trust is built in slow, progressive steps.  It takes time, and if it has been violated it takes more time.  (104)

Ch. 12 Skills for Cross-Cultural Effectiveness

Adjusting is a process that takes time.  Monitor your emotions.  Ask what you are feeling.  Name the emotion.  Ask what is causing the negative emotion.  Consider your options for dealing with it.  Choose the best.  “The bottom line is to figure out what is happening and turn it into a positive learning experience.”  (108)

If your system gets overloaded, take a “strategic withdrawal,” like counting to ten to cool off.  Laugh at yourself.  Humor relieves tension.  But remember that humor rarely translates well across cultures.  (110-12)

Section 4.  Cultural Differences that Confuse

Ch. 13-20.  Time vs. Event, Task vs. Relationship, Individual vs. the Group, Categorical vs. Holistic Thinking, Linear vs. Curved Logic, Achieved vs. Ascribed Status, Guilt vs. Shame, Low Worship vs. High Worship

“The person with the servant heart will try to discern where the other person is on these cultural differences and enter into that frame of reference as a basis for building relationships.”  (118)

“People are more important than projects; relationships are a higher value than the task.  Christ died for people not buildings.”  (126)

“For the majority of the world, it is relationships that determine whether or not there will be a business deal.”  (130)

“Individualism may be giving way to an emerging value of community building due to the postmodern influence on North Americans under thirty years of age.”  (135)

Americans tend to think in two dimensions, black and white, right and wrong, in the box or out.  We look at time lines.  Much of the world sees life as unfolding, in layers, in relation to the whole.  (143)

“My own witness as a Westerner is quite categorical.  I rely on words.  Witness is a verbal activity for many of us.  Yet perhaps the majority of the world looks at our lives as the primary witness.  I wonder, do the people watching us get the distinct sense that we are followers of Christ?”  (145)

For many, the category of “ours” is much stronger than “mine” or “yours.”  (146)

In the story of the Good Samaritan there were three philosophies displayed: (147)

·   The robbers: what is yours is mine if I can take it.

·   Priest and Levite: What is mine is mine, and I have a right to keep it.

·   Samaritan: What is mine is yours if you have need of it.

Linear logic is efficient, direct and precise.  But others think differently.  They may peel off layers or spiral in to the main issue.  This kind of logic allows indirect communication that protects people and avoids causing shame.  (150-3)

”Christians need to keep the status issue in mind as they conduct their affairs regardless of their vocation.  To ignore it is to discredit yourself and jeopardize your purpose in being there.”  (163)

Experts think of societies as guilt based or shame based.  Shame comes from outside pressure to conform.  Guilt is an internalized sense of wrong.  (170-2)

“In shame-based societies, the critical factor is not to bring shame upon oneself, upon one’s family, one’s tribe or even one’s country.”  (173)

Shame, face and honor are powerful words in much of the Two-Thirds World…” (174)

You worship God with your head.  We worship God with our whole being.”  Zimbabwean Pastor (182)

“Not everyone approaches God the same way.  We do it in a way that allows us to most meaningfully express our adoration and devotion.”  (183)

Ch. 21.  Re-Entry

In addition to reverse culture shock and re-entry issues, the author provides a very helpful list of symptoms to expect after various time intervals spent away from the home culture, from a week to much of a lifetime. 


The Appendix lists a number of debriefing questions to help summarize and interpret our experience in another culture.