4 Common Cultural Differences

Every society has its own way of doing things that are common to all. However, when an outsider steps into that society, things are not familiar at all. While it is impossible for us to discuss all the various and differing nuances of a culture, we will look at four areas that affect missionaries almost immediately when they set foot on their field of service. Interestingly enough, these are very closely intertwined.

Task-oriented or People-oriented

The way people interact or relate with each other varies widely within cultures. We as Americans pride ourselves on our individual accomplishments. We are very much task-oriented, with the purpose of reaching a specific goal. Because of this we oftentimes have a tendency to run over people as we strive to finish our task. However, a large number of cultures are more relationship-oriented, and being with people and interacting with them is seen to have more importance than a task to be finished. When this is the case, the missionary must adapt and develop those close relationships if he or she is going to be able to share the gospel.

View of Time

Another aspect of culture that many missionaries struggle with is a society’s view of time. We are very time-sensitive and accustomed to deadlines and being in certain places—on time. Again, in many cultures, being bound by a clock is not important. Because they value relationships and people so highly, if a person is in need or has just stopped by to visit, that would take precedence over being at a meeting on time. When they do arrive, and because they value relationships, they will take the time to greet each person present—even if the meeting has already begun.

Directness of Language

A third aspect of culture is the manner in which people communicate with one another. We Americans pretty much tell it as it is! If a boss is displeased with an employee’s work, he does not hesitate to tell him or her so. However, in many cultures where the maintaining of relationships is important, a more indirect language is used to exhort or correct one another. Oftentimes, an intermediary is sought to help resolve the issue. Many a missionary has made the mistake of confronting a national, which in the end has caused both to “lose face.”


The final aspect we will note has to do with food and meals. We often look at food as a means of sustenance and grab it while on the go. In many countries this is a time when family and friends gather and each has opportunity to share. Again, we see the importance of relationships. The sharing of food with others is a way of showing kindness and respect. To refuse such an offer can do irreparable harm.

A failure to recognize these nuances of culture can cause both the missionary and the message to be rejected. Remember Paul’s words, “I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some.”

Thank you to Steve Fulks who gave me permission to use this partial article on Culture Shock which featured in the November 2011 edition of Baptist Mid Missions student paper Vision.

What experiences have you had that demonstrates one of these cultural differences?