Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content
July 23, 2017Missiology

Cultural Self-Awareness: A Missing Element in Intercultural Service?

Professor uses Dr. Seuss as a case study.
Cultural Self-Awareness: A Missing Element in Intercultural Service?

There are a lot of books and articles that help prepare God’s people for working in other cultures. Most of the material provides insights into cultural difference and for understanding how to adapt to, interact with, and share the gospel with those from another culture. The perspective is usually that of understanding the cultural other. In this article, I am turning the reflection back on self and one’s own culture.

For years, a major company promoted its products with the tagline, “Don’t leave home without it.” The goal of the propaganda was to convince the consumer that the best way to deal with money while traveling was by using their products, originally traveler’s checks and then a credit card.

With their products you could go anywhere. I am paraphrasing their tagline to “Culture: You can’t leave home without!” The lesson that I want you to remember is that no matter where you go, your culture goes with you—for good or bad. The goal is to enable you—whether as a short-term or career missionary or as a church member connecting with a different culture at work or across the street—to use culture for good rather than having culture become a barrier in God’s service.

The starting point is to recognize that we all have a culture. One common tendency is to think that others have culture (usually seen as exotic) and we don’t. Another perception is that culture refers to particular aspects of life, usually the arts. I recently drove by a sign for a city’s “cultural district” probably referring to aspects of art, music, museums, and theater. In this mindset, a cultured person is focused on the arts of say NYC, or better yet, London.

The culture I am referring to is something that we all have, and is more in line with what is behind how we react when watching a sporting event and our team has an outstanding play, how we react when the preacher says something profound, how we react when ice cream tastes really good, or even if we think ice cream should taste good.

One’s culture is the background for why we all behave as we do in life’s varied contexts, when we often really aren’t aware of why we act as we do.

I will not offer a definition of culture to memorize, but rather build an understanding of a concept that will be portable enough to take with us whenever and wherever we interact with members of other cultures.

Understanding culture starts with the big picture. It includes the ideals, values, and assumptions that one’s group has modeled for us and that guide our responses in one way or another (Brislin 1993, 4).

Culture is all the info we hold that prompts us in how to manage our environment, guides our responses to life, tells us what to value and like, and informs us how to get along with others. In this sense, culture both presents us with options and limits us as to how we should act in any given context. It is also important to realize that this does not predetermine us to act in a particular way, but does encourage conforming to the prescription, which is why we normally act without awareness of why we respond as we do.

In essence, what we can’t leave home without is our personal way of interacting with our world that is the result of our being part of a particular culture. Our way of living has been molded and shaped by our context and the people around us. This becomes a problem when we leave ‘home’ or interact with culturally different individuals without being aware of this truth and how that formation influences our interactions in other cultures.

In teaching, I am increasingly using case studies to give a context to analyze cultural differences. This enables reflection and analysis on safer ground. For this article let’s use the children’s story “Green Eggs and Ham.” It helps us think through these ideas, is widely known, and is available if you need a refresher.

Why Can’t I Leave Home without My Culture?

The understanding of culture developed above sets the stage for answering the question of why we take our culture with us wherever we go. Life without culture would be chaotic as we would continually have to reinvent how we do things and we would never know what to expect from others with whom we regularly interact.

It is because of the constant unconscious use of our culture that we can’t leave home without it. It is a part of who we are. Leaving home with our culture is not something we think about. It is not like remembering our keys or cellphone. It is just how things are supposed to be.

Culture is what gives us an identity. Because of culture, we have an identity, are accepted by our own group, and have the ability to be understood and to understand others.

Let’s start with the green eggs and ham story. There are two cultures represented—one that eats green eggs and ham and one that doesn’t. So in the story each person has an identity as an eater of green eggs and ham or as a person who does not. Each is a product of his culture and that always goes with him without thought. In reality, thinking about our own culture is really only possible when we encounter a culture that is different, or at least become aware that our way is not the only way. Neither person in the story is thinking about whether the other does or does not eat green eggs and ham; each operates from a cultural given.

In the field of intercultural studies, functioning in our cultural perspective without any awareness of how culture influences us is commonly referred to as being on autopilot. While it may be OK for airplanes, crossing cultures on autopilot may lead to far worse than just bumpy landings.

When we act according to our cultural scripts (how our culture tells us to act), or are surprised by the other’s culture script, we quickly encounter cultural turbulence. Since it is often easiest to see cultural assumptions when looking at another culture, our response can be to see the differences of other cultures as strange or exotic rather than as a reaction to our culture being ‘normal’.

Not having awareness of one’s own culture is more likely to lead to making positive interactions when encountering cultural differences more difficult. It is this lack of awareness that leads Sam to relentlessly offer the cultural other (the non-green eggs and ham eater) his tasty (to him) treat, which leads to countless refusals to “try them” and many mishaps.

A frequent metaphor used to describe how culture influences our responses in intercultural interaction is the idea that we wear ‘cultural lenses.’ Often portrayed as sunglasses, these lenses refer to the “social influences that shape our vision and evaluation of the world around us” (Bucher 2008, 51).

Without awareness of our cultural lenses, we simply respond to others from our cultural perspective and its influence on us. We judge others as if they were wearing our lenses when they are not. Thus, the way they respond to the context is seen as a negative or incorrect response.

When Sam offers the other his perceived delicacy of green eggs and ham, he is immediately met with a negative response: “I do not like green eggs and ham!” This reflects what happens in many cultural encounters. One person holds up a cultural element as good and the other responds negatively without knowing why.

It is only through knowing that you leave home with your culture that you can best develop a proper response to cultural differences and the other’s reactions as they are encountered. Rather than a first response that is negative or judgmental, it is possible to ask questions and learn first before judging.

One additional factor to consider in all intercultural interactions is that the dynamics are reciprocal. Not only do we need to interact from self-awareness and awareness of the other’s differences, but we need to interact from the awareness that the other is also dealing with our culture as different from theirs.

We need to be aware of how the other might respond to us (Smith 2009, 111). What if Sam had taken a less aggressive stance towards offering green eggs and ham? What if he had thought about how the other might respond to the unfamiliar, or that the food offered was unknown?

What Do I Need to Know since I Can’t Leave Home without My Culture?

So how does this idea that I leave home with my culture impact missions and intercultural service? At the very least it means that all who are in missions and intercultural interactions need to function with the awareness that our culture does influence us. Then, we need to move on to learn some of the values and concepts behind our different cultures to facilitate a more positive response to and understanding of the world we enter.

Our starting point is that we always relate and respond to others based on the values, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and assumptions that we carry as a part of our culture (Cornes 2004, 18) unless we have learned other ways to think. Sam demonstrates this tendency perfectly. He just assumes that the other will see his green eggs and ham as good and like them.

For an example of how this might work, it is widely recognized that mainstream “North American culture values self-reliance highly and is on the whole more oriented toward approaching the world as a set of objects that have fixed properties and can be manipulated without strong reference to their context” (Smith 2009, 44).

This leads the average U.S. North American to hold a ‘fix-it’ attitude. Problems are there to be taken care of or ‘fixed’, and are often handled without first asking questions about the bigger context such as: Is the ‘problem’ something that the other wants to have fixed?

Recognizing these types of differences enables us to not assume that our response is universal. We need to learn to modify our behavior in intercultural interactions just as we know how to modify it in diverse situations within our own culture (such as the difference between being at a football game or in church). We are called to become students of our own culture and reflective of how that culture has modeled and shaped us. What if Sam had asked, “Why might others not like green eggs and ham?” or “Why do I want others to try green eggs and ham?” Might the story have gone differently?

What Do I Need to Do since I Can’t Leave Home without My Culture?

Since we can’t leave home without our culture, what can we do about the way that our culture impacts and molds us? What difference does all this make as we become involved in missions and intercultural interactions?

Two things are essential to know. First, we best understand ourselves as we compare ourselves to others. Thus, learning about ourselves best occurs once we are engaged with other cultures. As we identify and find ways to label our cultural influences (there are lots of good sources on the market), we can both understand our identity and develop ways to interact with others along lines of what is similar and different (Plum 2008, 66).

Second, recognizing and accepting cultural differences does not in any way lessen our identity. We are not out to become native. We are who we are, and can accept others for who they are and can become in Christ. Sam clearly lacks awareness that others are not green eggs and ham enthusiasts.

While we cannot become the other, there is a great deal of good that comes from immersing ourselves in other cultures. One recognized potential outcome of immersion in another culture is that of promoting personal dissonance that can lead to inner and spiritual reflection (Smedley 2010, 25).

Learning to immerse ourselves in another culture is not just about imitation and practicing the explicit cultural dynamics that we encounter. Learning to like what the other likes is not the end game. Immersion ultimately enables us to recognize and accept others from their cultural perspective (Kitayama & Duffy 2004, 55-56). We can meet them where they are, rather than them coming to meet us. What if Sam had first asked the other what he eats and really likes? This could have led to a very different interaction.

One concern with immersion and starting with where others are is the extreme form of cultural relativism. Those who hold this position so appreciate other cultures that there is no space to make any evaluative analysis of culture. We have to ask as Bible believers what we do when a culture (even our own) holds values that are different than our own, and more importantly, are not biblically aligned. How do we relate without condemning? How do we take the time to let the Holy Spirit speak to guide those in the culture, rather than us speaking from our cultural perspective?

Let me return to the personal side of intercultural interactions. Learning to deal with the personal transformation that can take place in intercultural interactions is important. We must balance maintaining our own identity and being open to the other. One way to look at this balancing act is accepting that we are neither truly in our own culture nor in the other (Rynkiewich 2011, 208).

This period of uncertainty or liminality goes in negative directions when we are "buffeted by conflicting cultural loyalties and unable to construct a unified identity” (Bennett 1993, 113). Not dealing with the differences well leaves a person without a strong cultural identity and unable to function well in either culture. Liminality becomes a positive when a person uses this state of dissonance to identify with all cultures of the intercultural interaction (Bennett 1993, 113) and results in a multicultural identity.

Increasingly in today’s world, we find ourselves interacting with multiple cultures at the same time, so being multi-culturally adept is good. While Sam was strong in his own identity as a green eggs and ham eater, he had not learned to first ask the other what he likes to eat and then perhaps share some of the other’s food before offering his own. His mono-culturalness was a clear problem.

What Do We Need to Learn as Persons of Faith?

Taking a look at the pilgrimage stories of the people of faith in the Bible we learn something about an approach to cultural interactions that allows us to grow closer to God. Ultimately, characters such as Abraham, Joseph, and Daniel learned to find in God the primary source of their identity. From the basis of a strong identity in God, they then learned in varying degrees to function in other cultures. Daniel, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates that the best way to deal with cultural influences is to have a greater allegiance to God and his kingdom than to our own culture or to the other cultures we encounter.

If we allow intercultural interactions to lead us to a reflective state, then the disorientation that often accompanies cultural interactions can lead to growth. After all, it was the insistence of Sam that finally lead the other to the discovery that green eggs and ham are good. This can be likened to the pilgrimage that Abraham, Joseph, and Daniel encountered. When we let God, through the Holy Spirit, lead us, then we can best learn how to relate to our own and to other cultures (Rah 2010).

Recognizing the encounter with other cultures as a means for spiritual growth allows us to reflect on how our culture has shaped us and make biblically informed decisions about what our values should be. First, however, we must identify what that influence is like and then deal with it from a biblical perspective. The mere fact of an intercultural interaction is not enough to facilitate this response. Interactions can be nothing more than an encounter that entrenches us rather than freeing us to grow. What if the man offered green eggs and ham had first asked himself, “Why don’t I like green eggs and ham?” What difference would it have made to his reactions?

At the same time this is not a call to merge us all into some type of globalized bland monoculture. To embrace the other does not call me to forget my identity. In Paul’s call in Galatians to be neither Jew nor Gentile, we don’t stop being whichever of those we are, we just stop making being either the supreme test of validity for life. Together we are able to leave behind anything of our own culture that gets in the way of an allegiance to God, thus helping lead us to the image of Revelation 7:9, where all peoples are worshipping God together from their differences.

Another biblical image of being one in Christ yet culturally different is the lion and the lamb in God’s kingdom (Isa. 11:6-9). The lion is still a lion but goes against its identity in order to be at peace with the lamb. When we are able to lay aside the supremacy of our cultural identity, then we can let intercultural encounters be peaceable and reflect God’s kingdom (Smedley 1993).

Cultural interaction can then stop being about power and more about mutuality. In mutuality, as we both give and receive, our response to other cultures recognizes that culture is in essence a gift from God and that no culture is in and of itself wrong or sinful, but each is also shaped by the fallen nature of humanity (Rah 2010, 29).

Thus, as we frame our intercultural interactions with the knowledge that we cannot leave home without our culture and that the other is responding from their culture, cultural differences are more manageable. In this practice of cultural differences from the perspective of mutuality, no one is out to eliminate differences, but instead recognizes that we can honor and serve God from any and all cultural perspectives.

Culture is thus not the end game, but rather highlights that God’s word is the foundation for how any culture should function (Kumar 1979, 62). In essence, when our primary identity is in Christ, it really doesn’t matter what our cultural identity is. Together, we can either choose to like or choose to not like green eggs and ham as long as we can do so for God’s glory. The end is that our culture does not become a barrier to our interactions, but intercultural interactions become a means for learning and growing together in God.


  • Bennett, Janet. 1993. “Cultural Marginality: Identity Issues in Intercultural Training.” In Education for Intercultural Experience. Ed. R. Michael Paige, 109-135. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, INC.
  • Brislin, Richard. 1993. Understanding Culture’s Influence on Behavior. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  • Bucher, Richard. 2008. Building Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Nine Megaskills. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson: Prentice Hall.
  • Cornes, Alan. 2004. Culture From the Inside Out: Travel and Meet Yourself. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press
  • Kitayama, Shinobu, and Duffy, Sean. 2004. “Cultural Competence—Tacit, yet Fundamental: Self, Social Relations, and Cognition in the United States and Japan.” In Culture and Competence: Contexts of life success. Eds. Robert Sternberg and Elena Grigorenko, 55-88. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Kumar, S. Ananda. 1979. “Culture and the Old Testament.” In Gospel and Culture: The Papers of a Consultation on the Gospel and Culture. Eds. John Stott and Robert Coote, 47-68. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey library.
  • Plum, Elisabeth. 2008. Cultural Intelligence: The Art of Leading Cultural Complexity. London: Middlesex University Press.
  • Rah, Sung-Chan. 2010. Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
  • Rynkiewich, Michael. 2011. Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books.
  • Smedley, C. T. 2010. “Introduction.” In Transformation at the Edge of the World. Eds. Ronald Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley, 19-30. Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press.

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

More from The Exchange

Christianity Today

Cultural Self-Awareness: A Missing Element in ...