One of the things that working with people from many different cultures has taught me is that compliments, criticism, critique, encouragement, insults and so much more are all culturally bound. There are so many times I hear words and have them strike me wrong. Then I am then left with the choice of what I hear from those words, the intended meaning or way they came across to me.
When visiting a village recently and greeting some people one of them tried to compliment me.
“The other day I saw you and hardly recognized you as you have put on some weight. You have put on at least 15 pounds and it makes you glow.”
My weight is the same as the last time this individual saw me. So it was not about what he saw but more an attempt to compliment me. So then the question is how do I respond… with the truth, “I haven’t put on weight”, with a laugh “you shouldn’t compliment an American in such a way”, or with gratitude, “thank you”? I share this one as it is probably one of the most obvious examples of intent and perceived meaning. However the truth is this happens all the time even within our home culture as people differ drastically in the way they communicate. Just look at a married couple or brothers and sisters. Working with another culture has just helped me see that the meaning and intent are so much deeper than the words we use to express them. The problem is there and ever present as we work with people. How often do I let myself get torn down or frustrate by what I hear from people’s words rather than the intended meaning behind their words. Honestly I find myself wrestling with this a lot. James says everyone should be “Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” How much disunity, strife and conflict was started by simply not living this truth out? Yet in reality living that truth out is practically impossible without a heart that is leaning on the Holy Spirit. As we travel around, I am learning how important team unity is and how impossible it seems at times as everyone we talk to struggles with this area of ministry. So I guess I return to the simple truth of how dependent we need to be on the Lord. We are too selfish at heart so unless we lean on the Lord we will not be able to live and work in unity with other believers. This is a truth that I have been wrestling with recently as I have realized how hard it is to hear people’s hearts and not their words and how hard it is to strive for unity.