Learning the Rules

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.