By Duane Elmer, IVP Academic, 2002
A book about connections implies differences, and the word “cross-cultural” in the title creates the impression that this book applies only to individuals traveling to other countries. That is not the case, however, nor is this a “missionaries only” book.
Cross-Cultural Connections discusses diversity in individuals from both sexes, multiple generations, and varied ethnic and national backgrounds, with many examples relevant to business people and other professionals. From different generations of family members, to husbands and wives, to rural versus urban Americans, author Duane Elmer suggests that we all need help to connect across our differences. The book is written for committed and engaged Christians, and emphasizes the importance of good cross-cultural adjustment to represent Christ well wherever we are, whatever we do.
Elmer distills complex and difficult concepts into a highly readable and practical book that explains what it takes to successfully interact and engage in meaningful relationships with people who are not like us. The first broad message for the reader is that diversity is not bad; different does not mean “evil” or “inferior.” The second message is that it is possible to navigate differences in perspective, and, though the process may be uncomfortable or disconcerting at times, it results in highly rewarding benefits in understanding, friendship, and successfully modeling Christ’s acceptance and love. The third message is that those who have gone before can help; an important section of Elmer’s book describes known areas of clashes in perspective, including time, logic, individualism, task-orientation, categorical thinking, status and behavioral control.
The tone of Cross-Cultural Connections is personable, sincere and non-threatening. When Elmer discusses negative or immature responses or behavior in cross-cultural (or other) situations, he speaks from his own personal experience and asks the readers what they can relate to. In this way, he graciously circumvents a number of sticky issues that may get weighted down by defensiveness or emotion, such as judgments and evaluations, cultural relativity, and Scriptural interpretation.
Different is not wrong, Elmer states; we meet difference in all of our relationships. It is how we react to and negotiate points of difference that is important. While Elmer is careful to emphasize that God has clearly communicated what is right and what is wrong, he leads the reader to consider a number of areas where choices of communication or behavior do not violate God’s commands; they are simply different than our own.
It is necessary that the reader agree with Elmer’s assessment before continuing in the book, as this theme occurs again and again. Moreover, it is the basis upon which Elmer builds in order to recommend that those new to a culture suspend judgment until they understand what they are truly seeing – is it something that is wrong, or is it simply different? The importance of this distinction rests with our human tendency to negatively assess whomever or whatever is different than we are. Negative assessments lead to judgmental thoughts, criticisms, resentments, frustrations and anger. Those who desire to be fruitful in a new culture cannot afford to start down the slippery slope of negative thoughts. If we are to truly communicate Christ, Elmer emphasizes, we must be able to remain accepting and open until we understand, discern and are given godly wisdom for helpful action, rather than action that will either be misinterpreted or do harm.
Further, it is possible to cope with, and even enjoy, differences. And how we react to differences directly affects our experience of a new culture, as well as how well we represent Christ. Slight adjustments are a small price to pay for the privilege of representing Christ well. Elmer provides examples such as learning greetings, trying food, or wearing local clothing. The positives outweigh the negatives in making these small, exterior changes. On the other hand, tremendous goodwill and openness to relationships with people from the host culture is the reward. This, in turn, enhances the experience, and makes us effective representatives of Christ.
Elmer’s presentation may be criticized for being overly simplistic and repetitious. The themes of “different is not wrong” and “good relationships make the best witness” occur repeatedly. On the other hand, returning to essential themes creates a cohesive presentation. The discussion questions and opportunities for reflection at the end of each chapter may be used by anyone, even those without a particular culture or country in mind, though readers with a specific destination in mind will receive the most benefit from them.
I highly recommend this book to anyone considering travel to another area of the world, whether for short-term mission work, as an exchange student, to represent a company, or to be a guest speaker. However, as mentioned earlier, anyone dealing with difficulties in relationship caused by differences in perspective will benefit from the generous, insightful presentation. Elmer’s exposition clearly shows us that even within our own culture, we cannot take shared perspectives for granted. It takes intentional thought and practice to nourish and sustain connections, cross-cultural or otherwise.