The challenges of cross-cultural communication

Today I had a talk with one of our workers about a situation that arose yesterday. It was intentional on my part because we were feeling that there was anger/frustration that wasn’t being directed to the right place. I wanted to try and address the issue and see if we could resolve things and move forward. It was just such a reminder of how difficult, how challenging communicating cross-culturally can be. A reminder of how hard it really is.

When we’re communicating in our own culture we don’t realize how many things are ingrained in us about how we interact with others. What type of body language, how certain things get perceived or what meaning they carry, how our tone of voice affects things. There are rules to communication that are intrinsic, and in most cases we are never made aware of them outwardly. That is, until we’re not in our own culture and they slap us in the face.

Haitian culture is deep. Not only is it the culture that is difficult to understand, but also the nuances in language. What a foreigner might hear as an aside type statement a Haitian might hear as a direct threat. There are plays on words. There are things you say and don’t say in certain settings. There are ways of communicating that are taboo because they may be inappropriate or humiliating, simply because of what they might imply. There is so much to learn.

Today as I spent time talking to this employee I was reminded that sometimes what we think is the issue, is really not the issue when you have clashing cultures. I appreciated that we were able to talk person to person and that as we talked the truth and the hurt came out. We cried together and were able to talk about communication and how we all have to make an effort. We talked about how hard it is to bring two very different ways of communicating together so it works. We talked about having grace for each other because even though we’re Christians, we are not perfect. We are all in process and we need to give each other the room to make mistakes, to learn, to ask for forgiveness and to have the time and space to let God do the changing in our hearts.

I think as a missionary there are times where I feel that we’re under judgement on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s judgement from our Haitian counterparts because we make mistakes about how we interact with the culture, or that we try to do things differently because it really might be more effective. Other times it’s judgement from other foreigners who may see small snippets of how we manage the culture issue. They might not have the background to know what we have learned about the culture and the ways to interact, or they pinpoint the errors we do make and make sweeping judgements that those are the things that define us as people. It’s hard. It’s hard to let it roll off, to not let it define us, to remember that God is the one that knows our hearts and our intentions. He knows the mistakes we make, the way those realizations make us feel. He knows the times when we are trying with all our might and know that we are failing miserably. He knows when it might be the other party that is at fault.

If you want a lesson in humility, move cross-culturally. If you want to experience frustration in not only language difficulties but knowing that what you meant was what was understood, move cross-culturally. If you want to have days where all you can do is shrug your shoulders and let out a sigh because nothing makes sense, move cross-culturally. I’ll tell ya, it’ll be an eye opener!


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About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

3 thoughts on “The challenges of cross-cultural communication

  1. what you have shared is so very true! If we have communication snafus in our own native tongue, how much more when we are trying to do it in another language and another culture. May God continue to give you insight and flexibility as you communicate in the Haitian culture – and may all give grace and seek understanding!

  2. Cross cultural awareness training is usually a generic introduction into a culture, country, region or religion. The aim is to equip the trainee with the adequate knowledge to deal comfortably with people from different cultures, avoiding misunderstandings and mistakes.

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