Just Different? Right, Wrong, and Flexibility in Crossing Cultures

Reading Time: 6 minutes

photo credit: IMB.org

I don’t even remember who said it to me.

But I remember, as we sat in my African living room, their sentiment as we discussed culture questions floating on the top of our minds.

“It’s not wrong. It’s just different,” he repeated over and over.


This is probably not a bad default position, particularly for those of use who have very defined ideas of right and wrong (enneagram 1’s or one-wings, or C’s on the DiSC profile, this might be you).

If you read our please-don’t-miss-this three-part series on cross-cultural basics, you realize that what our own cultures perceive as definitively wrong or rude varies largely because of the cultural values lying beneath them. 

In a shame/honor culture (many Eastern and African cultures), valuing one’s superior would necessitate what a guilt culture would call “lying.” But in the Eastern culture, it’s not seen as lying at all.

In fact, the truth might be be communicated clearly to the rest of the Easterners in the room.

It’s like a Westerner saying, “Yeah, right.” We aren’t saying we agree. In fact, with our tone, we’re communicating with crystal clarity to all Westerners in the room who understand sarcasm.

We’re all making ethical choices daily, placing one value above another.

A Westerner might cut short a phone call so he or she isn’t late to her next appointment. An Easterner might place priority on the relationship before them right in that moment, because it would be rude to do otherwise.

crossing cultures different sikh

photo credit: IMB.org


There are wrong things in my own culture that are easier to discern at a remove. Because there are values affected by sin in my culture. (…Most of them, in fact.)

When I returned to my passport country, I was a deer in the headlights. I looked at the ways that consumerism became our salvation and the ways to solve all problems. I was amazed at our cultural self-centeredness and arrogance, our appearance-drivenness, our isolation. I saw our enthrallment with achievement and being special, at the risk of our souls and our kids’.

In African culture, there were also clear wrongs to me: Manipulation. Avoiding acceptance of fault in order to avoid shame. Greed, which just wore different clothing among the poor than it did in my own rich country. An acceptance of laziness appeared in some, coupled with corruption; an obsession with power.

Both cultures had logical reasons these cycles continued.

For example, when I considered my host culture’s laziness, I had to admit I could be the teacher reading the newspaper in class instead of teaching.

That is, if my classroom size was capped at 200 and I might not ever get paid.

I could see myself being the grocery-store employee sleeping on a crate in the aisle if, along with the maybe-or-maybe-not paycheck, I slept on the ground in a noisy, dangerous neighborhood. If I’d served as a night guard as my second job while attending classes to make sure I had a better shot at a better job.

I could see myself growing discouraged with hard work if, from the government on down, corruption made a person able to feed their family far mocore than an honest day’s work.

And in my own culture, I find myself making decisions about, say, hospitality.

In Africa, it made no difference if I served dinner from a chipped bowl and poured from a cracking plastic jug. My kids ran around with holes in their pants and faded or stained shirts, and we were some of the better dressed.

In America, these same decisions signal I’m letting the details slide, and/or not taking care of my kids. I communicate subtly that I might not be trustworthy to watch the details in my job or with a project at church. I don’t look classy and reliable and welcoming. I look rough around the edges.

Right and Wrong are Wider than YOU Think

Nearly every global worker I know, in their first year overseas, develops a wider view of right and wrong. 

We understand that what we thought to be absolute essentials become…less so.

Polygamy, for example, is rightly appalling to Westerners. But it’s actually one of the lesser values in the Bible; David, Solomon, Abraham, and Job were polygamists.

For us to ask an African man to divorce one of his wives would create more harm in his family than good.

And let’s take your host country’s side of things. My daughter was told in African Sunday School that to fail to greet someone was a sin.

And in Ugandan culture? It likely is a sin, because greeting is such an integral part of culture.

It would be highly disrespectful to not engage with someone. Though my daughter’s conscience wouldn’t be violated, someone else would be offended.

Dwelling in the Gray

First Corinthians 8 speaks of food sacrificed to idols, a quintessential gray area in the historical church. Paul talks about not only honoring our own consciences, but also the consciences of others–not causing them to stumble and betray their own consciences.

I keep this in mind as I grapple with areas of morality where some of us may fall on both sides of the spectrum.

How can I not only honor my own convictions, but help others to honor theirs? “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).

A sheepish personal example

I’m not the type to have househelp in America. I have a dishwasher, a washing machine, a dryer, a microwave, and babysitters at the ready, who can be aided by reliable first responders in an emergency.

Overseas, everything took three more steps. I was surviving, let alone having any capacity for the work I’d come over to do.

I was also told that since I had the capability to give someone a job, I was told it was a little tacky if I didn’t.

Having househelp would give me a chance to disciple someone on a near-daily basis, and grant me a cultural liason for all the things I didn’t understand. It immersed my children further into African culture. (See our post on  “How Rich Should I Live?” Navigating Dilemmas of Wealth Overseas.)

So I decided to take the plunge. My organization let me “try out” two young women as househelp. I’m ashamed to admit I was initially making judgments about a young, unmarried mom.

I had no way of understanding that probably 90% of the women I would meet were single parents. Legal weddings were frightfully expensive, to the point of becoming an elitist privilege. Many uneducated women would bear a child in order to persuade a man to support them, so they didn’t starve.

Maybe you’re picking up on the idea that I did.

It’s complicated. 


photo credit: IMB.org

Don’t check your conscience at the door.

But at the same time, all that we hold to be clear rights and wrongs in our culture are on their own spectrum–and overseas, those same rights and wrongs are on a spectrum, as well.

It takes time to understand the depth behind what used to be clear.

A few tips.

Ask questions, even if you feel this one’s a no-brainer.

Part of not “hurting” others in our attempts to help overseas is to consult with a number of locals, expats, and locals who get expats and aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. (A must-read: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.)

David’s got a great example in his post, My Story: The Language of Shoe-Scuffing.

Do your homework on your host culture.

Read (and highlight) classics like

(I’m excited to read The Culture Map, but haven’t yet.)

Be honest with other expats about the ways you bite it. And don’t let your mistakes keep you from jumping in.

Don’t let your fear of blowing it keep you from loving well.

Because to be honest, one of the only ways you’ll learn how things work is to actually interact and start to welcome people into your life. David addresses this brilliantly in 8 Ways to Help your Family Flourish Overseas!

Rather than black and white, pick out the pixels.

Imagine looking through a magnifying glass at a black-and-white magazine photo. What looks like a “black” portion may actually be full of pixels black, gray, and white.

We have to look more closely to scrupulously sort the black from the gray and the white.

An Asian culture’s honor of elders has a great deal to teach Western culture. But worshipping ancestors is clearly idolatry. How can we honor the former, and yet never condone the latter?


We need your stories.
Swapping our “aha!” moments is part of how we understand other cultures.
Would you consider commenting below?
Or better yet, writing your story as a post?

Like this post? You might like

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

The Cultural Iceberg: What You Need to Know about Cross-cultural Communication

The Cultural Iceberg and Identity: Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies

My Story: Culture Shock, Mayonnaise, and the Last Straw

wanted your story







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.