My husband and I sat with a friend who’d spent years in Japan as a businessman. (He helped me with Go. Serve. Love’s post, Unreached People Group Focus: Japanese.)
We spoke of the culture of conformity of the Japanese. And my friend related a proverb–loosely translated, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.”
What a Culture Repeats. and What we Learn
I find a culture’s proverbs fascinating.
I recall a proverb from Luganda, a tribal language of Uganda. It regarded importance of drinking while one is near the well. In my understanding, this advised one to take advantage of the opportunities before you, particularly financially.
I considered the the ways politicians would fill their pockets while in office. And I understood how proverbs could shape–or express–culture.
Think of American proverbs which represent Western culture: “The early bird catches the worm.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“I Understand How Your Mind and Heart Work”
Our conversation turned to the importance of learning a culture’s language to fully understand them. And my friend wisely pointed out how Jesus spoke in parables. I thought, too, of Paul at Mars Hill, drawing in his audience’s own poets and philosophers.
“Parables don’t make sense to the culture until you know what matters to the culture,” my friend said.
It’s true. Unless I understand a culture’s stories, proverbs, lifestyle, and ways of thinking–it’s hard to speak in parables their hearts understand.
Not everything translates smoothly into English.
In fact, when it’s translated into English, it also translates into some of my language’s values and ways of communicating. Right?
(Humor, coincidentally, is one of the last and most nuanced forms of communication. It’s based on an intricate level of cultural understanding.
Action movies were easy to enjoy with Africans. But we found that comedies rarely translated, even to an English-speaking nation. They laughed at parts we found sad; we guffawed at “funny” parts, and they gawked at us.)
The Stories We Tell
In learning a language and culture, the stories cultures tell–and those they don’t–hold a great deal of meaning. (Don’t miss one of our best series ever: What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”.)
A tribe in the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t very much enjoy our stories of getting stuck on an elevator in Manhattan. But they might find an agricultural parable fascinating.
A self-deprecating story might not make sense to a Japanese. But for an American, it might be endearing and approachable.
Imagine how stories have altered you: Everything from the parable of the soils, to The Lord of the Rings, to Schindler’s List, to that story your dad forgets he’s told you 37 times.
Even Wikipedia will tell you cultures use stories are “shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values.” Don’t miss this post from ideas.Ted.com on various cultures’ means of storytelling.
To be an effective global worker is to be an effective learner and listener. It’s to spend time studying long before we spend time sermonizing.
Learn the heart language of your people group–and their anecdotes, their proverbs, their heroes, their imagery.
Like Jesus–and with Jesus: Capture their hearts.