Lost in Translation: Why Don't We Understand Each Other?

Teach cultural awareness before mission travel to promote trust and acceptance.

Your ministry’s message could get lost in translation if your mission team lacks understanding of the people in the region where it's serving. Teaching cultural awareness to your team is crucial to promoting trust, acceptance, and effective communication once your team arrives on the mission field. Consider these six steps to help guide your team’s interactions with people from other cultures.

Remember the universals, like smiles and laughter. They translate in all cultures. Ryan Skoog, President, Fly For Good

1. Research, research, research

This is the most important step, says Gabe Brown, manager of special market sales for Brotherhood Mutual. “Don’t wait until your plane lands to do this,” he says. Information overload sets in once you arrive in your host country, so pre-trip meetings are important to discuss ground rules and expectations.

Create games or assign research topics about the mission destination for your team. Having these types of conversations early in the planning process creates ownership for team members and cultivates appreciation for those your team is trying to help.

2. Trust your mission partner

Work with a trustworthy mission partner, one who has experience working long-term in the region. Reputable embedded missionaries can act as guides, supervisors, and collaborators. Always follow your mission partner’s lead. He or she can provide valuable insight into local customs and values.

Often, a mission partner is available to video chat with the team before the trip begins. Take advantage of this added layer of education prior to departure.

3. Immerse yourself in the culture 

Brown cautions not to get caught up in trying to solve what you feel is a problem. Avoid creating labels for customs and behaviors, such as “good” or “bad.” Instead, apply context to what you don’t understand or what you perceive as a weakness.

“When you observe and participate, you learn about their unique problem-solving techniques,” Brown says. It can also be helpful to address observed behaviors on a case-by-case basis without generalizing about an entire country or population.

4. Keep a journal

Record your responses to new experiences and reflect on how your attitude and impressions change over time. You may be surprised to notice an increased understanding of your own culture back home. Feelings of frustration and disorientation are natural. Be sure to communicate these feelings with your mission partner; he or she can be your best resource to help you adjust.

5. Meanings behind common gestures vary 

The highest compliment that you can give is to show you are enjoying yourself in your host country, says Ryan Skoog, president and co-founder of Fly For Good. “Remember the universals, like smiles and laughter. They translate in all cultures,” Skoog says. “So do frowns.”

However, cross-cultural differences exist that can create miscommunication and discomfort between parties. Pay attention to disparity in:

  • Personal space. Not knowing your host country’s preference for physical distance during conversation can lead to your actions being misinterpreted as rude, or they can communicate the wrong message.
  • Hand gestures. Something as simple as a “thumbs up” can have varying cross-cultural meanings. Some cultures consider it an offensive sign.
  • Crossing Your Legs. Skoog suggests you pay special attention to this. “In many cultures, crossing your legs, and thereby showing the bottom of your foot, is the worst of offenses.” Until you find out otherwise, Skoog advises you to avoid this posture.
  • Non-verbal cues. A head nod means “yes” to us, but in some cultures it simply means “I hear you” without agreement. For other cultures, touching others in public or using your left hand to pass along an object is taboo.

Nuanced variations can also occur cross-culturally in displays of emotion, word definitions, pauses, or silence in conversation and handshakes. Your mission partner can alert you to potential behavioral pitfalls.

6. Take time to learn proper greetings

Knowing the appropriate form for “hello” or good table etiquette during a meal earns you banked goodwill. When you make a mistake—and you will—remember your grace and maintain good humor. Respect, honor, and humility are often the keys to people of other cultures overlooking minor indiscretions.

Intense focus on differences can lead to miscommunication, prejudice, or indifference. Making assumptions based upon cultural similarities also can create problems. Have patience and stay with it. Adjusting to a new culture can take time, but your efforts will lead to a deeper grasp of the world around you.