An Embarrassing Example of Why We Need to Keep Learning Culture

I was raised mostly in a certain Melanesian country. Having grown up there, I was able to intuitively pick up on many parts of the culture. I knew what many forms and actions meant in that specific context. The repeated tongue-clicking meant either pity, shock, or awe. You could use it while hearing a sad story or while admiring a friend’s new pair of sunglasses. I knew that a bowed head and one hand placed just above the forehead meant that person was feeling a degree of shyness, embarrassment, or shame. I knew that it was not considered immodest for a woman to breastfeed while singing a special in front of church, but that it was considered immodest if she wore blue jeans.

The thing with culture is that form and meaning don’t stay static. Over time the way that meaning is communicated through certain forms changes. In the West, not wearing a tie to church just doesn’t carry the same meaning that it used to. Culture, like language, is a living thing. While this doesn’t at all make meaning or truth relative, it does mean there’s a certain degree of forms-communicating-meaning fluidity built into the thousands of human cultures out there. When the scriptures have to say “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning…” (Ruth 4:7) it means that that form had changed such that the author’s contemporaries would no longer understand the meaning without an explicit interpretation. Keeping up with how culture is changing is hard, especially when the changes are happening at an accelerated pace.

Youth culture is one subset of culture where changes in form and meaning seem to take place very quickly. This is true in the West. The slang words (forms) used just five years ago by high school students are out, and new terms are in. This is also true in cultures overseas which are emerging from a more isolated past and coming into contact with more technology and global culture. In tribal cultures, such as those I grew up in in Melanesia, this pace of change is warp-speed. Tribes which had lived in stone age-like conditions as recently as the 1970s now have smartphones and access to Facebook. Oh to sit around a village fire and hear the stories village elders would be able to tell of the contrast between their childhood and their own grandchildren.

My high school years were thankfully just prior to the emergence of social media. Email was also not mainstream among my peers, especially my Melanesian friends. No, it was with good old-fashioned letter writing that I would end up caught in a very embarrassing cross-cultural blunder.

The week of Easter Camp was one of my favorite times of the year when I was in high school. Baptist youth groups from all over the country would descend on a Bible college campus for a week of preaching, volleyball tournaments, skits, and verse memorization contests. Most years I was the only Westerner present among several hundred Melanesian high school students. Since my MK school was majority Western in students and culture, I always enjoyed the chance Easter Camp gave to be fully immersed in Melanesian culture once again, as I had been when I was much younger. This was the one week of the year when my brain would actually think in another language and need to take a moment to translate those thoughts into spoken English. Easter camp was also fun for all of the typical reasons youth group camps are fun – the chance to goof off with other guys and maybe meet a pretty girl.

One year we reached the last day of camp and a frenzy for exchanging addresses began. While both guys and girls were exchanging post office box addresses with me, I began to be a bit alarmed at the number of girls I hadn’t even met that week that were asking for my address. Clearly, something was going on, but I didn’t have the experience to place the proper meaning with this address exchange frenzy. I assumed it was mostly a chance to find potential pen pals. Not wanting to be rude I gave out my address to all who asked.

A couple weeks later I started receiving letters from two different Melanesian girls who lived in other provinces of the country. They were very polite and kind letters with questions about life and learning English. Wanting to also be kind, I wrote back. My responses were similarly polite and respectful, very much of the pen pal variety. I was not a very good pen pal in general, with a fellow MK in Panama at one point dubbing me “worst pen pal ever.” We MK’s tend to struggle at maintaining friendships from a distance – something about the amount of transition we grow up with. Still, in the case of the Easter camp letters I thought I had done what was expected of me and moved on unconcerned.

When the girls’ responses in turn arrived I was thoroughly shocked and confused. They had both independently written back full-blown love letters, full of poetry, compliments, and dreams of a blissfully-wedded future. Clearly I had missed something! Not long after, my good local friend, Philip, shared with me some bad news. At our local church’s youth group he had been confronted by some of the teen girls, who demanded to know why I was such a womanizer that I was dating two different girls in different provinces at the same time. He now put the question himself to me. Thoroughly confused (how in the world did the youth group know about this?), I explained to Philip that all I had done was respond to these girls’ letters in a kind way! He then let me know that the simple act of responding to a letter in these circumstances communicated the intent to enter into a romantic relationship.

MK’s occasionally have these kinds of moments when we suddenly realize that there’s been an important gap in our knowledge of either our home or our adopted culture. While we’ve been doing our best to pretend to be insiders, suddenly we are outed for the outsiders we actually are. These moments come out of nowhere and we usually try not to let on how thoroughly in the dark we’ve been. But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t hide from Philip my dismay and utter ignorance of this very sensitive cultural form. How had I missed this? I was now dating two different girls in two different provinces all the while I was planning to ask out my Australian neighbor. I had never dated anyone previously in my life and here I was, almost dating three girls at the same time. How had it come to this?

Thankfully, I had a mom who was willing to come to my rescue. I had quickly shown her the letters and shared with her my confusion about what to do next. She wisely counseled me to write back and clarify that my intentions were purely platonic. When one of the girls wouldn’t stop writing me love letters after many attempts to make things clear, my mom wrote the next one for me. It must have been quite the intimidating letter because it had the intended effect.

When I think back to my years in Melanesia, I wish I had taken a more proactive role in learning the local culture. There was much I was able to pick up on. But there were also holes in my cultural understanding that clearly needed to be filled. By coasting along in my adopted culture, I had missed the very important and very new dating culture rules that had emerged among my Melanesian peers. And I had certainly dashed some hopes in the process, not to mention risking being known for behavior that was not becoming of a follower of Jesus.

Cases such as the Easter camp letters have given me a desire to be a lifelong student of culture. One, so that I can avoid landing myself in these kind of embarrassing situations! But also because of the dynamic nature of culture. We may assume it is static, but it is anything but. It is a living thing, shifting right under our noses and rearranging meaning and forms in endlessly new combinations. As those who desire to communicate God’s truth not just in word, but also in deed and form, it behooves us to pay very close attention.

This doesn’t mean adding some college-level course to our lives that we don’t have time for. It can be as simple as a more generous usage of one very important question: What does that mean?

Photo by Liam Truong on Unsplash

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