You have everything organized for your mission trip — your prayer network is going well, passports and visas are in place, medical check-up and vaccinations are completed and you have chosen your destination. Have you done enough research on the area you will be visiting to understand the culture? As Americans, because of the many freedoms afforded us by the Constitution, we tend to be more in tune with individualism and live a faster paced life. However, many other countries do not enjoy the freedoms that we do and we must be well educated on their customs and beliefs so as not to offend anyone, as this could spell disaster for our mission trip. Cultural sensitivity will help you develop a set of skills that will allow you to learn about and get to know people who are different from you, thereby giving you the grace to understand how to serve them better within their own environment and communities. This does not mean that we must accept the same belief system, but in order to bring the Gospel to them, we must respect their culture and find a way to minister without being judgmental or taking for granted someone else’s values and customs. Here are some general rules of thumb to consider:
- Attire. Always dress modestly and pay attention to the local standards. If you appear to be dressed differently than most of the local people in the area you are visiting, you may want to consider a wardrobe change. There tend to be more restrictions on dress for women than men in many countries, especially if visiting religious sites. Err on the side of being conservative with your wardrobe.
- Affection. Signs of affection in public in many countries is taboo and considered to be improper behavior. Approaching a stranger of the opposite sex could be misconstrued by a local person as an act of moral leniency. You may be approaching someone for something as simple as directions, but it could be misconstrued, making you an offender.
- Body Language and Gestures. Always remember that people are watching you at all times, especially if you appear to be a foreigner. Although we communicate with gestures and body language, in Greece, something as simple an upward nod of the head means “No”, and tilting the head to one side means “Yes.” In the Philippines, the arm wave that means “come here” to Americans, is a gesture fit only for dogs, and can actually land you in jail if you do it to a person.
- Photography. Taking pictures of your trip is always a great way to document and have lasting and visual memories you can share with others. However, you must be extremely cautious and sensitive while photographing your adventure. Always ask before taking pictures of people, or you chance getting your camera or phone taken away. Never take pictures of soldiers or military bases or any places where local leadership has told you not to take pictures. You could risk being arrested.
- Eating. You may be visiting a country where it is customary to leave a bit of food on your plate as a compliment to the host, indicating that they were so generous you simply could not finish your meal. On the other hand, in other countries you should finish everything on your plate or the host will be insulted. Also, there are countries where you should never eat with your left hand, as it is used for “unclean” things. If you do, local people will consider you unclean.
These are just a few of the many cultural aspects to consider when traveling to another country. When visiting other countries, we must humble ourselves and be considerate in actions and communication. Take some time to do your own research that is more specific to the region you will be visiting so you will have a full understanding of the culture, making you a welcome visitor. In order to be respected, you must earn it by showing respect and consideration to those whose country you are visiting.