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Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work – Expectations

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Crucial to any cross-cultural experience is the task of managing expectations. We all expect something: for ourselves, for others and for any situation in which we may find ourselves.  Whether or not we have taken the time to carefully consider and articulate what we expect, they are there within us.  When working cross-culturally, whether overseas or at home, those anticipations can be magnified and have more serious consequences on life and ministry.

Some of our expectations come from our home culture, the culture in which we grew up or in which we feel the most comfortable.  Other anticipations may come from our personality, our preferences, or from other experiences we have had during our lives.  Some expectations may even be most specific to a given situation, cultural activity, or emotional state.  Expectations are closely related to values or morals, the way we believe things should be done and are often the basis of our worldviews.  They impact everything we do and say, and have influence on our relationships. Despite the source of what we expect, they must be considered and managed as we seek to achieve effectiveness and accomplish meaningful things in God’s Kingdom.

There are two main skills needed when it comes to managing our expectations in a cross-cultural scenario.

1) Be reasonable.

When thinking about setting good or reasonable expectations for a cross-cultural situation there are a few areas to consider that can be helpful. Ask some of the following questions:

– What information is available to help us know what to expect?
– What experiences in our background may help us in forming good expectations moving forward?
– Is there someone we can review our expectations with to see if they seem reasonable?
– What research can we do to help us form or manage our expectations?
– What expectations have not been met so far and how do we feel about that?

Ask lots of questions and, above all, assume nothing.  We must be honest and then also prepared to communicate our expectations, even if they are simple, basic, or known to all.  Another helpful hint: Saying we don’t anticipate anything is not realistic.  We all have some level of expectations. Many times we may not realize what we expect for a certain circumstance until those expectations go unmet.  Disappointment reveals so much and, when working cross-culturally, we must be in a constant state of evaluation so that we can operate with the greatest possible value for the good of those with whom we are working.

2) Be ready to revise.

The reality is, however, that no matter how good we get at setting reasonable expectations for a cross-cultural situation, there will be times when they go unmet.  This can be a real source of stress.  The most closely held expectations may be the hardest for us to identify and the most painful when they are violated or go unmet.  Recognizing what is happening is important.  Being able to then revise or manage our expectations can help relieve much of that stress.  Assessing our unmet expectations affords us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and why we held that expectation, as well as learn about the cross-cultural environment we’re in and why those in that culture did not hold the same expectation as we did.  On some level we must then reconcile where we expect the change moving forward to come: in our expectations or in the other culture with which we are engaging.

An example of the kinds of discrepancies regarding what we expect that can occur might help illustrate this.

In one culture there is an expectation of honesty.  In another culture there is an expectation of being helpful.  Someone from the Honesty Culture asks someone from the Helpful Culture for directions to a particular place. Honesty Culture person expects to be provided correct directions or to be informed that they don’t have the needed information.  Helpful Culture person views their responsibility as giving an answer, any answer.  Helpful Culture person gives directions even though they do not know the destination.  Honesty Culture person follows the directions given and is terribly frustrated when their journey ends in some unknown place.  They feel lied to, and their expectation of honesty went unmet.  Helpful Culture person sees nothing wrong in what they did: they provided directions and, in fact, they feel good about doing what they feel was expected of them.  These people had two very different expectations, neither of which was bad, but when thrown together, produced a less than perfect result across the cultures.

Next time we find ourselves preparing for or are in a cross-cultural situation, we must think carefully about our anticipations.  We can recognize when those anticipations go unmet and think about how to manage or revise our expectations moving forward.  Learning to do so will provide us with another skill that can lead to better cross-cultural success.

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