Entering a cross-cultural setting for life, work, and ministry is never easy. Whether the new culture is overseas or right in our own backyard, dealing with other cultures requires that we face vast unknowns every day. These unknowns can breed frustration and a lack of effectiveness, ultimately discouraging us as we seek greater achievement cross-culturally. Therefore, we turn today to perhaps the #1 key to success cross-culturally: flexibility. Being flexible and stretching ourselves outside our comfort zones is an essential characteristic for anyone working across cultures.
But what does it really mean to be flexible in a cross-cultural scenario?
1) Flexibility means being willing to change our course of actions.
With great enthusiasm, those of us living and working in another culture enter daily tasks with confidence, drawing upon past knowledge and experiences to accomplish the things on our to-do lists every day. However, more often than not, we are met with roadblocks and obstacles which prevent us from completing even the most basic of everyday activities. Or perhaps we are experts in our field and enter the workforce overseas with great plans of revolutionizing the working culture and increasing efficiency and effectiveness through our own proven methods of organizational action. Rarely, however, do the methods used for life and business in our own culture translate successfully to the new culture. If being successful requires flexibility, we must adapt our plans and actions accordingly, learning new ways of doing things and building relationships strong enough to get the cultural assistance needed to collectively achieve the goals and objectives set before us each day.
2) Flexibility means being willing to change our roles.
Upon entering a cross-cultural ministry situation, we may have certain expectations regarding the role we will play and the overall purpose for our time spent in the new culture. However, many times, due to cultural norms or differences in communication methods, we arrive in the new culture and are faced with accepting a much different role than we had originally intended. Those seeking success in the new culture must use their flexibility to be willing to change or adapt expected role definitions to more accurately reflect what the host culture needs at any particular point in time. Perhaps a subject-matter expert who expected to begin their work teaching must initially take the role of a student in order to gain the needed cultural and field knowledge before any kind of a teaching role would be successful. Perhaps someone skilled in marketing and fundraising is faced with accepting a role in data collection and report writing in order to gain the appropriate organizational knowledge required before any kind of up-front ministry can take place. Those who are flexible and willing to change and adapt their role will ultimately gain respect and credibility which will propel them to greater heights cross-culturally, as well as upon their return home.
3) Flexibility means being willing to change our timelines.
In our beloved American culture, time is a constant. Schedules are sacred. The clock rules the room and the calendar never changes. However, in many cross-cultural settings, especially those in the Global South developing nations, they do not hold the same opinion about or orientation toward time. In many of these nations and cultures, relationships take priority over time. Maintaining a strict time-based schedule and being on time for events and activities are not accepted expectations. Therefore, when we from a time-based culture enter these relationship-based cultures, we must be ready and willing to adjust our attitudes regarding time. Flexibility in these cultures requires us to change our timeline for work, ministry and events and change our definition of “late” or “overdue.” Learning about the local culture’s attitude toward time will relieve some frustration and help us to set our expectations more appropriately, therefore ultimately improving the quality of our cross-cultural relationships.
4) Flexibility means being willing to change our attitudes.
Last, but certainly not least, those serving in cross-cultural ministry settings must be willing to change their own attitude about the culture and all the seemingly uncertain things it has to offer. Those who are able to maintain a good, learning-based, culture-loving attitude will be able to see activities and relationships through the lens of maturity and patience, being open to acquiring knowledge that is new and fresh in a situation that may seem confusing and unclear. A good attitude goes a long way in building friendships and in respecting the leadership under which the cross-cultural worker has been placed.
Overall, a willingness to be flexible pays many dividends to those who are serving cross-culturally. Being flexible shows commitment to and respect for the host culture. It shows a willingness to follow local leadership, be humble and dutifully submit to those with whom you’ve been placed. Ultimately, it shows an overwhelming sense of maturity to realize that we are never too old to learn new things and never too much of an expert to humble ourselves under the authority of others. Flexibility produces in our cross-cultural experience a greater change for success and an advanced opportunity for sustainable effectiveness.