Tag Archives: cultural adaptation

Indirectly on Egg Shells


Americans usually speak directly.  They tell you what they are thinking.  Particularly Minnesotans value honest communication of facts.  But in Costa Rica, speaking indirectly is the norm.  One of the highest social values here is not offending.  It can become a labrynth of side stepping and hedging just to communicate and get things done here.  But getting things done is not the priority.  Keeping the peace is more important.  To do this, Costa Ricans often use a third party to ask for favors or to make inquiries.

For example, when we were in language school we convinced our conversation teacher to let us have a field trip to a local coffee shop where we would have breakfast together and practice our Spanish conversation skills.  It’s true, we just wanted to get out of the classroom.  The teacher liked our idea, but she asked that WE ask the director for permission.  We thought this was odd, since SHE was the teacher and HE was her boss.  We considered it her responsibility to go through the proper channels to get permission, but she considered this the proper way of asking for favors- sending a third party.

This happened again a few months later.  We had hired a maid for the first few months that we lived here (I didn’t know how to clean a house with tile floors throughout or to get my laundry to dry in this rainy climate.)  After we moved to another house, we didn’t continue using the maid, however another new family hired her.  One day I ran into Suyen (our former maid) and she asked me to speak with her new employer for her.  She said, “I don’t think Mrs. Anderson understood me.  I asked if I could change my work hours and she said No.  Could you ask her if she understood me?”  Suyen was asking me to ADVOCATE for her, not translate for her.  When I spoke with Mrs. Anderson, she said she understood Suyen perfectly and had said No to her request.  She wondered out loud why Suyen would ask me to speak to her.  Then I put two and two together and realized that I had been used as a third party.  Suyen had wanted my leverage of the power of connection with the other American AND she had wanted my protection from receiving a direct No again.

It was hard for me not to feel used in both of these instances.  However, I have since then learned to use this system of communication for my own benefit rather than always feeling like a tool that my friends use for favors.  Now I can skillfully navigate tricky conversations to avoid conflicts too.  For example, when I have a sensitive question to ask someone, I find another person who is willing to speak to the person for me.  Especially someone OFFERS to go talk to the person for me- I accept the offer.  In America we would say, “No, I can do my own dirty work.”  But here my thought is, “I don’t want to offend or embarrass this person, so maybe it’s better to let someone else do it.  They might know how to do it more gently and more appropriately.”

Because the Costa Rican way is to avoid direct confrontation and avoid embarrassing people, it can feel like walking on egg shells all the time.  I breathe a sigh of relief when I manage to escape a potentially confrontational situation.  I don’t particularly LIKE this way of communication, but I’m learning how to use it, how to adapt to it, and how to recognize it.  It’s part of cultural adaptation and it’s what missionaries do.  We try to be all things to all people and if that means walking on eggshells and speaking indirectly- then that’s what I do.

You want ME to teach THAT?!?


In addition to teaching 5th grade, I also teach Bible class for 9th grade.  The theme for this class is the book of Acts.  (I tried to get out of teaching this class by telling our Baptist administration that I’m Pentecostal, but they were willing to overlook that fault.  They just wanted me for my Bible School training.  I asked them, “Do you REALLY want someone who’s Spirit filled teaching ACTS?!?  ‘Cause if it’s in the Bible, I’m teaching it.”  They were nervous, but desperate.)  We have taken a long pause in Chapter 14 to talk about an event that happened on Paul’s first missionary journey.  Because about half of the class is missionary kids, we are really taking time to pull apart these lessons for missionaries that we find in Acts.

In Chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra and they heal a crippled man.  The locals are stunned by this miracle.  They shout in their local dialect, “These men are gods in human bodies!”  They decided that Barnabas was the Greek god Zeus and that Paul, because he was the chief speaker, was Hermes.  The temple of Zeus was located on the outskirts of the city.  The city also had a belief that once the gods had visited the city in human form and no one honored them with a sacrifice.  So the gods destroyed the city.  The people didn’t want to repeat their mistake, so they prepared to sacrifice oxen to the apostles at the city gates.

Unfortunately, Paul and Barnabas didn’t speak the local language.  They spoke Greek which was the language of commerce of the Roman Empire, the only language they had in common with the people.  So they were slow to catch on to what was happening, and they didn’t know the history of the gods’ previous, disastrous visit to the city.  So they were at a distinct disadvantage in this story.

When they realized what was happening, the apostles dramatically protested and interrupted the religious parade.  This made the locals irate.  They stoned Paul and threw him outside of the city, assuming he was dead.  He was one tough missionary though.  He got back up and went back into the city.  Paul and Barnabas later escaped with the help of their friends.  It was not a good day for these missionaries, but it was a lesson for us to learn.  It is important to know the local customs and to speak the local language, if possible.

Here we paused to discuss how modern day missionaries can find themselves in similar cultural blunders or dangers.  We talked about how a missionary must consider, before hand, what is actually a Christian, Biblical mandate and what is just part of our culture that we brought with us from our home country.  I gave my class 8 different categories that contain pitfalls for missionaries, things they must consider.

For the next few days I am going to blog about stories that I have heard from other missionaries or things that have happened to me related to these 8 categories:  clothing standards, holidays, governmental or political issues, Church and State relations, vices, virtues, living conditions and material wealth.  So join me for the next few days as I tell stories of how some missionaries have struggled to find harmony between their own cultural assumptions and the reality of the culture they hope to minister to.

Paul said that he tries to “become all things to all people so that he might win some”, but what does that look like, in a practical sense, for the modern day missionary?  I will show you some possibilities.  If you have stories of your own, I would love to hear them!  Leave a juicy comment below.

Kissing Friends


air kiss greetingOne of the first lessons you learn when you arrive in a new country is how they greet each other.  Sometimes it’s a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, a kiss or a combination of any of these gestures.  It’s cultural adaption 101.

Here in Costa Rica, the standard greeting between friends is to lean in and go right cheek to right cheek.  Then you air kiss by the ear and pat the left shoulder at the same time.  Then if you’re close friends or family you also follow up the kiss with a warm hug.  You would think for a Minnesotan like me it would be a difficult adjustment to make to learn to kiss everyone, but it really wasn’t that hard to get into the kissing mode.  Everyone was doing it, so it quickly became natural!

So the other night I had a really funny moment.  Our best friends Chino and Marcela, who we consider our Costa Rican family, live not very far from us.  So my husband had invited Chino to go play softball with “the guys”.  Chino came over a little early and spent a few hours playing X-box with my son and husband.  I arrived home later to a living room full of cheering male voices, a happy scene in our home.

When it came time to leave, my husband came over and kissed me good-bye and told me they would be home late.  My son came over and kissed me on the cheek, “bye Mom.”  Next in line was Chino!  I gave him the usual cheek-to-cheek air kiss with a hug and told him to have a good time.

When they all left I chuckled to myself thinking about how “normal” that strange scene seemed to me in the moment.  My husband, my son and my friend all lined up for a kiss before they go off to play.  All I can say is that I am sure to freak out some of our Minnesotan friends if I try that back home.  Cultural adjustment does weird things to you.

I die daily


I have this mental picture of Heaven.  For the first time that we all gather to worship the Lord we are divided into sections in a vast auditorium.  We are divided by language groups, and though when we speak to each other we use a common heavenly language, when we worship we sing in the language of our hearts.  In my mind, every missionary who has ever struggled to learn a language will be honored on that day with a seat in the section of their adopted language.  It makes me cry when I let this image rise up in my mind.  For the honor of worshipping side by side with the people I have given my life to, I die daily to my mother tongue.

It is a daily death, this struggle to learn another language.  I die to my personality which is best expressed in English.  I die to years of education and speak Spanish like a child.  I die to what I want to do and who I want to be.  I die to my image of myself.  I die to my independence.  I die to my pride… over and over again.

If it were not for love, I could not do this.  Yes, I love the Costa Ricans in all their contradictions and “Pura Vida”.  But more than my love for others, I mean I die for the love of God for me.  If it were not for God’s love towards me, I would not try this.  I would not give like this.  I would not hurt like this.  I would not humble myself like this.  If I was not 100% sure of my Father’s love for me, I would’ve stayed home in Minnesota.

But I am compelled.  In the light of His love for me, I am compelled to go, to lay it all down, to die daily to all that was, to share this compelling love with others, to pick up my cross.  I am compelled to love by dying.  I know no other way anymore.  The old life looks dull and flat.  It does not entice me any more.  My all and all hangs on the cross.  The way to my one and only love lies through a valley of death.  I give it all away in order to gain more than I could ever imagine.  “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and then loses his soul?”  When I die, I gain.

I can’t express it any more clearly how painful this death is to me.  It is not a metaphor.  It is real.  And every time I open my mouth to speak Spanish I lay my will down for Jesus.  Not my will, but yours be done.  What I wouldn’t do for this love?  It consumes me.

To live is Christ, to die is gain.