During my work abroad I frequently sought research and publications about the expatriate work experience. With expatriates from many different countries and with a variety of educational backgrounds, one of our biggest concerns at Qatar Foundation was identifying the right people and helping them to adopt a style of intercultural engagement that would be effective. I recently joined a local church reading group that dove into Bernard Adeney’s Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. Although the book was written by a theologian who was writing for missionaries and others working or serving abroad in faith-based groups, Adeney’s writing shed light on a number of things worth considering in relation to traveling, living, working and ministering abroad.
One of the core challenges with expatriates or visitors from the West is that most are actually much less aware of the world beyond their Western borders although they generally believe they are more aware than everyone else. This lack of understanding then leads to Westerners ignoring how their own cultural perspectives influence their ideas, lifestyles, and ultimate virtue. In cultural settings where degrees of honesty and forthrightness, deference to hierarchy, voicing opposition, or advocating for social justice vary from Western sensibility, the lack of awareness about the origin of these beliefs is particularly important. Effectiveness in another culture starts with humility and curiosity and develops through dialogue and true encounter.
Adeney advocated finding a local cultural advisor as one of the best ways to understand another culture. Authentic cultural understanding offers the opportunity for expatriates/visitors to adopt the truth of her/his host as their own. A beautiful song shared in a sermon given by our church’s South Korean ministerial intern captures this sentiment:
I want my mind to go where your mind goes.
I want my tears to be where your tears drop.
I want my sight to see whom your sight sees.
I want my steps to give compassion to whom you love.
I want to understand your heart, so all my plans may be your plans.
I want to know your heart, so all my life will be a sacrifice for you.
What is interesting about the song is that it could be interpreted as a statement of a believer to his/her God or it could be interpreted as a statement of the relationship one has with a deep and abiding friend, the kind of friendship inspired by appreciation, respect, and faith.
Several cross-cultural communication models were included in Adeney’s book. None of these represented break-through thinking especially by comparison to newer models such as Molinsky’s cultural dexterity approach. He did indicate how important it is for expatriates/visitors to realize that communication and work efficiency are likely to decline in working/visiting abroad. Some expatriates eventually begin to resent the countries and the nationals with whom they work; Adeney explained that this may be the outcome of culture fatigue and may even end up in chronic unhappiness that only gets worse with time.
While much of Adeney’s book deals with theological and religious questions across cultures, the core of his advice is consistent with other research and theories I’ve read as well as reasonably reflective of my own experience. The bottom line to remember is that expatriates/visitors should seek to understand themselves through the eyes of their hosts which will shine a light on “very personal issues of lifestyle and very private matters of finance, family relations and personal integrity” that influence how they are perceived as strangers in another culture.