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    Friday, June 1, 2012

    Urban Life

      Some of you may know, I am in the middle of a Master's degree on Intercultural Leadership and as such much of the Urban Life blog has been placed into my Master's work.  Recently I wrote a 15 page paper for a course and the topic was on Cross-Cultural Conflict.  In Urban Life, how does this conflict occur and how can we fight against it?  The paper I wrote seeks to answer those questions.  I will break it up into a 4 segment post on the topic of Urban Life.  This is Segment #1.

       Conflict occurs when people don't see things the same way, understand something the same way or hear something said in the same way.  Many factors can cause conflict within any number or relationships, but many conflicts can be attached to the factor of cross cultural interactions.  Whether it's people on a team, in a friendship, in a dating relationship, co workers or married couples, cross cultural interactions do indeed seem to cause conflict.  The reasons for this conflict are legion and span the gambit of relational, religious, habitual, language, cognition and speech.  As we dissect this on-going issue of cross-cultural conflict, especially within the church, let us first look at normative reasons for conflict.

    Normative Reasons for Conflict

                This is probably the simplest of all the conflicts to understand.  People from different cultural backgrounds most likely have different languages.  Language does not always mean :English, Spanish Chinese etc., but also ways in which people talk, or share information can be seen as a different “language”.  When talking about men and women, women speak the same language but sometimes we men say: “I can’t understand her, she must be speaking a different language”.  This as well as the separations of language is my holistic approach to this topic of “Language”.

                Coming from different cultures, certain words, phrases and gestures mean different things.  I found this fact out the hard way as I traveled to England one spring semester with my College.  We were to stay at a local person’s home, be fed by them and interact with them during our stay.  I remember as soon as I arrived to my family’s home I found the language barrier tough.  We both spoke English but as stated above, certain words meant different things.  As I went into my room, the hostess graciously asked if she could hang any of my clothes.  I said: “Yes, could you please hang my pants?”  I could tell right away I had said something quite offensive because her face told me so.

                She stammered a bit and said: “You need me to hang your pants?”  Pointing to my dress pants, I said: “Yes, they’re right there on the bed”.  She sighed with relief and said: “Oh, you mean your dress trousers, I thought you wanted me to hang your under garments”.  We both let out a loud laugh as we realized what was communicated and what was meant, but that moment taught me a very good lesson: just because you speak the same language (English) doesn’t mean you speak the same language (differing meaning for differing words).

                On this point, author, speaker and pastor Mark DeYmaz, in his book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church says: “In pursuit of cross-cultural relationships then, let me stipulate up front that there will be things said and sometimes done that will cause a measure of misunderstanding. It’s just going to happen, so you might as well expect it!” (DeYmaz, 2007, pg. 85).  Earlier in the book, Mark explained a mistranslation incident that occurred within his church.  He was speaking and had a Spanish translator for those who spoke Spanish in the congregation.  The translator translated the word buns into nalgas, which for most Spanish speaking folks isn’t a mis-translation, but to Mexicans it means ass (DeYmaz, 2007, pg. 95)Language can make or break situations in multi-cultural venues!

      People from different cultures, when they get together create an atmosphere of misunderstandings, it just happens.  I could tell story after story of times in which I have unintentionally offended someone from a different culture within my own church context.  I grew up in the inner-city of Pittsburgh and my church is ethnically diverse so I’ve been the offender of many a mis-communication.  Later on, we will get into the solutions of these normative reasons for conflict, but with this one, relationship is definitely key to the solution. Building trust allows room for mistakes to occur, letting people know you allows them to know your heart, so when something crosses your lips that could be harmful or offensive, the other party will know you did not intend it to be as demeaning or harmful as it came across.

                In keeping with the idea of relationships being key, Duane Elmer in his book Cross-Cultural Conflict says: “Unless relationships are intact, all other resolutions and corrections will be reduced to rubble as arguments, disagreements and disrespect continue” (Elmer, 1993, pg. 28).  It is imperative that we all understand the dire consequences of poorly formed language in cross-cultural relationships.  In my experience, this has been one of the largest reasons looking over all conflict that happens in cross-cultural relationships.

                Following with language, not only the subtle differences of meaning to words can be an issue, but the actual language going from say English to Spanish can be a huge towering reason for conflict.  Not all things translate the same, because cultures are different.  Sometimes words are translated into another languages with the culture in mind, also some languages may be much weaker than others, so communicating depth is an issue.  For a quick example, Greek and Hebrew are deep languages that have several different words to describe “love”, which English only has one word to describe it.  Many languages hold these nuances and if we plan on interacting with people cross-culturally we need to be better students of the language of origin from which our cross-cultural relationships come from.

                Harry Li in the book Ethnic Blends states:
    “Even something as simple as preparing and producing a Sunday service at Mosaic [the church he’s a part of] requires us to consider issues of interpretation for first-generation Hispanic and Latino members of our church.  We must create and project bilingual slides for Scripture reading and singing, print bulletins and handouts in both Spanish and English, and on many occasions have our worship leaders sing Spanish” (DeYamz and Li, 2010, pg. 150).

                Many things need to be taken into consideration when we delve into the complexities of language and the conflicts that misunderstanding, misinterpretation and confusion can bring.  In the context from Ethnic Blends getting everyone to be worshipping the same God, in the same place together with the same song this comes in the form of documents, slides and bilingual times of worship.  For an organization this could mean: bilingual presenters, bilingual presentation notes, bilingual conversations or maybe even electronic devices that can quickly translate what’s being said.

                My friend is a traveling engineer who works for a train company.  He has described the pain and agony that not having translation and the like in his dealings.  Most recently a train crash in Brazil was blamed on him and his company, he now has to travel to Brazil to try and work it out. This is messy because heat is already there between the two groups of people, without proper translating, much misunderstanding can and will happen, which would then cause a loss of clientele and a host of other issues.  This type of confusion can happen in any relationship and we, as people seeking to be unified must realize the potential dangers of language in our cross-cultural relationships.

    In the next segment, we will see how trying to resolve conflicts cross-culturally can in fact cause more conflict.  After we look at the causes of cross-cultural conflict (segments 1-3) we will then look at solutions (segment 4).

    What are your current thoughts on the conflict causer of language in cross-cultural relationships?  Have an experience you care to share, that we can all learn from?  Please comment!!