Sunday, 13 October 2013

Multicultural Community

Table setting by the UK and Aus collective.
We had to explain that a bottle of wine
is okay in our home countries. 

Working overseas in an international organisation means negotiating the ins and outs of various cultures. Sometimes we’re aware of our cultural preferences and reactions and are able to moderate our behaviour in the face of other cultures. Other cultural judgements are so deeply ingrained that we don’t recognise them, react because of them, and can’t believe that ‘they dare to call themselves Christians when they do/say/think that.” Meanwhile ‘they’ are thinking the same about us.

Place setting for one by the Koreans.
To aid in understanding our own and each other’s cultures I attended a workshop on multicultural teamwork. In our class was a good cross section of the cultures within the organisation. I was the only Aussie in my group. I always felt uncomfortable saying ‘In Australia we…’ because I’ve always lived around migrants and am well aware that Australians have many flavours in how we do things. Still, it was good to share stories, reflect and discover. Seemingly small matters such as how a house ‘should’ be arranged, what is ‘clean’ or dirty’, what is ‘work’, what is ‘good’ food and how a table should be set or a meal arranged all revealed to us our cultural preferences and expectations.

Mumu (food steam-cooked using rocks
and banana leaves in hole in the ground)
for a crowd by the PNGn table.
Note the pig on the side that has already
been removed from the mumu and
is ready for cutting up and sharing. 
The main key for understanding culture was looking at how cultures vary on two spectrums; community and structure. Valuing strong community and minimal structure results in communal cultures like PNG. A strong sense of community with a strong structure describes hierarchical cultures like Korea. The strong structure, but valuing individuals rather than community  results in more institutional cultures like the UK. Individuating cultures like the US place a high value on individuals and a low structure. All of us move between cultural types in different settings, but we all also have a default where we feel most comfortable and where social interactions make the most sense.

I feel that Australia falls between the strong individuating culture of the US and the strong communal culture of PNG (Meaning low structure but an in between value placed on community or the individual). Each of them had familiar elements, but neither quite fit. Meanwhile, I function well in the hierarchical culture when sailing and in institutional contexts such as church and educational structures.

Table setting by the US participants
The workshop was not revolutionary for me, probably because I’ve long lived in multicultural settings, but it was a good reminder of some of the values which underlie our differences. None of us can claim our culture is entirely correct, for each cultural type also has its typical weakness. What we can do is learn from each other, valuing the strengths of the other and finding ways to know each other better and to live together well.

*This course was based on Sheryl Takagi Silzers book ‘Biblical Multicultural Teams’ if you want to find out more.

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