Greet Your Family and Other Cross Cultural Work Strategies
As a Bible translation consultant, I have the privilege of working with translation teams from all over the world and in a variety of cultures. While the best way to work together is usually to travel to a team and meet with them in person, current circumstances have restricted many (if not all) of us to work virtually.
There are unique challenges to working with people from different cultures and language groups in any field. Spoken and unspoken miscommunication can easily cause confusion or offense and quickly derail a work project. Different expectations and understandings of responsibility can silently erode a project without the team members realizing the damage.
So how do global coworkers work together to bridge the cultural divide? And what about when you're stuck behind a screen, making miscommunication even more frequent? I hope these examples can shed some light on strategies for building effective and enjoyable cross-cultural teams!
Hold Cross Culture Expectations Loosely
My first lesson in working cross-culturally was the day I arrived in Jos, Nigeria. I had spent over 52 hours traveling before arriving at the house where we were going to work together for three weeks, consultant checking the book of 1 Corinthians. This was my very first time in Africa and while my energy was low, the anticipation was high. That's when we learned from our hosts that the Nigerian translation team had not arrived - and probably would not be there for a day or two yet!
I was immediately anxious for the team - had they run into some terrible misfortune while traveling from their homes to the city? Perhaps they or their family members had become ill or injured? What disaster could possibly keep them from meeting us on the date we had arranged so many months in advance?
My consultant mentor had worked with West African translation projects in Nigeria and Ghana for decades and smiled at my dismay. "Oh, they're fine," she explained, "They'll be here when they get here."
One big difference between Western professional cultures and others working in the Majority World is the expectations for deadlines and appointments - and this is especially apparent in many African cultures. I learned on Day 1 that dates and times are relative - the work starts when everyone gets there and is ready to work!
If you're working across cultures, it's a good idea to hold expectations loosely. When working over Zoom, sometimes this means that I need to block out an extra hour or two for my appointments. With that cushion time, I'm not as stressed or worried when the team doesn't log into our Zoom meeting until half an hour after the start time. We have all learned to be more flexible over the past year and cross cultural communication is another apt place to practice that extra flexibility.
"Greet Your Family" to Develop Rapport
In a previous post, I spoke briefly about the need for Bible translation consultants to develop rapport with translation teams in order to foster good relationships and trust between team members. Consultants are giving advice and expertise to help Bible translators improve their drafts -- but if the translators don't know or trust the consultant, that advice can easily fall on deaf ears.
Anyone in cross cultural work can benefit from spending time investing in relationship. Dr. Edgar H. Schein refers to the struggle this often causes Western professionals in his book Humble Inquiry. Because in the Western worldview where time = money, we feel that any minutes that do not directly correlate with being "productive" are wasted. You can also see this in the way most Americans divide "work time" from "leisure time." But other cultures find this approach abrasive and disrespectful, preferring to spend "work" time on socializing and getting to know professional partners over a meal or in their own homes.
We try to start each consulting session by asking after the team's well-being -- and that looks different in different cultures. In the U.S., we might begin a conversation by saying, "How are you?" but elsewhere the greeting sounds more like a Jane Austen novel, "Is your family in good health?"
In Nigeria, translators often tell me to greet my family on their behalf - and even though we have never met each other's families, I say the same thing to them. Even when working remotely, the first portion of our scheduled "work time" is devoted to conversation about each other's lives outside of work.
When working in Bible translation, we also pray with and for each other. As I learn more about the requests my coworkers bring before God, I can pray for them intentionally and remember to follow up the next time we meet (whether days or months later). Praying together serves as a beautiful reminder that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and work alongside his Spirit and for his kingdom!
Leave Your Pride At the Door (or Desktop)
Working across cultures brings the necessity of humility. Perspectives, backgrounds, and expectations that are familiar to you at home are no longer familiar in a different cultural context. The result is often a social faux-pas that can feel embarrassing for everyone. If you go in expecting this, you can minimize the negative feelings associated with it. Learning different languages and cultural practices is more fun when you're not worried about looking good!
On the same trip to Jos, I was greeted each morning at breakfast by translators speaking to me in their own languages - which I did not understand at all! I had to ask every morning what they said and how to respond in their language, and every morning they laughed at my blank deer-in-the-headlights expression in response to their vernacular greeting. As soon as I learned the response to one greeting, they'd switch to a new one the next day. It wasn't out of mocking (though sometimes I felt foolish), but a genuine desire for me to learn more of their language over the three weeks we spent together.
I appreciated starting my mornings this way. It reminded us all that though the translation consultants were bringing education and expertise to help the team, the translators themselves were the experts in their own languages. We each had our own skills to bring to the table, all of them necessary and valuable to accomplish our common goal: a good Bible translation! Laughing over my stumbling attempts to speak their languages brought us all joy in the process of learning and working together.
Those of us who have worked over Zoom have probably seen more than enough Zoom blunders -- talking while muted, cameras on or off when the user thought it was the opposite, referring to a shared screen that was never shared. Even if you are not working across cultures, working remotely has its own particular embarrassing moments. We can all benefit from giving each other grace and laughing as we learn to work together!