Not long after arriving in Africa, I was visiting people in the rural area where I was living. I came across a group of men eating. They invited me to eat with them. I hesitated. Should I accept. I wasn’t hungry. I made a quick decision. After more experience I realized that my decision was probably not the right one.
At first, living and working in a culture not one’s own is an exercise in making decisions without enough information. It is living in uncertainty.
In all cultures people give off clues about what behavior they expect or don’t expect. If you aren’t from the culture and so you don’t know the clues… People say things to be polite that they don’t expect you to act on. Or they say things to which an outsider does not know the correct response. I remember several times understanding every word someone said to me and not having the foggiest idea what to say or do in response. (To be fair, I’m like that in my own culture sometimes too.)
The thing is, missionaries love people. We want to understand them. We don’t want to offend them. So walking around in uncertainty in a culture we don’t know can leave us in fear of making a big cultural blooper. That fear can hang over our heads threatening to jump in and ruin our relationships and our ministry. While it is good to be aware and to learn, we give that fear more power than it really has. I’ve seen missionaries completely stressed out over it. That’s a real source of culture stress.
People on short term missions trips might not be savvy enough to have the fear, or they might not stay long enough to encounter it. Tourists don’t usually have this fear because they don’t care or aren’t as invested in the outcome because shortly they’ll be gone.
A top coping skill for a cross-cultural missionary is being comfortable with ambiguous situations, not stressing about missing information, and being willing to go through the hard, ambiguous phase until they get a better handle on things, even if that handle is never really perfect.