Cross Cultural Communication: Caring for Kids from Different Backgrounds

October 1st, 2009

The problem had started so simply, but Maya’s teacher couldn’t understand why she was being so obstinate. Maya had talked out of turn and been asked to apologize. Maya had respectfully apologized with her head down. She was asked to look up and do it again “respectfully.” Confused, she apologized again, but respectfully did not look at her teacher. The simple problem erupted into a showdown.

Maya was taught that looking someone in the eye meant social equality. You only look your peers in the eye. You’d never look directly at an authority figure when being disciplined unless specifically asked to do so. The teacher didn’t verbalize her desire to have her own cultural standard upheld (you’re being deceived or mocked without eye contact), and Maya tried to be respectful the way she’d been taught.

There’s a type of communication that seems as new to many people as e-mail and instant messaging was a few years ago: cross-cultural communication. It’s been said that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning was once the most segregated time in America. And while a majority of churches can still be considered Korean, Latino, White, etc. (and these congregations are powerful resources within communities), a few churches are cropping up that are intentionally multicultural. These churches are adding a new dimension to the way we do worship and the complexity of youth ministry.

Yet even multicultural congregations rarely translate into multicultural leadership. Therefore, what seems to be a new type of communication is formed.

Multicultural Issues

Cross cultural communication involves both international and domestic multiculturalism. It’s a sticky and confusing situation that frustrates some, because it seems to elicit more questions than answers. Many fear that reasons turn into excuses if kids are allowed to use their cultural backgrounds to explain away difficult situations. But the great benefit comes from being aware of the complexity of cross cultural exchange so that we can better relate to those God has placed within our spheres of influence.

There are a plethora of paradoxes inherent in multicultural communication. You must speak to everyone the same while you must speak to everyone differently. Culture isn’t a person’s identity, but culture shapes a person’s identity. Everyone is the same, yet everyone is different. The biggest kicker is that all of these paradoxes come into play even if you have a homogenous youth group. All Asian, Black, Latino, etc. kids don’t all think alike any more than all Caucasian kids think alike.

Can I stop the Black section of my youth group from self-segregating? That’s another article, but what helped this Black, West Indian farm girl when she was asked to teach and work with White suburban American youth, African youth, and then urban African American youth was internalizing a few multicultural basics.


First, I had to deal with my own ethnocentricity—the belief that one’s cultural identity is superior to others, or the belief that one’s cultural upbringing sets appropriate standards by which all others should be measured. In a free society, we live within a particular existence because it works for us (and even if it doesn’t, we’re conditioned to believe that it does). It’s easy to think that our cultural norm is the scale by which all else should be compared. So, anyone who has a different way of doing things isn’t just different, but weird. So, first I needed to deal with my notion of reality and what was normal.

Culture Shock

If you have a minority population in your youth group, then you probably shepherd young people who go through culture shock on a regular basis. I’ve worked with students who were one of the few Blacks at their school or the only White girl at church, and they regularly had to deal with other people’s ethnocentric ideals.

These kids tried to reconcile two different cultures that contradicted each other at times. They needed authority figures who recognized their own cultural prejudices and could lay them down and hear the cries of these students. If one denies ethnocentric tendencies, he or she then denies a cultural norm and cultural differences, and the idea of true cross- cultural communication will be lost.

Moral Issues

Then more questions arise. Is everything that seems weird a cultural issue? Or are some things just weird? Or even wrong? How do I know the difference? No one will deny that there are some things we can think of that shouldn’t be accepted in any culture.

I especially felt that way after hearing a cultural defense for female circumcision. I was talking to a young man who remembers his rite of passage experience fondly. All the 16ish-year-old males in his village gathered to learn how to be a man. This time concluded in circumcision as a symbol of leaving their boyhood behind.

He then explained that with the Westernization of certain African villages, female circumcision was ended. He argued that since then, there has been something missing—something lacking. Another gentleman chimed in with a cultural defense for the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, prepuce, or labia of a girl or young woman—a procedure that kills many girls every year. Some societies sew a young lady’s vagina shut as a coming of age process so she can be pure on her wedding night.

He bashed Westerners for forcing their cultural ideals on others. He thought that since this man had fond memories, there might be women with fond memories of the similar experience. Of course, very few men die of male circumcision.

The argument was simple, “if a culture deems something necessary for their girls to know that they’re now women—something most Western cultures lack—what right does anyone have to condemn it?”

Culture can be used to defend anything. So, multicultural communication gets very sticky when we find it difficult to respect an aspect of another culture. I’ll always be morally opposed to female circumcision no matter how culturally tied it is to a woman’s coming of age.

We should be careful not to confuse reasons for one’s behavior with excuses for one’s misbehavior. The example of female circumcision didn’t end when the village was Westernized hundreds of years ago; it ended when the society was Christianized. There’s a difference between what one is politically opposed to and what one is morally opposed to, and I cannot tolerate nor appreciate a procedure that kills girls (not to mention maims and debases them). There are some things that deny the power of the Gospel, and Christians shouldn’t accept those in any culture.

Political Issues

But what if our issue is political and not moral? It’s still hard to accept things that we don’t like. And there may be some part of us that would like to “fix” cultural tendencies not like our own. Cultural trends develop because they work for the dominant force within a society, so we should be careful about which cultural factors we want to battle. Others might think that it’s just as silly for a child not to be able to look an adult in the eye as I think it is to expect girls to be circumcised. That perspective could lead someone to think that, because teens should be on an equal level with adults, we need to liberate the child from this oppressive culture.

Let’s be careful when choosing issues for liberation. I used to think that children were not empowered in certain environments, but treated like second class citizens. Like any youth worker, I want kids to feel important and equally validated by God. I then realized that these children are empowered by learning the ropes through a hierarchy of power. The idea is that while God may validate us equally, society does not. And kids in oppressed communities need to learn how to work for respect. Respect isn’t given. It’s earned. I didn’t learn to love that message, but I learned to work within it.

Once we’ve dealt with our own ethnocentricities, we’ll be better able to help kids deal with their cross-cultural experience. If you have that one Latino kid, or Black, White, Asian, or first generation American, you have a kid who’s trying to figure out how to function within two different ethnic worlds that are sometimes contradictory.

Be open. Be willing to learn and know the cultural norms of those in your youth group. Know the basics of how your students relate to authority figures. On a regular basis I deal with kids—already stressed because they have to live in different worlds—who are upset and confused because some authority figure couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hear them. No parent wants his or her child to feel alienated. Such a parent will feel forced to leave and join a congregation where that child isn’t the odd one out. If 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday is still the most segregated time in America, we can’t benefit from the gift of diversity God has given us.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.