Crossing Cultures Well

When two or more cultures meet, differences and misconceptions abound. Most people find crosscultural friendships hard to continue, and instead group with people from their own culture. How can you improve your crosscultural relational competency?

Related: discover useful tools from Crossing Cultures with Jesus

Understand what makes culture, culture

Birthe-Munck Fairwood describes culture as “an internal code which all people have in the back of their minds. It tells them what is right and wrong, normal and abnormal…” Once we understand the mindset of another culture, we can better relate to others.

Some have used the “iceberg example” to describe different layers of culture. The tip of the iceberg, the visual part, includes things like customs, traditions, clothing, and food. The part of the iceberg underwater are values and norms like beauty, success, or propriety. The bedrock of culture is the worldview – the meaning of life, what defines reality – that forms the center of every culture. Everyone’s iceberg is different and mostly hidden, which is why it can be so hard to cross cultures.

We have the opportunity to freely interact with other cultures because, as Christians, we have an identity that is not tied to our culture, but to our intrinsic value as people created in God’s image. We can move across cultural barriers because we are not limited to one worldview. However, we do still need to be aware of how our cultural background shapes our responses and reactions. It is important to examine our own cultures to see where God is reflected in them as well as where they have fallen short.

Acknowledge cultural differences

Some common value differences include indirect/direct communication, individual/collectivist(group) identity, and time/event oriented. Read more in-depth looks at cultural differences here:

Empathize with others

Internationals in the United States are people with dignity, position, and high understanding-within their own cultures. We need to remember that when they travel here, they are giving up friends, family, places they know, and the stability of things they have. Starting over with no connections will lead to culture shock for nearly every international.

The Cultural Transition/Approaching Differences diagrams look at the cycle of culture shock and ways to enter in to new situations. You can help your crosscultural friends through their transitions by walking through these diagrams with them and by helping them engage in healthy ways. Watch a video on culture shock here as well.

Build friendship through conversation

Read more about specific conversation partner programs and resources here. Use these practical tips for getting to know someone from another cultural background and deepening your understanding.

  • Be genuine in wanting to meet with and to know them. Simply ask if they’d be interested in talking to you to get to know American culture/practice their English/talk about religion. Be willing to hear about their culture/language/religion in return.
  • Relax! Have fun!
  • Ask them how their name is pronounced and spelled. Show them how to do the same with yours.
  • Ask them about their background – how long have they lived in the US? Where are they from? Why did they come here? Are they from a city or rural area? What is their family like? How many languages do they know? What is religion like in their country?
  • Ask about their interests – what foods do they like? Do they play or watch sports? What are their thoughts (likes and dislikes) about the US? Do they like watching TV? What do they like about holidays here or in their home countries?
  • Ask them about their culture and home – how are birthdays celebrated? What are family roles like? What kinds of customs and traditions do they have? What’s their food like? What kinds of art is in their tradition?
  • Use a normal rate and volume of speaking, or it might feel like you’re “talking down” to them.
  • Be respectful of their customs and beliefs.
  • Build a friendship – eat together, hang out, go shopping/on a walk through the city/hiking together
  • Help them out with transportation
  • Invite them to social events (as a group, not in couples)
  • Invite them over for dinner (food is usually a big deal!)
  • Provide them with a sense of family life.

Things to keep in mind

  • Politics and religion aren’t often taboo subjects like they are in the US. Be informed about current events and historical situations that may be impactful to them.
  • Be ready to answer questions about American culture for them.
  • Be aware of slang or idioms you use, and be ready to explain them.
  • Build a friendship with them – which means taking time to be with them. Try to step out of the “American rush” and spend a few hours in conversation.
  • Be SPECIAL – Sensitive, Patient, Enthusiastic,Creative, Informed, Adaptable, Loving
  • Understand they are the top students from their country and it may be frustrating to not understand a new language. Be aware of feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, frustration, etc. Encourage and reassure them. Often there will be non-verbal clues to these, so keep an eye out!
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat things often.

Sharing your faith

Once you’ve gotten to know them better, they might be more comfortable with you asking them deeper and more personal questions. Remember that we are called to share Christ – they need to feel that we truly love them and are their friend. You don’t want them to feel you just got to know them to shove a Bible at them and run off.

  • Be honest about yourself. Make no secret that you are a Christian.
  • Ask about their cross cultural experience – what do they miss about home? What (good or bad) experiences have they had since being in the US? What has been hard to get used to? How are they changing or resolving conflicts because of the different cultures? How do they feel about that?
  • Don’t be afraid to bring up Christianity in response to questions or concerns – remember that Christ can handle their homesickness/troubles/studies/fears/etc.
  • Remember that they’re not so different from you – they experience the same feelings and difficulties. Draw parallels between their experiences and yours.

Remember that Jesus is the ultimate culture crosser. Read more about how to cross cultures like Jesus does in Crossing Cultures with Jesus.


This resource compiled from different articles on Conversation Partners, Cross Cultural Relationships (by Birthe-Munck Fairwood), and the book Figuring Foreigners Out (by Craig Storti)

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