Western Cultural Assumptions

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The following is a list of cultural assumptions commonly held by westerners. It is essential that those of us who are engaged in cross-cultural ministry become aware of our assumptions, lest we wind up confusing our own culture with the gospel message. Our assumptions may not all be wrong, but we must make ourselves aware of them. Don't forget that these points are hints, not absolute statements: not everybody will agree on every point, but let's try to be really honest to ourselves!

Our Own Ignorance

We are typically unaware of our own world-view and how it affects the way we see everything about everything.

  • We simply assume that our way of understanding reality is correct, and we almost never stop to examine our assumptions.
  • We can't just study other people's cultures -- we must study our own to discover what we assume to be true.
  • If you are guest in another country, asking many questions about their culture, you'll realise that they often don't actually know ... it feels so familiar, yet we never questioned why we show this particular behaviour etc.
  • Actually, it's in this process of being questioned and questioning each other that we learn cultural sensitivity, both for our own and other cultures.

View of Reality

We assume that we live in a real world that exists outside ourselves.

  • We see the world as rational and ordered, running according to natural laws.
  • Therefore, we can examine these natural laws to discover how the world works.
  • We make a sharp distinction between fact and fiction, actual events and myths, reality and dreams.
  • In contrast many Asian cultures see the world as an illusion, the dreaming of god.
  • Therefore, to discover reality you must look inside yourself -- science is unable to identify any truth.

We are dualistic.

  • We see a distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world, the natural and the supernatural.
  • Therefore, praying and evangelism is 'spiritual' where as washing the dishes is 'natural' and less important.
  • Many other cultures see the natural and spiritual as being intimately intertwined.

Materialism

  • We tend to judge people by what they own -- we measure achievement by the quality of material goods one possesses.
  • Likewise, we tend to equate happiness with material wealth and physical well-being.
  • i.e. -- in business priority is on profit rather than the well-being of employees.
  • We highly value these material things, almost assuming them to be rights -- warm homes, hot running water, comfortable beds, enough food...

We typically engage in 'Either/Or' thinking.

  • We sort reality into opposing categories (i.e. either something is red or black, round or square, good or bad.)
  • We distinguish work and play
  • Work is what people do for a living, and at work they must keep the boss happy.
  • Play is for relaxation and friendships.
  • High value is placed on work -- without a job you are seen as rather worthless.
  • In many other cultures, work and play are not separated -- Building a new house could be an opportunity for a community to gather and celebrate together.

We separate public and private.

  • What happens in our public lives (i.e. work) is to be separate from our home lives.
  • It is wrong for people in the 'public' arena to ask you private questions.
  • One has to act 'proper' in public, but can be themselves in private.

We have a mechanistic world-view.

  • We tend to see the world and nature as a machine, all the different parts working together.
  • The most important goal is the completion of tasks.
  • For example -- we see nature as being made of lifeless atoms of chemicals which we can use for our benefit.
  • Our society is made into roles where one person can be replaced by another like a cog in a machine -- you replace one supermarket worker with another, one teacher with another... everyone plays their role in the machine.
  • Most other societies treat nature and humans as living beings. Relationship takes priority over completing tasks. Everything revolves around relationships. They see us as incredibly rude and impersonal.

We are individualistic.

  • The individual is seen as the basic building block of society.
  • Each person is their own authority with their own identity.
  • We are taught to think for ourselves, to choose for ourselves, and are encouraged to stand up for our rights.
  • Freedom is seen as a right for all.
  • In many other cultures the basic building block of society is the group.
    • People see themselves firstly as members of the group they belong to, not as individuals.
    • Identity comes from the group, not from yourself.
  • We are always searching for our own identity, because we believe our identity is found in who we are as individuals.
  • We highly value self-reliance
  • A great fear is to be dependent on other people, especially for money.
  • Whereas in many other cultures, life is about being dependant on others.

We believe in the equality of all people.

  • Relationships between people are horizontal -- we are all as equals, no one being worth more than others.
  • In contrast many cultures are arranged into set hierarchies, such as the Indian caste system.

We place priority on time.

  • Time is scarce and needs to be saved, and can be easily wasted and lost.
  • Time is money, and employers buy the time of their workers.
  • Buses, trains and airlines are all focused on time, and we are frustrated if our travel is delayed and we have to sit around and waste time.
  • In many societies there is little focus on time.
    • Rather, they are concerned with the task which needs to be done, and with relationships.
    • Rituals and church services begin whenever everyone shows up, and they go until everyone is finished -- it could be hours, but no one minds.
    • Friends visit without ever looking at a clock.