Is he happy about this picture or not? I read somewhere (or have heard it) that a smile in Cambodia can mean many things–happiness, embarrassment, hurt or anger. Which one is this? I’m not sure. I’m potentially oblivious to doing the wrong thing.
Every now and then I become aware of, or I’m made aware of, my ignorance regarding my misdemeanours. It dawns on me that I’m making mistakes without being aware of most of them. In your home culture you have more of a sense of what is right and wrong and how to behave appropriately. In a new culture you don’t have that same awareness. You can easily fool yourself that you’re fitting in, when in reality you completely stand out by the errors you unwittingly make. Added to this is that in some places people won’t always pull you up when you’re doing the ‘wrong’ thing. The result is that you can end up doing many wrong things without being aware of it. Some of these wrong things are harmless and are just laughed off as ‘stupid foreigner’. Some wrongs can be more harmful, yet are still hidden from you (often through smiles that say more than you know).
This brings me to a second point. In moving to Cambodia we’ve moved to a culture that his high context (as opposed to Australia which is more a ‘low context’ culture). In a high context culture, like Cambodia, communication occurs as much through non-verbal communication as it does through verbal communication. In other words, its not just what you say or how you say it, but also what is not said that is just as important. You are looking for communication clues that come from body language or from the context of the communication (location, occasion, etc). In contrast, low context cultures like Australia communicate predominately through verbal communication and so less is communicated through body language or context (though that is still important).
What all this means is that not only are we navigating a new language system, we are also trying to learn how to pick up cues from what is not said. Picking up these non-verbal cues may help give us insight into the times when we do something wrong, particularly while our language abilities are still in infancy.
In the end my lack of awareness concerning the mistakes I make is just another aspect of ambiguity tolerance. But our hosts also need to be gracious and use ambiguity tolerance with us as well, until we realise or are shown our foibles. My hope is that this is creating in me more of a sense of humility, that many of my ‘sins’1 are being covered over.
- I actually think this aspect of culture learning is a great analogy for the Christian life. That is, in the early days we sin in tonnes of different ways that we are completely ignorant about. As we grow as Christians, it is through being confronted with God’s Word are shown just how sinful we are–the true extent of our mistakes and failures. As we see our sin more clearly we come to see God’s grace to us in Jesus death more and more deeply. My sins are not just those that I see or know. I’m am sinning constantly and much more deeply than I can know, yet Jesus death has paid for all these unintentional sins as well. ↩