Friday, August 26, 2011

10 Keys to True Cross-Cultural Treasure: Friendship

Last week I wrote about my treasures: Turkish friends who grace my life with laughter, love and loyalty.  Ironically, missing out on this treasure would be all too easy. A great privilege of living overseas is life-enriching friendship with people from other backgrounds, but it’s easy to miss out due to challenges like:

Language barriers

Cultural Misunderstandings

Overwhelming responsibilities: juggling home, family, language learning, 

Fear that they might not like me

Cross-cultural frustration (Holding on to “MY” ways, looking down on theirs)


My first year or so in Turkey, I felt isolated. I found that after my neighbors’ initial expressions of hospitality and friendship were over, I wasn’t sure how to make friends with them. At the multi-national church we attended, I felt insecure about approaching Turks.  Would they want to be friends with me? Would they see me as just another foreigner anxious to practice my Turkish or “minister” to a national? After all, any foreigner might be here today and gone tomorrow, so why should they open up their hearts and and lives to me?

Faltering First Steps

I started with small steps I could manage. I’d gulp hard and force myself to take the first step, walking up to another mother at the park or knocking on a neighbor’s door. At church my husband and I started by inviting local believers to our house for a meal. I felt an affinity with single women in their late 20’s and early 30’s since I’d married at age 31 myself.  I’d take a deep breath and call one of them up just to ask how they were doing.


Most good things in life take time to grow, and my friendships with Turks were no different. As the years have gone by, God has given us a rich harvest of friendships with people we trust and appreciate, people we can laugh and cry with.

Here are some keys to cross-cultural friendship that I’m still learning myself:
  1. Don’t be afraid to reach out and take the first step.  If you haven’t seen them in a while, don’t wait for “them to call you.”
  2. Be humble and willing to learn and serve. 
  3. Keep any complaints about their country to yourself 
  4. Be flexible to do things their way sometimes.  Where I live, this means being open to spontaneity, as in “Can I come over right now?”
  5. Give your relationships time.  Building trust can be slow business.
  6. Be honest about your own struggles (I believe this is one of the greatest keys to impacting the lives of national believers.)
  7. Approach them as equals, people who can encourage you.
  8. Visit them in their homes. In our corner of the world, it is normal to call up and ask if you can come over.  This was hard to get used to, but we suspect new friends are initially more comfortable receiving us in their home than visiting us.
  9. Don’t let uncertainty about how to receive visitors or what to cook hold you back from inviting people into your home. You won’t be perfect, but you’ll learn. 
  10. Don’t take it personally if they refuse your invitation the first time. They may truly be busy or they may feel unsure about you. Give it time and invite them again!

Warm, positive relationships with Turks open the door to greater understanding of differences and give me more tolerance for the frustrations of living here. 

Question: What has been your experience with cross-cultural friendships? 


Linda said...

You are blessed with wisdom!

Your points that I learned, maybe sometimes the hard way, were:

Be humble and willing to learn and serve.

Keep any complaints about their country to yourself.

Approach them as equals.

I think these are especially difficult for North Americans because whether or not we recognize it, we have an air of superiority.

Then too, as Christians often we think we've "arrived" spiritually and we are going to show them how Christianity "works."

I thought I was going to Africa to be on the giving end but, to my surprise, I'm sure I received much more from African friends and colleagues than I ever gave. I never could have imagined, ahead of time, how many ways I'd receive blessings. God is so good!


Karin said...

As always your are a brilliant heart warming writer. A wise women of God. Like a star shining bright to show us the way. Thank you for sharing with us all.

OliveTree said...

Linda, you are so right about us as North Americans. I feel it almost unconsciously myself. I've received more than I've given as well.

Linda and Karin, Thanks to both of you for your encouragement!

Betsy said...

Hi I really relate to your writings b/c my Mid East context of friendships is the same, for the most part. I definitely second making the effort - even again and again - and not waiting around for them to invite you into their lives. I loved the idea of visiting in their homes, especially at first, as a way to make our friends feel comfortable. I also find myself wondering, though, if I'm imposing on their hospitality?

OliveTree said...

Hi Betsy. I took a look at your blog, but it was in Arabic!

I'm sure we share many things in common b/c of our Mid East context, as you say. In Turkey, the normal thing to do is to call and ask if you can come over, or to ask when would it be convenient. Is that the case in your Arab country? We try to be careful never to invite ourselves over at meal times; we go either late afternoon, or for tea at 8:30 or 9:00 pm.

A great thing to do here is to say "We want to come for coffee." Because coffee is served for impromptu visits without food.

I can really relate to your wondering if you're imposing, but if you're not going all the time, don't stay super long, then I don't think you're imposing.

I'd love to hear from you if the Arab context is the same for self invites.

Shanda said...

These are such good thoughts and you give words of wisdom. We make so many mistakes as foreigners: both out of pride and insecurity. Yet, cross cultural friendships are the best way for them to see Jesus in us. May God bless you are you befriend so many there in Turkey!

Alida said...

I love your tips! It took years for us to build the relationships we had in Russia and many of your tips could have been used by some of the missionaries there.

We had heard such awful stories about missionaries and their behavior and attitude toward Russians.

As we are coming up on a year now here in Belize these are a great reminder to me that it takes time and effort on my part to build relationships with locals.

Thank you!