Entrust Equipping Leaders
How can I contextualize myself to a new culture?
March 3, 2023
Is self-contextualization a thing? If so, how can I do that ... change myself so as to serve well in a new culture? Dr. Ott of TEDs shares practical ideas and Scriptural background.
Our culture is the water in which we swim. How can we become aware of the nature of that water, especially as we dive into a new pool of water? Dr. Craig Ott shares insights from life and from his book, "Teaching and Learning Across Cultures."

Helpful links

Dr. Ott's book:  http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/teaching-and-learning-across-cultures/405211

Dr. Ott's Entrust Equipping Leaders articlehttps://www.entrust4.org/post/developing-intercultural-competency

Entrust: www.entrust4.org

Speaker Name  | Start Time  | Text
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;00;05;29  | My wife and I lived for 21 years in Germany. We spent a lot of time in other countries while we were there. And part of my role at Trinity allows me to be spending six or seven weeks a year doing international work. So I've since been to over 40 different countries.
Todd (intro/outro)  | 00;00;23;00  | Today's guest on Entrust Equipping Leaders is Dr. Craig Ott of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Today's topic is contextualizing ourselves as we serve in new cultures so that we can do excellent kingdom work for God's glory. Let's join our host, Laurie Lind, and Dr. Ott.
Laurie Lind  | 00;00;43;02  | Welcome to Entrust Equipping Leaders and I'm really happy to have the guest I have today who I've known a bit in the past and nice to get reacquainted again. Dr. Craig  Ott. Dr.. ... Well, what should I call you, sir?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;01;00;10  | Well, we're old friends. You can call me Craig.
Laurie Lind  | 00;01;05;24  | Well, our topic today is about contextualization somewhat or developing intercultural competency, which was the title of the article we published on our Web site, thanks to you, which was, in fact, an excerpt from your book, Teaching and Learning Across Cultures. So mostly what we're talking about is, is coming from that book, but also, I would guess from your own personal experience, what have you experienced?
Laurie Lind  | 00;01;35;27  | Where have you lived and what have been your experiences cross-culturally?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;01;39;23  | Yeah. So as far as living internationally, my wife and I lived for 21 years in Germany. That's really the only other place we've lived for an extended period of time outside of the U.S. Now we spent a lot of time in other countries while we were there. And part of my role at Trinity allows me to be spending 6 to 7 weeks a year doing international work.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;02;03;13  | So I've since been to over 40 different countries doing teaching or consulting or some kind of ministry on the ground. Usually those kinds of assignments are only for a week or two. So that's that's kind of my experience.
Laurie Lind  | 00;02;20;27  | And I'm just thinking we're going to be talking about how we can become more sensitive and how we can even sort of adjust our own behaviors and responses in a new culture. This is off the cuff, but do you have a story from your early days overseas where maybe you committed a cultural faux pas?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;02;41;16  | Oh, there's plenty of them, particularly our early years in Germany. You know, when you're you're actually living in the country, not just visiting for a short period, you're trying to do life a lot more. And, oh, there's there's little things like, oh, the way you might do your shopping and pick the fruit with your own hands and you're not supposed to use your hands.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;03;06;24  | You're supposed to ask somebody to do it for you or a big thing in many countries, particularly in Asia, you don't use your left hand for anything except one thing. And I happened to be left handed. Now, usually they will recognize, well, you know, you're a foreigner or whatever, but it still is probably a little uncomfortable for them when I will inadvertently use my left hand for all kinds of things that I shouldn't be doing.
Laurie Lind  | 00;03;38;10  | Yeah, I can imagine. I had several faux pas as myself living overseas. Yeah. It certainly wakes you up to your own culture, which is something that you said that really struck me in your article. That culture is something like water. We're almost not aware of of the environment that is our own culture because it's just what we're used to.
Laurie Lind  | 00;04;02;12  | So if we're not even aware of like our own culture, if I'm not aware of what makes me how I respond to life because it's just part of my whole life, how can I even learn about it or even begin to discover what what the water is like that I swim in?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;04;18;29  | Well, you really don't until you jump out of the aquarium. Yes. And then you find out, oh, there actually is another world out there. And so that's usually the best way to begin to find out, you know, what your own culture is about is by being either around other people or ideally to actually go live somewhere else for a while.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;04;40;12  | And then you begin to notice just how many things are you just thought are normal, are not for other people normal at all. So really just that personal exposure is is kind of a starting point.
Laurie Lind  | 00;04;54;05  | So would you say it's almost not possible to discover my own culture while still living in my own culture?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;05;03;01  | Well, except for the fact that if your culture is in the United States, then your culture is a pretty mixed culture. You know, the United States is a very, very diverse country. And the number of first generation immigrants that we are experiencing now with immigration and so on is the highest it's been for a century, really. It's. And so we are encountering people from other cultures regularly, just in the supermarket or going about daily life in the United States.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;05;35;23  | So it's there. But for most many of us, it's sort of our own turf. And so we're not paying as closer attention to it or it's not really essential for us to get by. Whereas when you actually live somewhere else, well, then it becomes essential that you are alert to those cultural differences.
Laurie Lind  | 00;05;52;29  | One thing you said in your article, you said that learning to navigate life in another culture means resisting our intuitions and restraining or actually and retraining our natural reflexes. How on earth does a person resist their own intuition or retrain their own natural reflexes?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;06;14;20  | Well, sometimes it's sort of like putting your hand on a hot stove and you get burned. So you make a mistake. And then it was a painful mistake or it hurt a relationship. And then you go, Oh, okay, I need to retrain myself not to respond that way. A typical thing would be how how do you deal with a conflict situation in a relationship or decision making process?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;06;42;06  | And you've just sort of moved along in the way you always thought the normal way to make decisions was, and you didn't realize it, but you were offending people. Well, you know, that usually will end up having a pretty negative effect on yourself and your relationships. So some of it is just going to be the negative consequences that will teach you.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;07;02;21  | But just being self aware and saying and and being a good observer and then just trying to catch yourself where you're having sort of an immediate intuitive response to a situation. But some of it we just were just not aware of until we make the mistake or somebody else tells us.
Laurie Lind  | 00;07;24;06  | Yeah, that's maybe a more gentle way to find some of that out. In your article, you just basically overall, you talked about intercultural competency. So what does that actually mean?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;07;36;29  | So basically, we're talking about the ability to relate to people who are from a different culture than your own, whether you're living in that other culture or just a next door neighbor. But basically, the ability to relate to other people, well from another country culture, to communicate clearly to to be able to get your thoughts across in a way that are not offensive.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;08;01;11  | It's the ability to be able to accomplish tasks, especially if you're where the the dominant environment is, not your culture. How do I get things done here? How do I influence people? How do I build relationships? And so on? So it's basically you're just that ability not to merely survive. So I know how to shop, I know how to basically get by, but how to thrive, not just surviving, but thriving.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;08;28;19  | So I actually have rewarding relationships. I actually am effective in getting things done here. So that's what we're talking about with intercultural competency.
Laurie Lind  | 00;08;37;16  | And so when we get to intercultural competency, you described some aspects self awareness, attitude and experience. Maybe you could describe each of those a little bit and practical ways that we can work toward developing each of those things.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;08;56;00  | Yeah, and they're all kind of interrelated, but self-awareness just starts out with how, you know, what do I understand even about my own culture? Of course, if you're that fish, that's what then that's a little hard to answer. But becoming just aware a little bit more of how I'm reacting to people from another culture. A lot of times that may be frustration or even anger or bewilderment.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;09;27;19  | Sometimes it's joy. You go, Wow, this is really cool. But just becoming aware of even your emotional responses and how, you know, this is what we talk about culture shock sometimes, where you've been living in another culture for a while and then it just doesn't feel right. You get homesick. Just becoming aware of all these emotions and responses is part of it.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;09;48;18  | And then you become more self aware of what my values are, what's important to me, and what maybe the host culture, what's important to those people, or even my next door neighbor. So that would be sort of the self-awareness. Then of course, the attitude is, I'm going to have to enter this other culture, not with a sense I, I am always right.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;10;11;17  | America is always best or whatever your home country is. But I'm going to be a learner here. I am going to give people the benefit of the doubt that when they do something that seems offensive to me, maybe for them that's the kind thing to do. It just didn't seem like it to me. And so I give people the benefit of the doubt.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;10;32;02  | I'm teachable. I'm open. I realize different is not always bad. Different is just different. And sometimes there's good reasons why people do things differently. And the more I can kind of have that attitude of openness, then the more I'm going to patiently try and really understand what's going on. I don't have to agree with everything, of course, but but I at least try and understand people.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;11;00;12  | So that's that attitude of learning and humility. And then for experience, it's really getting out of your bubble. And there's a real temptation, especially if you're living overseas, to stay where it's comfortable. So you're sort of hanging out with other expats, other people who are like you, and you talk about how cool life in America was and all those favorite foods you can't get, and you know that that's fine.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;11;28;18  | But if you stay in those kind of bubbles, you're not going to develop that competency to be able to go out and relate to the people of the general culture. And that same tendency to want to withdraw can also be with my next door neighbor, who's maybe a first generation immigrant. Their English is not great and I'm a little nervous.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;11;47;03  | You know how do I relate to these people, what I'm going to talk about? And so even they're just having the experience of sort of overcoming my inhibitions a little bit, reaching out. Most people are a lot friendlier than we give them credit for. And so so that's kind of just getting the experience and I compare it sometimes to playing a game.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;12;11;14  | You know, if you learn a new game card game, a board game, you know, there's the rules, but then there's how you really play the game, right? The strategy of how you really win and what are you going to do. You're going to lose the first few times. If it's, you know, if it's a game, that's not just a little chance.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;12;27;26  | You know, it takes a while. You learn how to play the game. And that's a little bit like culture. It's a learning, a new game. There's new rules out there and you're going to make mistakes. You're not always going to win, but if you stay with it, be patient, you're going to do well. And just to give us sort of a practical example of this, one thing that really irks a lot of Americans or a lot of Westerners is punctuality issues.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;12;54;14  | And in many parts of the world, people do not put the same value on arriving at the clock a minute or the event was designated. They don't consider that being late necessarily. But but our understanding of lateness is not only matter is 10 minutes late, it's a half hour late. But there's a deeper value. So if I'm just going on the emotions, what am I doing?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;13;20;21  | Somebody is always coming late to the meeting. I'm saying, Hey, you're wasting my time. You're not being respectful of me and my time. And so I put a motive on that. I put a value judgment on that. Well, sometimes in certain cultures, if you show up for a meeting on time, that means that person is treating it as a business meeting.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;13;44;25  | If you're a friend, you show up late because we're friends. So a person showing up late could actually be a positive sign in that person's way of looking at things. Now, I'm going to have to be teachable. I may still not like it, but I at least understand it and guess what? I might just learn that sometimes slowing down and taking your time and not being so uptight and not letting the clock rule my life.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;14;18;04  | Maybe that's not always a bad thing, and that's how we become enriched. And we actually can grow through these cross-cultural encounters. And that's where we can really be enriched as people through these encounters. So it's not just a matter of getting along, but how can I become a better person, a more balanced person? Maybe not that I do everything the other people do, but I look at myself differently.
Laurie Lind  | 00;14;47;27  | That makes me think of something, you know, how would I understand? Like, say, someone is always coming late to a class or a Bible study or something. How would I find out that to them? That's that's a sign of warmth and friendship and comfort, especially if that's the culture they swim in and they don't even really know why they come, right?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;15;09;22  | Yes, right. And if seen and here's where the conflicts get complicated, because I find myself getting sort of frustrated and kind of irritated with this person and they don't have a clue why, and they just think I'm an irritable person. Mm hmm. So what you need to do, usually when you enter a new culture, especially, you're going to be there for a while.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;15;31;05  | You need a cultural insider. So if I go to Mexico, it's going to be a mexican, a cultural insider who can help me out, and I have to give them permission. I say, You know what? I'm like a little child here. I don't know how to do things. I don't know what counts as late and what's not and etc. Please help me.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;15;51;02  | I'm at your mercy. I need somebody to tell me when I'm doing something that's really offensive, but I don't know it. Using my left hand for all kinds of things. Maybe. So will you please coach me on this? Now, in a lot of cultures, they will not want to correct me. They will not want to say something negative.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;16;10;07  | So you really have to give them a lot of permission. So that's usually one of the most important things is to get really a trusted insider and to just make yourself vulnerable. So please, please tell me. And then when you encounter something you don't understand, you can go to that person and say, hey, you know, I observed this the other day and I didn't understand why why it happened this way.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;16;32;16  | And and that person trying to kind of explain to you what was going on. So having a couple of good cultural insiders like that is really a key.
Laurie Lind  | 00;16;44;10  | I like that.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;16;45;08  | Tendency. Pardon me? Our tendency is to go to the other expense and you go to the other expat and say, gosh, people here are always late. And the other expert says, Yeah, boy, I think that's terrible. That frustrates me. You don't always get the answer. That's going to be helpful.
Laurie Lind  | 00;17;02;03  | MM Yes, true. The Insider and the insider might be also need to be fairly self aware to start thinking, yeah, why is it that everybody around that I've grown up with we 2:00 means to 15 to us or something. We may not know why, but maybe they'll do some discovering as well along the way. In terms of all that to we as we're entering another culture and we want to fit in with thoughts and behaviors and responses and handling things.
Laurie Lind  | 00;17;34;23  | And yet what if what if some of those things are what we really understand to not be biblical things that that are part of the culture that you're in, but they really aren't quite right in your understanding of the Bible. How do you how do we handle that kind of a thing?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;17;55;19  | You're right. And we have to realize that every culture has the beautiful and the positive and every culture has the ugly and the negative. We are in a fallen world. And so whether it's American culture or some other culture, there's always going to be some good there. There's always going to be some some bad from God's perspective. Well, of course, we want to stay as close to the scripture as possible.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;18;23;03  | Most people do not just set out to do evil things, but there's usually some kind of a half truth in there that makes it plausible. So so we want to go back to Scripture and the way that I think the best way, especially if I'm an outsider to deal with these things that I have to be very practical here.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;18;40;27  | This is what I've done. Let's take cohabitation, fornication, if you will. This is just considered normal in many parts world. In the United States, it's considered pretty normal. I've met people who said, why would you ever get married without first having lived together and had sexual relations? That would be unwise to do not do that. So that's considered just normal.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;19;04;24  | So what's the approach you take? I think biblically speaking it is sinful, but instead of me just sort of coming in and saying, okay, listen, that's not what God wants, I like to pray for that couple, let's say, and what I've done is I've given them some Bible passage to read and I say, Well, you read these passages, will you pray about them?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;19;25;24  | What? God, you know what you think God is telling you here? And I actually have had it happen were I went for a follow up visit after that and they said, does that say what I think it says? Because we probably ought to get married if it's saying what we think it says. That's what God's telling you. You better do it.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;19;44;25  | So you're sensing this is what God wants and not what God wants. And I think that's a real temptation for us as cultural outsiders to come in and be quickly critical. And many of these things are worthy of critique. But it's important for people to sense this is what God wants, not what the outsider wants. This is what the Bible teaches, is what the Holy Spirit is convicting by heart about the right thing to do.
Laurie Lind  | 00;20;11;03  | Yeah, take it to Scripture and let the God's Word and the Holy Spirit speak into those things that that's good.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;20;19;08  | Yeah. There's no guarantee. Just as in our own lives, we will always obey. But. But this is, I think, the better starting point.
Laurie Lind  | 00;20;27;13  | Speaking of cultures, a lot of what interest has is coming into a new environment, networking with people, finding out what are the gaps in leadership training here, and then how can we come alongside you and develop a system that works for your people in your culture? Well, to train and equip men and women to be pastors or to lead in the local church in some way and and seeking to keep it culturally relevant, the whole system from the beginning, at the same time in trust places a high value on small groups and kind of facilitated learning question based learning.
Laurie Lind  | 00;21;07;15  | So in some cultures, some of that concept, we have introduced it and in certain cultures that are very authoritarian, where the teacher just talks and the students listen and it's rote and you spit it back out on a test. That's what they're kind of used to, even in the church or a small group. And one interest is bringing might seem countercultural, and yet it also seems to be biblical small groups asking questions.
Laurie Lind  | 00;21;36;28  | How do we determine like if our methodology even is, is it offensive or is it even sinful to bring a methodology that we think works really well? But it sure is different for that culture. We're going to.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;21;51;05  | It's a great question because we do, particularly again in America, in Western culture, we put a lot of value on sort of a more discovery approach to learning, where the more a person can kind of reach their own conclusions, the more likely that is to really stick and be meaningful to them. And I think there is that's a legitimate pedagogical principle.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;22;16;12  | At the same time, we may be downplaying the value of of more didactic kinds of instruction. So I think there's a place for both. But like you say, many cultures there's going to be a tendency to to desire the one and not appreciate the other. So first of all, we have to be good listeners and sometimes we're as Americans, not very good listeners.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;22;41;26  | We want to be problem solvers, but we don't always listen very carefully to to what's going on, how people are perceiving what we're doing. So just to really enter in as a listener and making sure we're we're helping in a way that they feel is helpful sometimes national groups that they want to have a good connection to American because they think there will be other advantages than just the teaching.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;23;07;27  | So but in terms of actual teaching, you want to introduce those alternative methods we'll call that methods are not as familiar with it are a little strange to them. You want to introduce those with care. Otherwise they're just going to think, well, what kind of a teacher is this? He never gives us the answer when he knows the answer.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;23;26;13  | What's his problem? And so you'll have to clarify. This is the reason why I'm going to be teaching in this manner. I believe that you have the Holy Spirit, and I believe that God can guide you in His truth and that I'm not the only person here that that has the spirit of God. I might have some factual information about, you know, Bible history or something that you don't have, but so you have to make the reasoning of why you're approaching it in a certain way.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;23;59;24  | And you may have to do some compromises. I know there was one situation like that where the the students just said, we will not give you our opinion. You're the teacher. You tell us. And he just went back and forth with them and finally said, I'll make a deal with you. You read the text, you tell me what you think.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;24;18;02  | It means, that how that would apply to your culture. And after you've done that, I'll tell you what I think. So sometimes you have to be negotiate a little bit, but make it make it plausible and don't overwhelm people. It is possible, though. China has known Hong Kong as the kind of culture where people expect a lecture. But there's been for a couple of decades now, approaches to more problem based learning, which is not just tell the answer, but give students case case studies, problem solving assignments, where they actually learn that way.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;24;54;06  | And they found out that once students kind of overcome the initial resistance to it, they actually love it. So so there's good evidence that if we approach it well and don't just sort of have a shock effect where people don't understand what's going on, that we actually can help people develop other ways of learning.
Laurie Lind  | 00;25;15;19  | And then even pick up those ways of learning and pass them on to others as well.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;25;20;29  | Well, if they have found it to be really helpful and then there's a much likely greater likelihood for them to use that when they teach. I mean, let's face it, we tend to teach the way we were taught. That's those are our role models. Now the expat teacher comes in and it's a bit of an anomaly. If every other teacher, they've had only lectures and that sort of thing, then while you're kind of the exotic one, they might tend not to want to imitate you as much because you're kind of exotic.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;25;51;07  | On the other hand, if you have a longer standing relationship, if it's more than just coming in for a short week or two, then there's a greater likelihood of them adopting some of those alternative teaching approaches.
Laurie Lind  | 00;26;04;22  | What are some passages in the Bible that speak to these concepts of developing intercultural competency?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;26;12;26  | Well, the probably the clearest one would be first Corinthians Chapter nine, starting verse 19. This is where Paul I won't read the whole thing, but Paul talks about, you know, becoming a Jew to the Jew, a Greek to the Greek. And the interesting thing he says is I became like one under the law, though I'm myself, not under the law to reach those under the law.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;26;32;24  | And then he says to those not having the law became like one, not having the law, though I'm not free from God's law. So what Paul is saying is all of this was for the sake of winning others for the gospel. So he's willing to change his lifestyle. But not compromise God's standard for him. So you have to have a conviction about really what God's standard for your own life is.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;26;56;18  | And that's going to come from God's word. But at the same time, in all those other negotiable issues, he's willing to make sacrifice. It must have been revolting for him to eat pork or shellfish. He'd never eaten it, and it was always told that was bad for you. He did this? Yeah. He was willing to to to make some sacrifice to to bend because it was for the sake of the gospel.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;27;21;18  | And yet he knew his convictions where there were points he's not going to compromise. So I think that's the clearest example. I mean, there are other ones that that are not quite that clear. But but yes, that's that's a good one.
Laurie Lind  | 00;27;37;01  | So something about I've called itself contextualization, but maybe that's not quite the right term. But more developing intercultural competency is a very key part of our ministry in new cultures.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;27;51;06  | Well, that's actually I actually use a phrase similar to that when I teach, we talk a lot about contextualizing our message. So how do I make the gospel clear that another person understands it, but I need to contextualize myself. And that's exactly what you just said. How is my lifestyle? How am I demonstrating love in their love language as we like to say?
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;28;13;00  | How am I showing respect for them? How am I beautifying the gospel with my life? And that means I probably can't just do everything like I would in America. I'm going to have to make adjustments. So, yes, we contextualize our own lives as well as the message.
Laurie Lind  | 00;28;29;11  | Well, Dr. Craig, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about this and expanding on them. And I do want to encourage our listeners to find his article on our website in Trust for dot org. It's called Developing Intercultural Competency. It's an excerpt from the book, which is all explained there on the article. And so, Dr. Eid, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom today.
Dr. Craig Ott  | 00;28;56;01  | Thanks for having me.
Todd (intro/outro)  | 00;28;58;07  | Challenging and encouraging thoughts today from Dr. Craig Ott. How much are we willing to bend to be humble in order to understand and enter into a new culture, to serve people in that culture? If you'd like to read more on this topic, you can consult Dr. Ott’s article on our Entrust website or his book, Teaching and Learning Across Cultures.
Todd (intro/outro)  | 00;29;20;06  | Find links to both in our show notes. Please take a moment to subscribe to this Entrust Equipping Leaders podcast. Next time our guest is Jerry Wells of Entrust. He'll describe life and ministry in Romania and the things he learned about contextualizing himself as he served God there. See you then.