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Reaching Across Cultures

Communication Strategy Across Cultures
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

When I was a boy, my father owned a radio station in North Central Texas, not quite in the Panhandle.  It was wet in the fall and dry in the summer, and it was flat, so radio signals went a long way with a little power.

I grew up in the radio business, learning music, business, sales, news, and programming.  I learned to think in terms of the audience we were transmitting to, and the merchants my dad had to sell advertizing to.

In the first case, we had to know what the audience liked and wanted, and provide services and programs that met those desires and needs.  At the same time we had a civic responsibility to challenge the listeners to expand their tastes in music, and to inform them of current events. Our station was the first in Texas (1951) to plan a music-news format with news on the hour and headlines and weather on the half-hour!

In the second case, we had to know what the merchants wanted for their businesses, and how to appeal to their profit-oriented needs in order to sell them the "spots" (now called ads) that would meet their requirements.  At the same time, we had the civic responsibility to involve the merchants in community affairs, to introduce them to new or better marketing techniques, and to develop store promotions such as live broadcasts from stores, to increase public interest.

The broadcaster, or communicator, had the responsibility to provide what was needed (or at least wanted) in order to keep the listener from turning the dial, or to keep the merchant from pulling his ads.  Broadcasting gives us exactly the right model to understand the dynamics of communication and to illustrate our responsibility as communicators.

As missionaries or other foreign workers in a host culture plan projects, many factors are at work which are not visible on the surface.  It appears that decision-making is a culturally-determined process, dependent on deep-set concepts of the world, on significant values for a particular society and on complex expectations based on the unique set of experiences common to the particular culture-group.

The assumptions of the host culture entail a unique set of beliefs and expectations different from the culture of the foreigner.  If the foreigner, or newcomer, is unaware to watch for these differences, many errors can be made.  The unique set of assumptions and expectations, referred to as a worldview, determines much of the design and likely success of any plan or project carried out in that cultural context.

The Communication Event
Every encounter or exchange between humans can be analyzed as a communication event.  The insights from communication theory can help bridge the gaps in cross-cultural communication.  These insights can sensitize the newcomer to the dynamics to watch for, and inform us of some approaches to diminish the differences between home and host cultures.

A commonly accepted theory of communication is called the Process Theory of Communication.  This theory assumes that there are at least two persons or groups involved in the communication event, a sender and a receiver, also referred to as a source and a respondent.  From my background in radio and TV, I like the terms transmitter and receiver.

This theory, developed in western technical society, assumes that basic encounters between human beings entail the exchange of some information – the message – which can be transmitted from one to the other.  Normally the event will be structured so that each participant is at some time the transmitter, and the other the receiver.

The analysis of the communication event will apply no matter which participant is "transmitting" and which is "receiving" at any particular time.  This does not diminish the fact that most encounters between humans also have broader social meaning, beyond the simple exchange of information.

Some cultures, like the broad, general American culture, are very information oriented.  Objective facts are paramount.  Information as a commodity is of central value.  For most cultures of the world, however, relationships are central and critical.  The group is of primary value – the lineage, the religious community, the nation.

One way of restating the information principle is that in every communication event, cultural information is exchanged.  These two views – objective, abstract or information orientation, and concrete relational concepts of life – find a commonality in this concept of communication theory.

This fact is a result of the cultural identity of a human being.  We are cultural beings – there is no way around that.  This cultural identity is always an aspect of our encounters with other humans who also have their particular cultural identity.

The specific culture and community will determine what type of intellectual, interpersonal, scientific or mystical information is of greater importance in the exchange.  This is what is involved in culture learning.  This is why worldview investigation is required for any serious cross-cultural exchange.

The transmitter, or sender, sends a message to the receiver. The idea in the transmitter's mind is formulated out of the transmitter's range of experience, and thus his/her range of knowledge, then expressed in terms of a language and style format.  This means that the idea is encoded and communicated verbally or visually, with various combinations of communication media.

The receiver then has to decode the message, in terms of the receiver's previous experience, knowledge, assumptions and sophistication in terms of the communication media used by the transmitter.  What the receiver decodes is what has been communicated.  This may not be the same thing the transmitter originally intended to communicate.

When the transmitter formulates, or encodes, the message, it must be processed through cultural and personal factors called filters.  A widely accepted description of these filters is provided by David Hesselgrave.  [David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 2nd Edition, 1991), p. 39ff.] The major filters are:  World Views, Cognitive Processes, Linguistic Forms, Behavioral Patterns, Social Structures, Media Influences and Motivational Responses (ways of deciding).

I will not go into a lengthy discussion of these filters.  The list should give the reader a sufficient concept of the factors involved, for the purposes of our discussion.  The message takes form in terms of these factors in the transmitter's culture and person.  Similar factors in the receiver's cultural and personal background then recreate the message as the form and content are decoded through those filters.

It thus stands to reason that the more the transmitter knows about the receiver – that is, about the receiver's filters, background and expectations – the more effective the communication will be.  The less the transmitter knows about the receiver, the more errors will be made.  Communication theory thus directs us to the learning of the "filter factors" of the culture of the receiver, whether an individual or a group.

We will look at the role of filters in the encoding process and the possible errors that the communicator needs to be aware of.  Then we will discuss the format of the message, including the use of appropriate media, in cross-cultural communication.

Look over the list of "filters" given above.  These factors are components of what we normally refer to as culture.  These filters are based on the common experience of the group of which the receiver is a member.  The receiver may also be the group as a whole, as in a radio broadcast to a certain language group, or an evangelistic campaign in a certain city.

Cultural factors are always involved in our communication.  Awareness of these seven cultural factors defined as "filters" will enhance communication.  This will affect planning, approach, choice of participants, materials, and so forth, involved in a project.

A basic principle we can draw from this discussion is that communication is based on commonality. The more in common between the two participants, the less ambiguity there will be.  Errors are most likely to occur in areas where there is a lack of commonality.  Errors of communication may be made in either content or format.

Common Sense
The transmitter may make no sense at all.  There may be no commonality of concept enabling the receiver to make sense of the content of the message.  It may be, as we say "over their heads."  The channel or medium, or the level of language used – that is, the format – may also interfere with communication, with the perception of the message.

This interference is referred to as noise, just as we get static on a radio signal, or just as passing traffic noise may make it hard to hear someone's words clearly.

I have heard beautiful, theologically "right" messages presented by Western missionaries in good Swahili, which added up to perfectly understandable (in language terms) nonsense (in terms of concepts, culture and form of address).  Because the speaker had not taken seriously the responsibility to know and understand the people – and their own concept of themselves, and what they already "knew" about the reality they lived in daily.  There was too much cultural noise in the transmission, hindering reception.

Another possibility is to communicate something different from that intended.  Symbols the transmitter uses may have a different meaning to the receiver, and therefore be decoded differently by the receiver.

The language used, the particular words chosen, the order in which concepts are presented, the illustrations used, the theological figures presented, the administrative structure used to run a project or ministry – these may in themselves be noise, because they obscure, rather than enhance the message or motive or the transmitter as perceived by the receiver.

Here it is the responsibility of the transmitter, as the communicator, to distinguish between form and substance in his message.  Two examples from Christian history may illustrate this problem.

Hichol Syncretism
My research in the history of Mexican Christianity indicates that when the Spaniards arrived, they saw a set of three crosses on high bluffs or hills around the countryside.  The Roman Catholic priests recognized this symbol of the three crosses on Golgotha.  Since this testified that the Indians in these areas already believed in Jesus the slain savior, all that remained for them to become Christian was to be baptized.

Only much later was it discovered that the three crosses had a totally different meaning, as a symbol in the pagan religion of the native peoples of Mexico.  Syncretism was fostered because the Catholic priest-missionaries failed to investigate the substance carried by the form they thought they recognized.  It appears that even the revered symbols of our faith were noise to the Indians! Some other symbol for Christian faith should have been used in order to avoid the confusion of the two religions.

Name of God
The name of God is a question that sometimes comes up in the presentation of Christian concepts to certain peoples.  Early Christian missionaries in a culture have to determine the concepts communicated by the word for a god in the local language.  Many peoples have the concept of one high God, or a Creator God, even if that God exists alongside other gods.  In most cases, the local name for the Creator has been used to represent the Creator God revealed in the Bible.

The best example is the word used in English and other European tongues.  The word "god" is the Germanic word for any divinity, representing the Gothic pantheon, just as "theos" in Greek represented the Olympian "gods", but was used for the One True and Living God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Swahili (Bantu) word "Mungu" representing the Creator God is used for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Some Western Christians have trouble using the Arabic word for the Creator God, Allah, for the God of Jesus Christ.  Yet Arabic-speaking Christians know that word means "The God." Arabic-speaking Jews similarly use that word for the Biblical God.  The word is simply a form of Elah/Eloah in the Old Testament Aramaic/Hebrew.  Thus different forms can represent one reality.

Different Meaning
On the other hand the same form may communicate different realities.  The local name was used for the Biblical God, but the concept the word represented was changed.  The Biblical concept of God was imparted as part of the faith of the new believers in each new language-culture group.

The Muslim Arabs have a different concept of who Allah is because of their religious teaching.  The Christian Arabs have a Biblical concept of Allah.  The traditional African has a concept of who the Creator God is, but the Christian African has a Biblical concept of who the Creator is.

Note that what someone thinks Allah refers to or what the term “God” refers to is a whole separate question from how the word is used.  An individual's understanding may be deficient from some standard or orthodox point of view, no matter what language they speak.  People in Christian Churches who refer to the Divine as God can have a very limited, no-Christian concept of god.

Mungu and Allah are used by Christians, with the Christian understanding, not the traditional or Islamic idea of God, just as the Germanic word God is used by English-speaking Christians.  This is a discipleship task, not a linguistic or theological question.

In summary, the same form may communicate a different substance, while the same substance may require a different form.  It is the responsibility of the communicator to convey the meaning intended.  This means the communicator must know as much as possible about the target individual or group.  Investigation, then, becomes an inescapable, major part of project planning.

The format of the communication event includes the media used to convey the message, but is broader.  First let's consider the question of visual vs. oral format.  Westerners have a much harder time with this than they think.  I have observed that Americans are so literate that they even talk in print format.

For instance, they will be talking along and when quoting something someone else said, they draw quote marks in the air, as though they were writing!  At the same time they are more visual, being used to television commercials and music videos that flash several images on the screen in one second.  The communicator must take into account the visual literacy as well as the verbal literacy of the receiver.

The design of a project among the Karamojong or the Maasai, who are largely illiterate, will be different from that for people in an urban area.  For such people, effective formats must include
pictures, simple rather than complex, life-representational rather than abstract or graphic;
dramas, representing gospel events, or practical problems like children's illnesses or water problems; and
stories, told in the traditional narrative format if possible.

These same formats are usually also more effective for literates and new-literates.  Keep in mind that many literates individuals or peoples actually process their information and decision-making in an Oral-Relational (or Concrete-Relational) format, not on the basis of reading and internalizing information.  Direct propositional teaching of abstract points will not likely communicate in oral-relational societies.

Images or topics should be very practical and life-oriented for illiterate peoples.  The format of thought among pre-literate and many new-literate peoples is concrete relational.  That is, things must be life-related, not abstract concepts.  The primary values are the immediate questions of survival, relationships and social obligation.  These are the contact point for any changes in their worldview.

Most peoples of the world have a concreted-relational worldview.  They are not likely to be interested in metaphysical concepts or philosophical theology which seem to consume many Western Christians' thinking.  The western focus on ideas and information, facts and details will not make sense.  The western analytical approach will be mostly confusing, since the world is seen as a whole in most of the world's cultures.  The western linear and abstract way of thinking will be seen as disconnected with life and real value.

A few years ago when I was starting new church work among the Maasai I had a good chance to apply these concepts.  Some of the places I went I was told that I was the first leshumba (white person) that had been in that village.  Sometimes I was told I was the first Christian.  Many had never heard of Jesus, or the Bible.  In one group of about 30 people, only three had heard of Christmas.  Two did not know what it was, and one said it was a sikukuu (holiday).  I mention this to illustrate that this was totally new territory for the gospel.

One day I walked with a Maasai pastor and a missionary apprentice for two hours across scrub areas to a new village.  In trying to tell them about Jesus, I used figures common to their life-style.  I brought them water in a jug and told them that Jesus was my water in the dry season.

I carried my walking stick (a red broom handle) and told them that Jesus was my walking stick that kept me from falling on the trail up and down the ravines of life like those we had crossed to get there.  I referred to their cattle and told them that Jesus was a careful and faithful herder who protected his believers.

I could not think of any intellectual "truths" (rational propositions) about Jesus that would communicate as much.  I note that Jesus used these kinds of examples in his own teaching to the common people; then he referred to the law and history when he spoke with the educated elders of Israel.

Visual Impressions
In looking at some Hindu books, I evaluated the effect of the concepts conveyed by the images on the cover.  One book's cover pictures a person with Eastern features, wrapped in a white robe, surrounded by a Lotus flower, the symbol of Hinduism, with the names of certain moral virtues written in the petals.

The name of the publisher is printed below the picture across the whole width of the cover:  Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa-Vidyalaya.  Is this going to appeal to any Westerner not already interested in Hinduism or Eastern mysticism?  Not likely.  The Hindu names glaring across the bottom of the cover prejudice the case, and the visual picture certainly turns off anyone not already at least curious about Hinduism.

This book cover will appeal to insiders while it seems the writer intended it to be for non-Hindus!  Why is the publisher's name primary rather than the topic of the book?

The honorable title, Moral Values, Attitudes and Moods, is further overshadowed by the alien symbolism.  The non-Hindu would immediately be put off by the overt Hindu symbols.  Visual and verbal chauvinism and what many would see as arrogance are characteristic of Hinduism, as well as Islam.

Followers of a Yogi or Guru commonly take an Indian name.  The mantras they chant are in Sanskrit, not German, Kikuyu or Spanish.  Converts to Islam are expected to take an Arabic name, often to wear Arabic clothes, and such.

This cultural imperialism strongly limits its appeal to otherwise rational and committed people.

A second Hindu book features a peaceful mountain scene with a pretty river flowing down to the lower center of the picture.  This combines with the interesting title, Adventures in Religious Life, to invite the casual observer to open and investigate the contents.  The appearance of an item is the most important factor in the choice to purchase or read a book, unless there already exists a prior "insider's" interest.

"Packaging" or "marketing" techniques are overlooked only at the peril of the communicator.  If you as the communicator ignore the shape, visual appeal, verbal format or thought approach to your message, you must take responsibility for the reception or non-reception of the message you thought you were presenting.

The form, format, organization or tone of voice may have obscured your intended content.  It seems to me that many individuals and peoples have not rejected Christ, but they have rejected certain cultural, verbal or visual forms which have in fact obscured the Christ they need to know.

When I wrote a book on common themes in Islam, called Path of Love, as a basis for dialogue witness, I thought carefully about the cover.  While the primary audience were Christians, I wanted the book to be acceptable to Muslim readers.  Traditional Arab/Muslim principles prohibit visual images of persons.  This leads to focus on geometric design and stylized lettering.

I looked for something to suggest the carved geometric features in traditional Arab/Swahili architecture, notable in the "Lamu door."  The printer had nothing exactly like that, but we chose a geometric border for certificates, which gave a pleasing effect.

Some foreigners decide to use their native tongue rather than the native tongue of the target audience, thinking that since they "already know" English, or French, it will serve to get going on the project without “wasting” the time to learn the local language.  This overlooks the fact that a language "maps" a worldview.

What you say will be interpreted and mapped into that worldview.  Your input will be considered on the basis of the hearer's worldview.  The farther away from that worldview you language and concepts are the more likely you will not be understood.  That is just syncretism waiting to happen!

Pragmatic, task-oriented Americans suffer from the assumption that the purpose of language is to simply convey factual information.  They often seem unaware of the relational purposes of language, the social purposes of language.  These are critical to communication, particularly in a culture in which you are not competent.

Relational Skill
In most cultures of the world, communication is primarily relational.  Even where information may be in focus, it cannot be communicated if there are impediments to the positive and interpersonal relationship of the communicator with the hearer/receiver.

African people using English normally are mapping an African worldview, with its assumptions and expectations, in their English.  This means that there will be little commonality with the native European speaker of English.  Preferred forms of presentation, discussion, reasoning and argument may also be obscured by the use of the foreigner's language.

In bilingual or multilingual countries, the communicator must give careful consideration to what language is used for what purposes, what concepts are conveyed in which language?  It amazes me still how easily some people dismiss the critical question:  In what language do they think, pray and make their basic life decisions?

It is too easy to overlook also the obvious question:  What language do they use in their leisure time, at the coffee shop, when work is slow?  This is the language they feel at home in.  Nairobi is a large metropolitan city, where much of the business of commerce and government is conducted in English, though often an African English to be sure.  Yet in the coffee shops, Swahili and vernaculars are heard more than English.

Where does the foreign communicator fit into this context?  To really make any significant difference to those people, the communicator needs to be on the common acceptable level of this communication.  Think about it.

In your project, what media of communication will you use?  How do the target people normally communicate with each other?  Literacy is a factor here, but organizational format for radio and TV also is important.  The communicator must evaluate each medium's suitability for the purpose.  Radio, for instance, is a limited medium.

If the listener does not like what he/she hears, the radio can be turned off.  You cannot harangue and abuse people on the radio – unless they want to be harangued and abused.  You cannot bring people to the actual point of decision on the radio, because it is impersonal, it is a mass medium.

Thus radio is not suitable for evangelism.  But radio is great for pre-evangelism, that is, creating interest, giving information, advertizing meetings, building awareness of the denomination, or the planned project or the basic claims of Christ.  And it is suitable for teaching or training, for an audience already committed to Christ, who voluntarily continue to listen for more insight.

Consider posters or leaflets.  To announce a project or meeting, think of the people who will read the announcement.  You would not want to put a cross or Bible on a leaflet to invite people to a rally or Bible study in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

You would not want to use the word "crusade" in a Muslim context either! You do not want your very invitation to be the primary reason someone decides not to come!  Some churches print leaflets announcing their services.  But they put a picture of the church building!

The picture of a church building appeals to committed Christians, or those who have positive, warm feelings about being in a church building.  A church building does not appeal to a person not already oriented to the Church.  More effective would be an assortment of pictures of people of various ages involved in various activities that might relate to the non-member or non-Christian.

Remember:  Your goal is to establish communication.  You must do this in terms familiar to your receiver, your target individual or audience.  Initial appeals should avoid the areas of conflict or uncertainty, and stress interests and commonality.  You as communicator are stepping into the world of the receiver, incurring the responsibility to prove yourself and your message.

Goals and Objectives
How then, do you as communicator set your goals, define your project, design your appeals, map your strategy, state your objectives?  You must consider the cross-cultural factors, in order to avoid mistakes.  You must learn as much as practical in order to lessen the "noise" in your transmission.

You must define a target group – a language group, ethnic group, geographical range, socio-economic group, educational level, and such.  The simple truth is that you cannot reach everybody.  In a church-planting project, for instance, your goal is undefined if you say you wish to start five churches in the next year.

To be effective the project must define areas of the city, or levels of the society, steps you will take to build awareness, reach homes, organize and train workers, designs for newspaper ads or leaflets, activities that will appeal to the group you target and many such details.

What are the concepts, assumptions and preferences of the target group?  What materials, schedules or approaches will meet those factors?  What do the target group need to know or need to know how to do?  How can you best inform them, teach them or train them?  These are indispensable aspects of effective project planning and implementation.

How do you determine these factors?  The most important activity is to observe.  You must use critical and active observation.  This means you must spend time with the target people.  Time and relationships with the people are necessary.

This is also why the effective communicator is one who learns the local language, or one of the local languages, learns to appreciate the people on their own terms, in their own context.  Most important, the communicator is a learner.  The effective communicator makes relationships.  The relationship will, to a large extent, be the communication, not the abstract information involved.

Reading is a second important approach.  Read materials and observations by insiders and outsiders to the target society, group or region.  Consciously engage cultural informants, who can answer specific questions and help you gain the insider views you need to effectively communicate.  Be a systematic learner.

Effective Projects
These factors should help you to become effective in communicating, and in planning and implementing effective projects.  It means more time for each project, more time spent with people and research resources.  But it means monumentally more effective use of the resources and personnel involved in the well-thought-out project!

It means more people reached, taught and trained to a higher level than in the busy-busy scatter-gun activities and projects that so often characterize Western-engineered "ministry."  Pre-packaged programs and tools won't work.

Also related:
Communication Strategy for Multi-Cultural People Groups
Orality and the Post-Literate West
Understanding Worldview


Originally developed for a communications seminar with a Media Task Force of the Baptist Convention of Kenya, Limuru, Kenya, 1991
Developed for a visiting lecture at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Karen, Kenya, January 1992
This version developed for Strategy Leader Resource Kit 5 February 2010
Final article prepared and posted 19 February 2010
Last edited 7 September 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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