Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier

I think I have mentioned before that my job involves working with International Students. One of the challenges of my work lies in building cross-cultural friendships: no matter how strong the friendship is, we are all coming from different cultures, with different rules, customs, and expectations for relationships. The potential for very real confusion and hurt is high. As such, it is important for me to be as culturally sensitive and aware as I can, both with regards to my own culture and those which the students are from. Part of this involves good communication with my friends: asking what they find strange about British culture; listening to their stories about their home countries; and checking with them when I get the feeling that I might have done something culturally insensitive. It’s a learning process, and I am by no means an expert.

But I have also been helped by great resources which clearly identify some of the key differences and points of similarities between cultures. I was reminded recently that I am very lucky in having easy access to such resources and recommendations, so I thought that it might be an idea to build up a list of recommended cross-cultural resources on this blog. Since I am in Christian ministry, some of these will be specifically Christian resources and some will not. I’ll indicate this distinction in each post as well as in the ‘categories’, for those who would appreciate the heads up.

I wanted to start with Sarah Lanier’s Foreign to Familiar simply because it is a solid, informative, and easy starting point. It is a short book, with large font, and is easily readable in one or two sittings. Lanier herself describes it as ‘a little handbook of cultural observations’ (p.13), acknowledging that her aim is to provide an overview rather than going into great detail. This is further enforced by the story she tells in the Preface of sitting in the middle seat on a plane between a lady from the U.S. and a lady from Lebanon, who had lived in the U.S. for 8 years. As she began to explain to the lady from the U.S. some of the cultural differences between the Middle East (where Lanier grew up) and the U.S, the Lebanese lady appeared just as surprised as the American lady. After 8 years in the U.S, no-one had ever explained to her that the American approach to hospitality and building relationships was vastly different from the indirect approach of her home culture. As such, she had found it very difficult to form lasting friendships and was incredibly lonely. Lanier ends this anecdote with the comment ‘No-one should have to suffer like that simply because they don’t understand the culture of another’ (p.10); it is for this purpose that she has written the book, so there exists a readable handbook to cross-cultural relations.

Lanier groups the huge range of cultures around the world into two very general groups: hot-climate cultures and cold-climate cultures. There comes with this, of course, some generalisations, but as an introduction to cross-cultural issues it is a helpful distinction. By terming differing cultures as ‘hot-climate’ and ‘cold-climate’, Lanier allows for there to be cross-over within continents and even countries: for example, she makes the claim that, in general, Northern U.S. is a ‘cold-climate culture’ whilst Southern U.S. could be seen as a ‘hot-climate culture’. Culture is not as simple as ‘East’ and ‘West’. From this distinction, Lanier then divides the book into chapters each based on a key cultural difference. This includes, among others, chapters on ‘Relationship versus Task Orientation’; ‘Inclusion versus Privacy’; ‘High-Context versus Low-Context’; and ‘Different Concepts of Time and Planning’. Each chapter ends with a helpful list of points to remember, so it is easy to go back to the book if you find yourself in a confusing cross-cultural situation. Lanier then ends the book with some helpful practical tips she has compiled from her life of living and working in a multitude of cultures.

It would be easy for me to go far too in-depth in explaining all the fascinating cultural similarities and differences which Lanier picks up on in this book. I’m not sure that would be helpful or particularly interesting for anyone to read. Instead, I will just recommend that you get hold of this book, whether you are from a ‘hot-climate culture’ or a ‘cold-climate culture’; whether you live in the familiarity of your home culture or are adapting to another; whether you regularly meet those from other cultures or not. It is a helpful book for anyone to build a foundation of cross-cultural awareness.

I’ll end with Lanier’s closing comments in the book:

“If we can get beyond [the idea that our culture is the only way], we’ll find we can begin to learn, respect and enjoy the differences. Soon, what seems foreign will become familiar. And we’ll find we have much in common.”

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