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Time Out!—The Kinetic Communication Wars

John doing time out smallToday we have a guest Blogger. John Donnelly, Biblical Literacy Ministries Educator, Church Planter, Part-year missionary to India.

Several years ago I was in Iguaçu Falls Brazil, planting churches with a group of North Americans, Brazilian nationals and a group of translators. We had a bus and a bus driver to get us around to the various sites. Well during lunch one day I needed to get back on the bus to grab my bag but it was locked so I asked the driver who was still eating if he could open the door. I was polite, I swear, but he gave me a time-out gesture with his hands, the old finger to palm crossed tee. Something I and my friends might do to back off an aggressor. I thought, That’s odd why is he being offensive and telling me to back off?

Later that night, we were chatting with some nationals discussing cross-cultural communication and several of the differences we have culturally and wouldn’t you know, it turns out that they use the time-out gesture to mean give me a minute. Makes sense when you think about it, but Americans would most likely sign “give me a minute,” by holding up one finger.

When working cross culturally you have to learn to understand how people are communicating and get your symbols right so you can decode the messages being sent both verbally as well as non-verbally. Many times it is a matter of asking questions and taking the time to understand how things work and what this means and that means. Never assume anything. When I am in a new culture, which given my love of Missions and my work with Biblical Literacy Ministries, I am from time to time, I almost certainly drive my hosts crazy with my constant questions. I am constantly asking, “What does that mean?” “Why is he doing that?” “Why is she wearing that?” etc, etc, etc…

Think about something as simple as head gestures for agreement or disagreement. In much of the world when someone nods their head up and down they are communicating “Yes, I get it,” or “I agree with you.” When they shake their heads side to side, they intend, “No, I don’t understand,” or “I disagree with you.” In some parts of Eastern Europe, however, it is exactly the opposite. This makes for some interesting teaching when everyone in the church or classroom is shaking their head the whole time you are speaking, very unnerving, even if you do know what they mean. In every conversation, you have to be vigilant to avoid miscommunication.

I am often amused by something very similar when ministering in India. There, they signify, “Yes,” and “I agree,” and “I understand,” with a wobble of their head; it’s something inbetween a nod and a shake. We call it the bobble head. Only their smile and generally pleasant facial expressions convince a westerner that they agree. It was confusing for quite awhile, and it still makes me laugh.

We face similar confusion when reading Scripture. We cannot come to the text with our system of symbols and think that we are going to understand the authors; we have to come asking questions.

“Where can we find answers once we know to ask the questions,” you ask?

Well, for most questions you can turn to Bible dictionaries.[1] For others I’d recommend commentaries on particular books of the Bible.[2] If a particular text contains a certain act or gesture, look up that verse specifically. There are also many books that deal with cultural backgrounds[3] and reading them will inform you generally of many manners and customs that you will encounter in Scripture.

Keep in mind that much of Scripture is an account of Israel’s history written many centuries after the fact and at times even the author has to explain for his audience some of the manners or gestures because time has passed and the customs had changed even for them. (Ruth 4:7)

So as you interact with Scripture try to come to the text asking questions like: “Is that a cultural thing that I need to understand?” “How might the original hearers of this text understand this?” Never assume you understand; always verify. Who knows, maybe those pointing fingers and shuffling feet meant something completely different then you think they mean. (Proverbs 6:13) It is easy to miscommunicate when you are communicating cross-culturally and reading the Bible is cross-cultural communication.



[1] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; The Anchor Bible Dictionary; The New Bible Dictionary

[2] Word Biblical Commentaries; New International Commentary on the Old Testament/New Testament; The New American Bible Commentary

[3] The Zondervan Bible Backgrounds Commentary Series; Manners and Customs in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Daily Life in Bible Times by Victor H. Matthews


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