Role of Culture in Communication

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DAVID HESSELGRAVE — ROLE OF CULTURE IN COMMUNICATION
here was a time in the history of man . . . when the barriers between the earth’s peoples seemed to be mainly physical. The problem was one of transporting men, messages, and material goods across treacherous seas, towering mountains, and trackless deserts. Missionaries knew all too well how formidable those challenges were. Today, thanks to jumbo jets, giant ocean vessels, and towering antennae, those earlier problems have been largely resolved. We can deliver a man, or a Bible, or a sewing machine anywhere on the face of the earth within a matter of hours, and we can transmit a sound or a picture within seconds. This does not end the matter however. To quote Robert Park: One can transport words across cultural boundaries (like bricks) but interpretation will depend on the context which their different interpreters bring to them. And that context will depend more on past experience and present temper of the people to whom the words are addressed than on the good will of the persons who report them.1 Park goes on to assert that the traits of material culture are more easily diffused than those of nonmaterial culture. He illustrates his point by citing the example of the African chief whose immediate response upon seeing a plow in operation was, “It’s worth as much as ten wives!” One wonders how much prayer and how many hours of study and patient instruction would have been necessary to convince that chief that Christ is infinitely more valuable than plows, or wives, or fetishes and false gods. Yes, the barriers are, after all, very real and challenging. But they are no longer essentially physical—if, indeed, they ever were.

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The Role of Culture in Communication
by David J. Hesselgrave
ing frequency, we may forget that it is the cultural barriers which are the most formidable. The gap between our technological advances and our communication skills is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of modern civilization. Western diplomats are beginning to realize that they need much more than a knowledge of their message and a good interpreter or English-speaking national. Many educators and missionaries have come to the position that cross-cultural communication is a sine qua non for citizenship in this new world. . . .

Importance of Culture
Unfortunately, intercultural communication is as complex as the sum total of human differences. The word culture is a very inclusive term. It takes into account linguistic, political, economic, social, psychological, religious, national, racial, and other differences. Communication reflects all these differences, for, as Clyde Kluckhohn says, “Culture is a way of thinking, feeling, believing. It is the group’s knowledge stored up for future use.”2 Or, as Louis Luzbetak writes: Culture is a design for living. It is a plan according to which society adapts itself to its physical, social, and ideational environment. A plan for coping with the physical environment would include such matters as food production and all technological knowledge and skill. Political systems, kinships and family organization, and law are examples of social adaptation, a plan according to which one is to interact with his fellows. Man copes with his ideational environment through knowledge, art, magic, science, philosophy, and religion. Cultures are

Cultural Barriers to Missionary Communication
There is a very real danger that, as our technology advances and enables us to cross geographical and national boundaries with singular ease and increas-

David J. Hesselgrave served 12 years in Japan under the Evangelical Free Church. He is founder and past director of the Evangelical Missiological Society, and Professor Emeritus, School of World Missions and Evangelism, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Taken from David J. Hesselgrave, “The Role of Culture in Communication.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed....
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