The Effective Communicator
The communicator may get caught in a situation where he or she is not in charge, in unfamiliar territory, on uncertain ground. We may feel intimidated or uncertain when we are the stranger yet expected to fulfill the role of communicator.
But often they are not really waiting to pounce. If we can meet on personal terms rather than as an authority with a position to defend, it may be easier.
Meeting the Greeks
One of the countries I have lived in was Cyprus. My wife and I really enjoyed our time there. It was very different from living in Africa. We had previously lived in Kenya for about 25 years, and had visited a lot in other African countries. In our early years in Kenya, we had worked hard to learn the culture and language of the pole. Actually there were many cultures, about 125, according to ethnolinguistic research. Likewise there are many languages, about 85, most with numerous dialects.
Cyprus was different. The island was divided into two parts, as it had been since 1974, the northern third or so inhabited by Turkish-speaking Cypriots of Muslim religion, with strong ties to the culture and political structure of Turkey, a few miles to the north of our island. The rest of the island was Greek Cypriot, with cultural roots deep into the pre-historic past, and an independent identity dating to Mycenaean times.
Yes, Greek Cypriots were different from any people we had previously known in Europe or Africa. They were different from the Greeks themselves, though they identified strongly with Greece and the broader Hellenic culture. We had some learning to do.
The most important “study” anyone can do in such a situation is make relationships! And that we did. The Greeks were hospitable, friendly, helpful. But they were different from other Europeans, especially northern Europeans. They were very family and clan oriented. We commonly saw families out together eating, playing, enjoying a park, eating ice cream, having a walk around the neighbourhood in the late summer evenings, when it was finally cool enough to enjoy the open air.
I enjoyed updating my Greek language. I had had a brief introduction to Greek in Athens in 1973, and had later studied Old Greek (mostly biblical) in graduate school. It was fun, though difficult and challenging. We learned to relate to the Greeks, to understand their deeply religious Christian heritage, their sense of perseverance in continuing their faith through about 350 years of Turkish Muslim rule, and their sense of personal cultural identity. We enjoyed our 3.5 years in Cyprus.
My limping attempts to learn some spoken Greek brought confusion and hilarity among the Greek Cypriots! Or the occasional puzzled, worried look, and the muttered comment "Greek is hard"! I sometimes felt silly. But still it was fun! The cultural background we discovered was also thrilling. We felt at home, being invited into homes and family events, which happened all the time among the celebration-oriented family culture of Cyprus.
Our time with them was a dialogue. We were learning about their culture and values, hopes, problems, needs. They were likewise interested in our background, in American and Africa. Dialogue occurred all the time. I enjoyed trying to read the Bible in the Modern Greek, different from the Koine Greek of the New Testament, and different again from the spoken Greek of the Greek Cypriots! It was a deep cross-cultural experience.
An Early Dialogue
In the first century there was a different story about a different kind of encounter with the Greek culture. This was before the Greeks had become Christians. One of the first to speak in Cyprus, then in Athens, about the man who had been sent by God to all the peoples of the world was Saul of Tarsus. Saul is nowadays better known as Paul of Tarsus, or Paul the Apostle.
A story told in the Bible, in Acts 17:16-34, describes how one effective communicator dialogued in what could have been an intimidating situation, one in which he was the guest “on trial.” In this story Saul, or Paul, entered into a dialogue with the leaders of Athens, as a lone voice in the core of a pagan religion. Dialogue is a form of communication. There is lecture, preaching, teaching; and then there is dialogue. Paul was good at dialogue and discussion.
Become a Greek
Setting: Paul is in Athens awaiting Silas and Timothy. The Greeks express interest in his teachings. He is invited to speak to the city council in open session where philosophers debate their ideas on the Areopagas (Mars Hill). These are elite, educated, mostly rich, pagan Greeks.
Paul “becomes a Greek” in this discussion. Paul knows the Greek format of their thought. He was in a foreign thought-environment. But he had training in Greek thought and culture. He spoke the language. Paul was confident to speak on native ground in native terms to the Greeks. This tells something about the preparation a communicator needs for such a situation.
Paul made reference to their local situation and religion. He was a Jew who had a message about a Jewish Messiah. But what does he do? Oddly to some points of view, he does not quote from the Jewish scriptures. He speaks within a Greek background. He quotes Greek poets to make his basic points from Greek religious perspectives.
He does not focus on the history of the Jews and what they believe. He does not tout the theology and the rites of his religion. But rather he declares that the universal God had spoken decisively in Jesus. All in the Greek format!
Paul had an advantage over some of us. He was a Jew, but he was born in a pagan city of Asia, Tarsus, and was a Roman citizen, the son of rich merchants, was educated in both Jewish and Greek backgrounds, spoke several languages.
But wait – that is just what is necessary to be a successful cross-cultural communicator! These characteristics of Paul are our challenge. To so open ourselves up and prepare ourselves that we will be the ones stepping out of our comfort zone and into the maw of trepidation, into the unknown of another culture.
Alternative Cultural Patterns
Paul often used alternate cultural patterns to get his message across. Rather than focus on his own familiar religious background and vocabulary, Paul explains that there is a universal knowledge common across cultures. For instance, refer to Romans 1:18-21 and Romans 2:12-15, where God we are told has made plain some basic concepts to people even in their remote or “deprived” situations.
The effective communicator will take initiatives to know the values aand principles of the host culture. The effective communicator will learn to communicate in terms already familiar to their clients or hosts. The effective communicator will look for these clues to universal concepts hidden in different forms in the target culture.
The Dialogue Way
Paul of Tarsus entered into dialogue – on the grounds of his Athenian hosts. Paul used dialogue, rather than confrontation. And they invited him to come back and talk some more the next day! Dialogue can be an indication that you are open to them.
Step across the cultural divide. Dare to be a real communicator! Dare to step into their world, learn their concerns, concepts, assumptions. They might just listen! They might even invite you back!
Cyprus: Notes and Perceptions
Cyprus, Afrodite and the Holy Virgin
The Exclusively Inclusive Gospel
History and Art in Cyprus
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
A Prayer for Cyprus
Relationships Between the Religions
A Simple Theology of Religions
Originally published in the series “The Effective Communicator” in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, Nairobi, Kenya, December 1993
Rewritten for Thoughts and Resources 11 October 2008, posted 13 October 2008
Last edited 7 August 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD