COIN & Culture: Cross-Cultural Skills for Mission Effectiveness and Excellence
The US Army is active and present in many nations in the world today in a variety of capacities ranging from missions to operations. In every nation the US Army visits, they encounter that nations’ Culture and Worldview. Sometimes that encounter is positive and leads to easily built working relationships for a common goal, yet other times that encounter is very difficult leaving our soldiers and civilians experiencing extreme levels of culture shock (what occurs when two or more people groups that have vastly different worldviews encounter one another) which in turn makes the mission nearly impossible to accomplish. This paper is a joint attempt to combine cross-cultural skills gleaned from global Christian Missionary experience, Soldier deployed experience and Counter Insurgency (COIN) philosophy.
If the US Army can train Soldiers to enter a culture with a level of self and cultural awareness, we stand a much better chance at accomplishing the mission and winning the hearts and minds of not only the people of the culture we are trying to influence, but also that of our coalition partners. The US Army may even increase our own understanding and capacity to work more efficiently and cooperatively within our own ranks.
These are some of the fundamental questions this paper seeks to address:
- What are the cultural differences we have encountered?
- Why are some cultures seemingly ‘easier’ for US Soldiers to enter while others seem much harder?
- What can we do about these differences?
- What are the results if we do not help the individual soldier as well as command structures think through the effects of culture shock on the troops and the mission?
Culture and Worldview
Every person on the planet carries with him or her basic understandings of the world they live in based on their cultural norms and their worldview. Culture is:
[T]he label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions by which people govern their lives. Culture (including worldview) is a peoples’ way of life, their design for living, their way of coping with their biological, physical and social environment. It consists of learned, patterned assumptions (worldview), concepts and behavior, plus the resulting artifacts (material culture).[i]
“A worldview is composed of a number of basic presuppositions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, more or less true. They are generally unquestioned by each of us, rarely, if ever mentioned by our friends and only brought to mind when we are challenged by a foreigner from another ideological universe.” [ii] Another way to express this is that a worldview is the set of cultural lenses through which we see the world we live in and interact. A persons’ worldview, or cultural lens, cannot be separated from their culture. We all see the world through the lenses of our cultural norms and expectations.
Some simple examples of cultural differences in the US and around the would be: what do you call Coca Cola? In the Northern regions it tends to be called ‘soda,’ while in the Southern regions it tends to be called ‘Coke’ or ‘Pop.’ Same substance, but different terms are used to describe it based on the region one lives in. Most cultures have motor vehicles. Do you put your luggage in the boot or in the trunk? Do you drive on the left or right side of the road? When you greet someone, do you shake their hand, bow or wave? And let us not forget Richard Nixon’s famous cultural blunder with the Vietnamese people and our ‘okay’ symbol (it was a profane gesture in that culture).
The more a culture has in common with another culture, the easier it is to find common ground. Conversely, the more the worldviews differ the harder it is to find common ground and culture shock becomes more intense. If one is having an extremely difficult time finding common ground with another culture, they should begin to ask questions about the culture’s worldview; this can bring to light why it is so difficult and give some insight in moving forward.
Culture Shock & Responses
Culture shock is what occurs when two or more cultures that have vastly different worldviews encounter one another. When people encounter another culture, they usually attempt to understand it and reconcile it with their own personal worldview and cultural norms. As was stated above, one’s worldview is not often thought through – it is a set of assumptions and norms that are held in common within one’s cultural group that only come to glaring light when faced with something foreign to it. So the result is that when a person encounters another culture they experience a type of ‘dissonance.’[iii]
This cultural dissonance (or conflict) is commonly experienced by both cultures in the encounter. It can be experienced positively or negatively depending on the situation and the individual or group experiencing it. As Dr. Michelle LeBaron states in her foundational book on bridging cross cultural conflicts:
Although not all cultural differences yield conflict, effective communication is essential to its resolution. Since all communication is influenced by cultural factors – as present to our experiences as the air around us - cultural fluency (internalized familiarity with the workings of culture) is important to effectiveness in bridging conflict.[iv]
Responses to Culture Shock are as wide and varied as are cultures, however, there are some themes. When working cross-culturally one can expect to encounter ‘The Inevitables’ – the thoughts and feelings that often occur and must be faced and integrated if the cross-cultural agent is to gain proficiency in the culture. The inevitables of cross cultural work include: frustration, misunderstanding, confusion, tension, embarrassment, and even aggression (of various levels of intensity); these are a givens even working within the US, they are highlighted and intensified in foreign contexts. These inevitable will happen no matter what when encountering a new culture. When one does encounter these inevitables, they then have choices in how they respond depending on their level of cultural and self awareness (see Entry Posture Diagram (EPD) below).[v] Greater self-awareness and cultural awareness will yield a greater array of choices.
[i] Winter, Ralph D.; Hawthorne, Steven C. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: Culture, Worldview and Contextualization by Charles H Kraft. (UK, Paternoster, 1992), 384.
[ii] Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door, A Basic worldview Catalogue. (Downers Grove, IVP, 1997), 17.
[iii] Student Training in Mission (STIM) manual, a resource of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, USA; used with permission. Entry Posture Diagram: Used with Permission by Mission Training International
[iv] Any use outside this publication requires permission from: Mission Training International; PO Box 1220 Palmer Lake, CO 80132.
[v] LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approcah for a Changing World. (San Francisco, Josey-Bass, 2003), 41.