Home Equipping Leaders Hispanic / Latino Called to Be a Bridge Person

Called to Be a Bridge Person

Many years ago I stood at the equator in Ecuador, one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere. The position was symbolic of my vocation: bridging cultures. For over twenty years, I, an Anglo, have worked and lived with Latino people. On many occasions I have been called upon to interpret Anglo cultures to Latinos and Latino cultures to Anglos. I am a bridge person.

A bridge person is someone who spans two cultures and consciously seeks to facilitate an exchange between the two. Many second generation immigrants and missionary children function in this way. They provide the bridge between their parents' culture of origin and the culture of the host country.

As globalization increases and cultures crash against one another, we are compelled to add culture-crossing skills to our repertoire to make sense of our world. The growth of the Latino population in the United States and the resulting societal adjustments to that growth has highlighted this need in recent years. Although often unnoticed by the dominant culture, cross-cultural bridge building has been neccessary for generations.

The Art of Bridging Cultures
Scholars who work in the area of cross-cultural communication have identified six value dimensions on which many cross-cultural mix-ups are based:

  • Universalism — Particularism
  • Individualism — Communitarianism
  • Specificity (direct communication) — Diffuseness (indirect communication)
  • Achieved status — Ascribed status
  • Inner direction — Outer direction
  • Sequential time — Synchronous or cyclical time.

Universalism and Particularism
Universalism seeks the commonalities in things and makes generalizations, while particularism seeks the uniqueness of things. A common saying based in this dimension is "the exception (particularism) proves the rule (universalism)."

Individualism and Communitarianism
Individualism locates the origin of values in an individual and values competition, self-reliance, self-interest, and personal growth and fulfillment. Communitarianism locates the origin of values in the shared resources and heritage of a community or group; it advocates cooperation, social concern, public service, and societal legacy.

Specificity and Diffuseness
Specificity defines the constructs of ideas and things, while diffuseness sees the patterned whole. The former sees the parts; the latter sees the whole.

Achieved Status and Ascribed Status
Achieved status values accomplishments and track record. Ascribed status attributes merit based on connections and qualities. Many of our "isms" are based in this dimension; for example, sexism attributes merit based on gender.

Inner Direction and Outer Direction
Inner direction places virtue inside the person in the victory of conscious purpose. A saying that reflects inner direction is, "I am the master of my fate." Outer direction places virtue outside us in the environment and relationships.

Sequential Time and Synchronous Time
Sequential time is clock time, time as an arrow moving forward. Synchronous time is recurrent or cyclical time. The seasons are an example of synchronous time.

A Word of Caution
No culture is exclusively at one end or the other of any given dimension. In fact, each culture seeks to reconcile both ends of the dimension ("the exception proves the rule"); a culture simply enters the dimension from its preference. Thus cross-cultural mix-ups are seen as dilemmas that help us move toward reconciliation of the dimensions. Another element of the reconciliation is that the six dimensions are interwoven and do not stand exclusively in any analysis of a cross-cultural dilemma.

Communication Styles
Of these six dimensions, my Latino friends frequently identify the direct and indirect communication styles (specificity — diffuseness dimension) as causing many of the problems in multicultural groups. Low-context cultures, such as the dominant culture of the United States, are accustomed to "what you see is what you get" and "say what you mean and mean what you say." In contrast, high-context cultures, such as many Asian and Latino cultures, depend on symbolic and non-verbal language to communicate the full message.

In March 2006 the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, attended the inauguration of Chile's newly elected president. Also attending was the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. Dr. Rice and President Morales met for about fifteen minutes in what was seen as an important meeting between the representatives of governments that disagreed about the U.S. policy in South America related to the coca growers. During the meeting, President Morales presented Dr. Rice with a gift, a charango, a small guitar-like instrument made from an animal shell. Giving gifts in many cultures, and particularly between government representatives, is a sign of relationship — a sign that the two groups are at the least on speaking terms and at the most are good friends. In this case, the gift carried this usual symbolic meeting. Yet, it had another meaning as well. The shell of the charango was lacquered in coca leaves. The charango thus also represented the point of contention between the two governments. It was an ambiguous symbol. Dr. Rice did not miss the message; and in the U.S. newspapers, the symbolism of the gift and its hidden message were explained.

Skills for Bridge Building
Two foundational aptitudes for bridging cultures are being able to live comfortably with ambiguity and having a sense of humor. Ambiguity often results when high-context people and low-context people work together. We miscommunicate and/or offend one another with our communication styles. We have different approaches to time and the importance of the present compared to the future. In dealing with ambiguity and with cross-cultural mix-ups, it is helpful to have a sense of humor and to relax.

When the mix-ups occur, the bridge person's task is to interpret and explain the communication dynamics to the parties involved. This may include taking a leadership role and using a culturally diverse repertoire of communication skills, techniques, and relationship-building strategies to help the group move forward in both the relationships and the task.

The One who created cultures as an expression of the divine creativity and diversity is also the One who calls us to be in covenant with one another, whatever our culture and background. Being in relationship with one another and keeping the covenant to walk together in our mutual ministry are as important as getting the task done.

Questions for Discussion

  • How is your community experiencing cultural differences? How do the value dimensions described in this article help you to understand these differences?
  • Who are the bridge people in your congregation?
  • hat bridge ministries exist in your congregation?
  • What bridge ministries are needed in your community?

Marigene Chamberlain is the International Studies Director at Samford University in Birmingham, AL. Previously she served as the Director of Leadership Formation for Latino Ministries at the Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, TN.

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