Last week some wonderful friends visited us. They are long-time cross-cultural workers serving in a limited access country. We had some very interesting conversations. I’m sure you can imagine them, for you have had your own similar experiences. I’d like to share some insights from one of those conversations. Let’s call the topic, “The Blank Stare.”
We talked about how difficult it is to share our lives with our friends and family back home. See if this sounds familiar: Someone asks a question about our overseas life. We start to reply, only to see their eyes glaze over. “Knock, Knock? Anybody home? Where did you go? You were in there a minute ago.” We know they are friends and want to talk to us, but they just cannot relate to what we say about our work overseas.
As we discussed the problem, we saw that the hardest questions to answer were the big general questions. What do you do in XYZ? What is XYZ like? Maybe you’ve had a conversation like this one:
Friend: “What is it like in XYX?”
PW: “We live in a large city and traffic is terrible.”
Friend: “That’s just like here!”
PW: “Because of bad traffic, we have to find new ways to connect with the people we are trying to help.”
Friend: “They just need to build more rapid transit there, like they are doing here.”
PW: “That would help, but while we wait, we have to change the way we work.”
Friend: “There’s Sally, let’s go talk to her.”
Or like this one:
Friend: “Tell me about your life in XYZ.”
PW: “Life there is very different from here. Because of the constant heat, my wash load is three times what it ever was here.”
Friend: “Oh, I know what you mean. I just got a new, super-size, washer-dryer that does everything but fold the clothes. Can’t you buy something like that there?”
PW: “Well, actually, we only have electricity a few hours each day.”
Friend: “I couldn’t live without my electricity. Would you like to go to Starbucks for a cuppa?”
Or maybe you’ve stayed after the ladies Bible study at your home church.
Lady 1: “What do you do in XYZ?”
PW: “We want to help people build good marriages. We do a lot of premarital counseling.”
Lady 2: “Oh that must be fun. Do you get to see their wedding gowns before the wedding?”
PW: “Well we actually talk more about expectations and limitations they will face when they are married.”
Lady 3: “I went with my daughter to try on her wedding gown last week. It is gorgeous!”
Lady 4: “Where is she getting her dress?”
Lady 1: “Where is the best place to buy the flowers?”
No one even realizes you haven’t been able to participate in the conversation for the last half hour.
What’s a gal to do?
You may feel angry because they seem disinterested in what you said. Or you may feel hurt because you were excluded. You may assume they don’t want to hear from you. You may give up trying to answer or you may keep trying and getting frustrated and hurt repeatedly. Like me, I think you realize that none of those are the best solution.
Why does this happen?
Since this is a common problem, maybe it would help to see why they do what they do.
In most cases they simply cannot relate to our experiences. They don’t know the people we know and have never lived where we have. Their reaction to our very different experience is to revert to topics that are more familiar to them.
That is especially true for those who have never been outside their own community. They assume that if people did things just like they do, their problems would be solved. They have never had to make the mental, physical, and social adjustments we have.
Then, there’s the matter of calling. Most people we talk to back home do not have a call to career Christian service. They wouldn’t even know what to say to the pastor of another church in their town. They cannot understand what we do or why. That makes it very difficult to get beyond the social greetings and talk about Starbucks.
Truthfully, with a framework far different than ours, most new acquaintances don’t know how to ask a question that we can answer briefly. They ask the first thing that comes to mind and don’t seem to care about our answers. They really only expected a casual response to find some common ground.
So what can we do about it?
The solutions always have to fit the situation, but here are a few things that have helped me:
- Start by not allowing yourself to resent them. Once resentment grows in our souls it will come out in our tone. A certain weariness and harshness will start showing up.
- Keep your answers short. Work to put your message in easily accessible words.
- Watch for quizzical looks. When we see the question mark on their face, we can try to find out what they don’t understand.
- Turn the big questions they ask into smaller ones that we want to answer:
- They ask: What do you do in XYZ?
- You counter with, “Would you like to know what is the most fulfilling thing about my work in XYZ?”
- Showing pictures helps them relate more easily. (Thank God for smartphones.)
Keep your eye on the goal
Our heart’s desire is to share something of ourselves with friends and family back home. We want them to be interested enough to identify with us and those we serve. And we want them to pray. Because of that, we are the ones who have to build the bridges.
It helps to learn what each friend wants to know about. I have friends who really want to know how I am doing. Others want to know what they can pray for. Others are still trying to figure out why I do what I do. Some just want me to listen to them. There is no point in trying to make them all into bosom buddies or prayer partners. Take them as far as they are willing to go.
I hope that you can find a close friend or two that you can share anything with. These are confidential friends with open their hearts to us as people, not just PWs. Treasure them. You will not have many in a lifetime.
Then, we should cultivate friendships with other women where we may only have one or two interests in common. We share what we can, when we can, with these women, finding contentment with whatever level that happens to be.
For casual acquaintances, like the people we meet after church, it helps to boil down what we can say about our lives and our work. With short answers we may spark more interest. And some of these acquaintances may become long-time friends with a deeper interest in us and our cross-cultural lives.
You may also be interested in the article, Am I the ONLY One?