Posted by: Titus Presler | February 8, 2011

Difference fatigue: Important to integrate in cross-cultural encounters

Difference fatigue is an experience that is important to understand, anticipate and integrate in encounters of whatever kind across cultures, and certainly in the cross-cultural encounters that constitute international Christian mission.

I was reminded of this recently during a visit in Peshawar, Pakistan, where I was consulting with the Diocese of Peshawar and a major church institution.  The visit was going well, for the conversations were stimulating, I was enjoying getting back into Urdu, there were new sights to see such as the aftermath of the August flooding, and there were no logistical difficulties.  It was all interesting and exciting. Then on the afternoon of the fourth day I needed to shut down, get by myself and be away from it all!  It was an urge quite beyond jet lag or introversion.  There were still plenty of things to do, more conversations to pursue, and, in fact, that was the story of the rest of the visit.  But at that moment I couldn’t take in more of the new and different.  I needed to shut the door and be alone with the little I had that was routine and familiar – a book, a newspaper, e-mail that needed tending.  It was difference fatigue.

It was my wife Jane Butterfield who coined the phrase “difference fatigue.”  She had come back from a long day of ministering in a parish where ethnic, racial and cultural differences were center stage.  She loved the setting precisely for that reason, the phenomenon of difference.  The ministries of the day had gone well, so she was not tired out by frustration.  It was the constant working with difference.  She said she had “difference fatigue.”

As developed in my recently published book, Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, the encounter of difference is what defines mission and sets it off from the more general category of ministry.  Mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.  Difference is magnetic for many of us, for it constitutes a frontier of newness.  It presents a threshold of discovery, and when we cross it, we enter new and enriching worlds that have the capacity to change us and transfigure our experience of God, both personally and communally.

Yet difference is challenging because, well, it is so different.  Routine and familiarity are not only soothing, but they are part of what enable us to go deep in relationship and be as productive as we’d like to be.  In our customary cultural setting, we can say things and be reasonably confident of being understood.  Relationships are easier to build in our home environment because of the shared understandings and expectations that constitute a common world view.

Plunged into a different cultural context, all those supports are suddenly absent.  We speak but constantly need to clarify what we mean, and our interlocutors find they need to do the same, so the process of communication is slower and more labored.  Building relationship requires that our antennae be constantly rotating as we pick up signals, test interpretations, discard assumptions, try again and start over.  And productivity?  It can slow to a snail’s pace, and we ask ourselves at the end of the day, “I got nothing done, but why do I feel exhausted?”  That’s difference fatigue.

Difference fatigue is an experience among all who work cross-culturally: journalists, diplomats, international traders, aid workers, missionaries.  It is arguably most acute among missionaries because relationships are more central to what missionaries do than they are for others who work internationally.  In the balance between production and relationship, missionaries are those for whom relationships are central and productivity is decidedly secondary.  A journalist needs to tend to relationships with sources, but so long as he’s filed the story he’s satisfied at the end of the day.  A diplomat must tend relationships with the host government, but she’s mainly focused on advancing the interests of her sending government.  The business person must likewise tend relationships in order to stay in business, but clinching the deal is central.  Aid workers probably come closest to the experience of a missionary, though setting up the project is the high priority.

For the missionary, relationship is everything.  Without flourishing relationships, all is sawdust.  Vital relationships require full mutuality.  Mutuality across cultural difference requires listening, picking up signals, and a seemingly endless process of adjusting expectations and nuances of communication.  That’s hard work.  It brings on difference fatigue.

When Jane and I arrived at Bonda as missionaries in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe with our four young children we did not know the language, or the geography, or the people, or their culture, or how the church worked – or how the hot water heater worked, or how to get groceries, or how to keep the house warm.  Everything was different.  Moreover, we were trying to help each other out in the process of cultural adjustment.  More important, we were doing that for our children as well, trying to interpret for them even when we didn’t know how to interpret for ourselves.  We wondered why we were so tired at the end of every day for the first couple of months.  Then we reflected on the task we had set ourselves.  Though we didn’t call it that at the time, it was difference fatigue.

So anticipate difference fatigue as you go out in mission, whether around the corner or across the world.  Realize that as you grasp the nettle of mission you’re setting yourself the major task of meeting, understanding and working in difference.  Expect difference fatigue to set in at some point, so give it some space in the schedule you set for yourself or your group.  When it happens understand it for what it is, and try to resist the reflexes of accusing yourself of failure or slacking off.  You may be setting off on big multi-year venture in mission, or you may be planning a short-term pilgrimage into the experience of people in another culture.  Whatever the case, anticipate difference fatigue and accept it as a sign that you’re doing real and important work with God and God’s people.

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