Building Rapport in Cross-Cultural Relationships

By Executive Editor John Yoder

In a previous blog, I shared 3 phrases that will create a strong beginning when meeting someone from another culture.  These phrases will establish in the first 60 seconds that you welcome, honor and are interested in your new acquaintance.

Now what?  You’re talking to someone with whom you may have little in common.  You may not share common sports, foods, music, worship experiences, history or even language.  What will you discuss? 

The best way to have a fabulous first (or second or third) conversation with a friend from another culture is to express interest in them by asking specific questions about them and their homelands.  Here are some of my favorite questions:

  1. What was it like growing up in your homeland? When I told Beijing taxi drivers I was from Minnesota, they would often respond by saying Senlinlang.  That’s the Mandarin word for Timberwolves, our NBA team.  They even knew Kevin Garnett.  Global peoples know far more about American culture than we know about theirs.  Countries experience civil wars, coups, earthquakes and floods without drawing the attention of our news outlets.  Immigrant friends tell me that American friends rarely ask about their homelands.  I have found that they light up when I ask questions that display genuine curiosity about daily life in their homelands.
  2. How are your kids doing? We Americans have developed the most individualistic culture in history. Global cultures are far more centered on the family and clan.  You will immediately win the hearts of parents by showing genuine concern for their children.
  3. What is your church like? This is a great question to build spiritual affinity with a fellow believer—unless, of course, you only embrace churches whose denomination or style of worship are like yours.  Your new friend may have a deep passion for Christ and a stronger prayer life than yours!
  4. What’s difficult about living in the US? Don’t ask this if you hold the philosophy “My country, love it or leave it”.  Ask this if you can handle honest answers without defensiveness.  In doing so you will not only learn about your new friend’s homeland, you will also learn to see your homeland through fresh eyes.

If all this sounds tedious to you, it’s because you don’t find other cultures interesting.  And since culture is an indelible part of your friend’s life, it ultimately means you don’t find them interesting.  The real issue is a lack of passion for that person.  Ask God to fill you with His passion for them.  Jesus thinks your new friend is fascinating!  When rivers of living water from the Holy Spirit flow through you, you can’t help but value the cultural backgrounds of those around you.

Here are some questions to not ask:

  • Are you an illegal alien? No law requires individuals or churches to ask this question.  The most important thing you know about your new friend is that they are a human being of infinite worth.
  • What about the politics of your homeland? You aren’t responsible for the flawed policies of your government, and neither are they.
  • Why don’t you speak better English? After 2 years of full-time Mandarin language school followed by 3 years of part-time tutoring, I accepted that I would always have mediocre Mandarin skills with a strong Western accent. English is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.  Give your new friend a break.

If you use good questions, within one conversation you will form a meaningful personal connection with your new friend.  They will feel welcomed, affirmed and open to further conversation.  And you will grow as a member of the multicultural Body of Christ.