Foreign to Familiar

I just finished a second reading of Sarah A. Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures. I got this book maybe ten years ago, when our family was living in the Netherlands. I remember appreciating the book when I first read it. But honestly, it probably wasn’t super-helpful to me in managing the cultural tensions between the United States and the Netherlands because both of these countries adhere pretty closely to the “Cold-Climate Culture” profile detailed in the pages of this book. A friend recently recommended another reading of the book to prepare for our church’s upcoming Spring Break missions trip to Stockholm (Sweden), however, and my appreciation of the book increased with this second reading.

It’s a remarkably concise book. I probably finished the whole thing in just a little more than an hour of concentrated reading. There are some subtle cues that the author is coming at her study of world cultures from a Christian perspective. But there are no Bible verses quoted. I don’t recall any appeals to the spiritual benefits of cross-cultural communication. So this guide really would work for any sort of traveler wishing to understand cross-cultural dynamics. But I do think it’s especially valuable for those traveling for the sake of the Great Commission. Like our team headed to Stockholm (Sweden) for Spring Break.

When we touch down in Stockholm, we will be entering one of the most classic examples of “Cold-Climate Culture” on earth (at least I feel like I can own this as the descendant of Swedish farmers who migrated to the northern part of the United States in the early 20th Century). But we will not only be interacting with Swedish people on this trip. In fact, we will probably spend a majority of our time getting to know people from North Africa and the Middle East, who are classic examples of “Hot-Climate Culture.” So it’s really helpful to have a systematic approach to understanding some of the big-picture differences between the different people from different cultures that we’re going to be getting to know.

Here are some of the most distinctive features of Hot-Climate Cultures and Cold-Climate Cultures (each teased out by a different chapter in Foreign to Familiar):

  • Hot-Climate Cultures prioritize Relationship, whereas Cold-Climate Cultures are oriented around completing Tasks.
  • Cold-Climate Cultures use Direct Communication, whereas Hot-Climate Cultures prefer Indirect Communication. I found this chapter particularly fascinating!).
  • Cold-Climate Cultures default to Individualism, whereas Hot-Climate Cultures default to Group Identity.
  • Hot-Climate Cultures place a high value on Inclusion, whereas Cold-Climate Cultures place a higher value on Privacy.
  • Hot-Climate Cultures and Cold-Climate Cultures have Different Concepts of Hospitality.
  • Some cultures (generally those which are older and more-established) function in a way that the author terms “High-Context” — using a lot of rules and protocol. Conversely, other cultures (generally those which are newer, more urban, and more influenced by immigration) function in a way that the author terms as “Low-Context” — prioritizing informality and social fluidity. This one doesn’t exactly fall along the same fault lines as most of the Hot-Climate Culture / Cold-Climate Culture distinctions sketched out in the book. But I felt it was very insightful and interesting!
  • Cold-Climate Cultures and Hot-Climate Cultures also have Different Concepts of Time and Planning.

I really appreciated the way that Lanier used anecdotes to illustrate the principles outlined in her book. And I also like the way that the book provides practical considerations for everyday management of the tensions that can crop up between cultures.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who travels across cultures and wants to make the most of opportunities for relationship with people who are different from themselves.

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