Square Peg in a Round Hole

Expectations drive how people treat one another, how they react to certain situations, and a person’s ability to adjust and feel at home in a new location. We have expectations for sure, as to how a new country will look, how her people will relate to us, and even how quickly we will learn their language and enjoy their food. Yet, not only do we, the ex-pat, cross-cultural, and Christian workers have such expectations, but the people we serve have them as well.

When expectations collide, we want to go home.

We think we are flexible and can so easily adjust to a new place and people, but in reality, we’re just square pegs trying to fit in round holes. As a person who’s had edges shaved over thirty years of ministry, I can say it’s a painful process. I am not the same person I was when I left on my first trip overseas in 1986, or even when I started working with Laotian refugees during high school and college, but I have learned a few lessons along the way.

The people you serve may not be aware of their expectations.

As a person who has most likely had some kind of training or orientation before heading into service, you know that things will look different. You know that you’re leaving the comfort and known of home to travel to a place that pushes you outside that comfort zone and is unknown in what it will bring. Those you serve aren’t moving or changing—you’re invading their space, and as a result, you’re the one called to adjust, not them.

Adjust you will. It might be in learning another language, living as they live, or dressing more conservatively. It might be all of the above and more. You knew that upfront. It’s what you signed up for. That doesn’t make it easy, and the effort to live up to one’s expectations is hard enough, much less to try to live up to those of others.

Finding balance means giving without breaking.

Yes, we will need to shave off our rough edges to be able to effectively bring the good news of the gospel to this people group, but we should never lose ourselves in the process. Part of the growing process in cross-cultural work is helping nationals learn to accept you, differences, and all. In one of the countries where we served, strong Arabic coffee was the drink of choice. I don’t drink coffee. With the loving help of my husband, acquaintances and friends gradually learned that I would be happy to accept a cup of tea instead. Who didn’t drink coffee during visits? Carol.

Because I had an “out” with tea, I could get by with not drinking coffee. Sometimes we can hold on to those personal preferences because there’s a way out. At other times, we just have to say no, because it goes against our values and beliefs. These are teachable moments when we can help our friends to understand better who we are and why we choose to do or not do certain things.

Expectations also come with team life.

Not only do we struggle when nationals have expectations for us, but also teammates. They want us to shave off an area of expertise or training because they have a felt need to be filled by a warm body. This is tough and takes a lot of prayer and wisdom, but we also have to learn how to teach our teammates. If God has called me to this place to serve in evangelism and discipleship, I don’t want to get lost in administration or teaching ESL, simply because there’s an empty spot. As with other issues, we all must learn to do things outside our wheelhouse from time to time to serve the greater good, but long-term commitments to tasks or responsibilities that take us away from our focus mission can be a sure sign the longing for home is soon to come. Finding a healthy balance takes communication and prayer with and for your team.

Pegs can be moldable when put in the Potter’s hands.

When you’re feeling the pain of adjusting to a new culture or someone’s expectations, turn to the Lord for help. Ask him to turn the hard edges of your life into moldable clay to his glory. The more we’re made into his likeness, the more the expectations of others have less effect on our pride and hearts.

Grace and Peace

To find out more about learning to adjust to new cultures, check out my latest book Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service. It’s available in e-book and paperback formats.

2 thoughts on “Square Peg in a Round Hole

  1. So true! As a team leader, it was always a challenge to know whether I was the square peg or if I needed to walk a team member through the shaving process!

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