When preparing for your mission trip, your goal is always to do the most good. Ideally, you can find a community or situation where you and your group can help a great deal and leave the community stronger than you found it. Of course, getting along well with the people you’re helping is a key part of this project. This means that gaining a true understanding of the cultural differences you may encounter in your mission travel is extremely important to your trip’s success. In order to do the most good, your team needs to be able to understand any differences between your cultures that may lead to group members accidentally being disrespectful.
Your mission trip plan will naturally include supplies for your mission, transportation, lodgings, a packing list for every participant, and should also include a summary of the culture and/or cultural differences of where you’re group is going to visit. Here are a few ideas of what your group should research and know before the trip:
What to Wear
You need to think about is the right dress code for your destination. Especially if you’re leaving the country or traveling any significant distance. There is a big difference between touristy cities and authentically local communities. In most places, you’ll need to dress modestly and in muted colors at the very least. Depending on where you’re going, it’s even possible you’ll need to pick up local clothes when you get there or have each participant order a few outfits online that will conform to the local dress expectations.
Signs of Respect
Human connection is a big part of any mission trip and people will absolutely try to connect with you by sharing stories and showing you things that are important to them. When someone is telling you a story, showing you pictures of their children, or explaining how their village irrigation system works, you’ll want to show that you respect these people and whatever it may be that they are talking about. This means that you need to know both what to do and what not to do. We’re all raised to be polite in our own culture and it’s your job to figure out how to be polite wherever it is you’re going. Almost always, you will discover proper etiquette to be different among countries, cultures, and places you will travel.
Eye Contact and Conversation
Americans are notorious for seeking eye contact during conversation that may be considered inappropriate in other cultures. We were taught that eye contact is a sign of respect and friendliness but even in Europe with very similar cultures, eye contact is much less common. Especially when passing strangers in public spaces. It’s important to know when eye contact is appropriate and when you should politely look away.
Along the same lines, you also need to know what kind of customs and body language are involved in holding a conversation. Some cultures stand much closer together to speak and touch each other’s arms often during the conversation while other cultures are against touching of any sort and value personal space highly. Know what kind of conversational climate you and the other missionaries will be heading into so that nothing takes you off guard.
Tipping is one of the biggest challenges involved in international travel for any group, not just mission trips. Should you tip the desk clerk, bell boy, bus driver, or delivery person? Should you tip your local guide or would that be considered an insult? In some cultures, tipping is even more frequent than in our own and everyone who lends a hand will expect a few modest coins. In other cultures, tipping is seen as a way to dismiss someone or discount the personalization and care they put into helping you. The amount you tip also matters. Look up the tipping standards in the region you’re going to visit.
Almost no mission trip is complete without full snapshot documentation of each special moment… walking the local town, a handmade bracelet, and smiling new friend you found along the way for example. However, different cultures have different responses to cameras and taking photos. In a few rare cases, cameras won’t be welcome at all but in the vast majority of places, there’s simply a courtesy rule. Don’t take pictures of people having a bad time. No matter how moving the picture may be, if you wouldn’t want your picture taken in that situation, don’t take theirs. Make sure to have a talk with your mission group about being considerate when snapping photos. Everyone wants their picture taken when they’re smiling and having a good time but almost no one wants to be immortalized when they’re messy, feeling sick, or having a bad day.
If there’s one thing a mission trip group understands, it’s the importance of hospitality. Just as each of you would have certain manners expectations from someone you’ve invited to dinner, if you are a guest in another community, it’s important to know how to be gracious and openly thankful. In many cases, it’s safe to ask your hosts how to be polite because they know you are foreign but the more ways you can be gracious guests without asking how, the better. Know when and if to take off your shoes, use table utensils, and how to share correctly if it’s a family-style meal. You may also want to bone up on specific accidental faux pas to avoid and how to be a good host yourself.
The entire purpose of a mission trip is to help where it’s needed, but pride can factor into any mission trip a great deal depending on the other culture. Remember this before simply jumping into an unknown situation to lend a hand. The culture you’re going to is likely to have a few rules on how to be helpful without embarrassing or confusing the people you’re trying to help. For instance, it may be unacceptable for a man to accept help from a woman in public or for a stranger to accept charity.
Along the same lines, there are right and wrong ways to give gifts in each culture. Giving a gift the wrong way can embarrass someone you hoped to make happy or even oblige them culturally to give you a gift in return when they weren’t prepared to. In some cultures, it’s even dangerous to complement their home decor too much. Accepting that you will want to give gifts to your new friends during your mission trip or at the end when it’s time to leave, study what makes a good friend-to-friend gift in this culture that doesn’t require a gift in return and go out of your way to make the people as comfortable as possible.
Staying in Touch
Finally, no doubt you’ll want to stay in touch with many of the wonderful people you’ve met along the way. While this is likely to be the least culturally sensitive issue you’ll have to deal with, there is still a best way to make sure your new friends stay in contact. The best way to approach this is to carry a stack of business cards with the church’s name, street address, and email address so that you can hand these to whoever is most appropriate. In many cases, to stay in contact with a household, you’ll want to give the contact information to the mother or father while in other situations, it may be perfectly okay to ask younger members of the family to contact you directly.
When it comes to preparing for the culture on your mission trip, it all depends on where you’re going.