Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Southern Little Mind

Here is my latest epiphany: not everyone plays by the same rules.

A high value where I come from is "to not be beholden to anyone." That just means we never want to owe anyone a debt of gratitude. It's a sort of payback society in which every act of kindness or hospitality is acknowledged, if not actively reciprocated. It's not required, but somehow everyone knows that it's expected.

No one ever taught me this, but I "caught" it by observation. I watched my mom phone people to say "what a lovely time we had at your house for supper last night!" I listened when other people called her, as she responded predictably, "It was our pleasure. We sure enjoyed having you. And thanks for the thoughtful hostess gift. Y'all sure didn't have to do that!" Thus I learned the rules.

What got me into trouble was assuming that everyone had been raised accordingly and then judging each infraction as a "social blunder."

In the early years in Guatemala I drew some ugly and hasty conclusions that in retrospect I realize were inaccurate. I mistakenly thought people didn't like me because

1. They never phoned to say they enjoyed my hospitality, and

2. They never invited us back.
In my southern little mind, the game ended there, since etiquette prevented me from further initiating social interaction. Clearly it was the other person's turn.

None of this was a conscious thought on my part, but simply an invisible, unspoken factor in my fledgling friendships in the missionary community. "Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” meant not inviting anyone over for a second time. Since I wouldn't want to be beholden to anyone, I wouldn't put others in that position either.

Once I analyzed this silly game, I gladly stopped playing it.

On further examination, I think missionaries from all cultural backgrounds get so accustomed to being on the receiving end of people's generosity that they never attempt to "even the score." Even I am guilty. I do send a thank-you note or email to acknowledge an occasional gift from a new donor, but I can't possibly keep up with all our regular supporters except with monthly updates and photos on my blog.

Some of our partners in ministry are southern-bred folks with a keen sense of what they consider good and bad manners, and surely I have offended them by not playing by the rules. For that I am truly sorry.

My only defense is that on the mission field, I receive from some (supporters in the U.S.) and give (hospitality, finances, etc.) to others. It's not a direct payback. My philosophy now is that all I receive is a gift from God, and therefore it is to God I owe the debt of gratitude. I make small payments on my account when I, in turn, bless others or simply praise and thank Him daily. Regardless of my meager attempts, I can never repay my debt to Him.

Even though I am inexcusably a slacker in the thank-you note department, my gratitude is sincere. I’m grateful to God and to the individuals and churches He uses to bless us, and through us, to bless the people of Mexico and beyond.

      IRL*Grateful, always.


  1. What an epiphany moment for me, too. We (my dh & I) inadvertantly cut short a budding friendship, for that very accidental reason. We'd initiated contact, offered invites, and hosted numerous times. We are not missionaries, but the couple we were hosting, are. After several points of contact, all initiated by us, we stopped calling. Clearly, we felt, they were not interested in pursuing a friendship with us, since they never invited us over.

    We found out later they thought we'd stopped after attending church with them, that their church had freaked us out. We were able to laugh, together, at our lack of communication and are in touch now, though they've moved to their final destination which is far from our home.

    I never realized, though, that the southern rules of hospitality might be the culprit here. Thanks for the eye-opener. As well as the reminder about to Whom we ought truly be repaying those kindnesses along the way.

  2. What an eye opener! As I think about needing to send thank you notes today for our newest partners, I'm reminded why I am doing it. I have to admit, I try to get the ones out to those I know that are expecting it and consider it as ungrateful if I do not- the ones from my parents and grandparents generation that are Southern born and bred and know that I am too! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Happy to help someone else reach an "aha" moment. Dealing cross-culturally we expect these differences in social customs, but it hits us on a blind side when we are interacting with our own countrymen. Open communication is another component, as you implied. Thanks for adding your experience. (Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one.)

  4. Well friend, I for one am glad to know you're not perfect. :) *says she who hasn't called in a coon's age and has no good excuse like bad upbringing or GOOD upbringing to pass the blame to*

  5. You, my zoo friend, know IRL that I'm not perfect! And yes, it's time for a skype visit. Didn't your mother ever teach you that "A poor excuse is better than no excuse?"


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