Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Cultural Schemas Shape Identity and Influence Language

Sheryl Takagi Silzer received her PhD from Fuller Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. She teaches multi-cultural team workshops for SIL International in locations throughout the world using her WCIU Press book,  Biblical Mutlicultural Teams .

Sheryl Takagi Silzer received her PhD from Fuller Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. She teaches multi-cultural team workshops for SIL International in locations throughout the world using her WCIU Press book, Biblical Mutlicultural Teams.

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

March 5, 2016

by Sheryl Silzer


When people receive the Scriptures in their language for the first time, they interpret the message through their previous knowledge and experiences. If the new information is not understandable in relation to what they already know, the Scriptures may not impact or change their lives. A major challenge for Bible translators coming from a scientific worldview is the ability to recognize how their scientific worldview may fit in and even promote the magical worldview of the receptor language speakers (Harries 2011, 18). Early missiologists linked this clash of worldview to a lack of applicability of the Gospel message (Hesselgrave 1978, 68; Kraft 1978, 94; Dye 1987, 39).

Bible translation methods based on a scientific perspective have followed the code model of communication (Ciampa 2011, 149; Nida 1969, 484). There have been two main types of Bible translation—“functional equivalent” or “formal correspondent versus dynamic equivalent” following Nida and Taber and the “idiomatic” or “literal versus idiomatic” following Beekman and Callow (Floor 2007, 1). However, the code method of translation, with a focus on how translation is done, lacks the appropriate ideological framework or worldview perspective to adequately translate the Scriptures for people who have a magical worldview. Hill notes that both the source and receptor cultural contexts need to be understood:

To prepare relevant contextual adjustment material, translators need to know the source cultural context and the receptor cultural context. (Hill 2014, xiii).

Unfortunately the lack of attention to the relevant cultural context has resulted in unintended consequences such as the decrease of language use by younger generations and a loss of identity with that language. Early missionary efforts even discouraged the use of the native language in favor of the use of the dominant language such as English among Native Americans (Peacock 2006, 138). Samuels (2006, 550) reports that older Apache speakers attribute the lack of native language use and identity by the younger generation to the translation model that removed all non-Christian cultural practices, especially the medicine man talk. He called it “semantic purification” (Samuels 2006, 531). Kuipers (1998, 2) identified a similar phenomena in Sumba, Indonesia in his study of the loss of ritual talk knowledge by sixth graders.

Language and identity have been closely tied (Evans 2015, 3) as has religion with language and identity (Edwards 2009, 100-102). If people continue to use their language, they will maintain their identity in the language. However, if the language changes or loses some of its symbolic meaning, not only will language loss occur but so will the sense of identity with that language.

This article suggests that understanding the cultural schemas of the translator and of the receptor can not only enhance identity with their language, but also strengthen language and Scripture use. Understanding cultural schemas will also clarify the gap between the scientific and the magical/spiritual worldview. Conversely, the failure to understand how these two cultural schemas shape identity and worldview can result in “irrelevant projects, unused products, programs without impact, and lost opportunities” (Language and Identity Conference theme, 2018).

Cultural Schemas

Cognitive schemas are mental structures that organize knowledge consisting of elements that work together to process information (Strauss and Quinn 1998, 49). These cognitive schemas are a person’s previous knowledge and experiences stored in their memory that enable people to understand new knowledge in light of their past knowledge and experiences (D’Andrade 1995, 124; Bartlett 1933, 1970214).

Schemas … are generalized collections of knowledge of past experiences that are organized into related knowledge groups and are used to guide our behaviors in familiar situations (Nishida 2005, 402).

Cultural schemas are internalized as “deep, largely unconscious networks of neural associations that facilitate perception, interpretation, and action” (Vaisey 2009, 1686). Schemas provide the information required to manage situations and to influence judgments and memories of previous experiences when processing new information. Schemas are not just an individual’s perception of others but also other pieces of information of previous interactions with others (Lin, Zhang, Harwood 2004, 322-323). People encounter and reproduce cultural schemas through their daily social interactions (Baumann and Ho, 2017, 153). Cultural schemas are also reinforced through the media (Di Maggio 1997, 280).

Nishida (1991, 403) differentiates three kinds of cultural schemas that develop through social interaction—personal, cultural, and universal. The degree to which these schema are “organized, abstract, and compact,” determines a person’s ability to fit new information into their existing knowledge structure and influence their behavior. Turner (1994, 10) suggests that contextual, strategic, and procedural schemas are at work when a person encounters a new situation. Each schema provides the information for a person to process new information by identifying the context, choosing a strategy, and following a procedure.

Nishida (1991, 407-410) identifies eight sub-schemata of fact, person, self, role, context, procedure, strategy, and emotion. A change in one part causes a change in the other parts or schemas thus affecting a person’s behavior. Nishida calls these eight cultural subschemas “primary socialization interaction schemas” or “PSI.” She says that when a person is confronted with new information, they go through all of the subschemata when choosing an action. Additionally when people are in a new context or culture, they lack the local PSI of their host culture. Because they lack the local PSI, outsiders face adjustment difficulties.

Cognitive structures, cultural schematas, mental structures, etc. have been used to examine how the mind works in various kinds of situations such as addiction disorders (Mélendez, Cortés and Amaro 2011), how knowledge is organized and developed (Hofer 2006, 67; Ifentaler 2011, 817; R. Gelman 2000, 584; Turiel 2010, 720; Morris and Mok 2011, 117; McVee, Dunsmore and Gavelek 2005, 531; S. Gelman 2010, 715); beliefs about poverty (Homan, Valentino, and Weed, 2017, 1023); racial identity in advertising (Baumann and Ho 2014, 152); cultural schemas in religion, science, and law (Edgell and Hull 2017, 298); cultural schemas of individualism and collectivism (Yilmaz et al. 2016, 149), and Taiwanese intergenerational communication (Lin, Zhang and Harwood 2004, 321) among other topics.

Douglas’ Four Cultural Schemas

Mary Douglas (1982, 183-254) postulated four main cultural schemas, or what she calls cultural types, that show how a person’s PSI (primary social interaction) works. She uses the term “cultural bias” to describe the operating mechanism that defines fact, person, self, role, context, procedure, strategy, and emotion for a person. A person’s cultural bias is shaped by a person’s definition or perception of themselves and is reinforced by the society and culture around them. In order to maintain this identity, a person’s “Culture based Judging System” becomes active. That is, when a person encounters something different, they automatically judge the action based on their underlying cultural schema that defines who they are. What they think, say, do, and feel is based on beliefs in their underlying cultural schema that have not been upheld or have in some way been violated.

Douglas’ four schemas have two basic underlying definitions of identity. The first definition is that a person is a unique individual person with an individual identity. The second definition is that a person is integrally part of a family and does not have an individual identity but only a group or family identity. This difference in identity also provides the underlying explanation for the differences between the scientific and the magical worldview. The individual identity perceives the natural world as separate from the spiritual world, while the family or group identity perceives the natural and spiritual or supernatural world as integrated together and indistinguishable separately.

Douglas, in her study of cultures around the world, hypothesized that all cultures could be described on the basis of two dynamics—how people are different (Grid or Structure) and how they are the same (Group or Community). People’s view of differences can be either strongly or weakly held (Strong or Weak Structure) and people’s view of similarities can be also strongly or weakly held (Strong or Weak Community). These two dynamics form the framework for four different cultural schemas or definitions of the person—Individuating (Weak Structure & Weak Community), Institutionalizing (Strong Structure & Weak Community), Hierarching (Strong Structure & Strong Community), or Interrelating (Weak Structure & Strong Community) (Thompson, Ellis, Wildavsky 1990, 5).

The dynamic of Community divides the four schema into two main identities, that is Weak or Strong Community. Weak Community is based on an individual identity whereas a Strong Community identity is based on belonging to the group. Weak Community says “I think therefore I am” (Descartes 1637/2014, 1), while Strong Community says “I am because we are” (Okpara 2016, 9) as illustrated by complicated kinship systems (Mbiti 1989, 102).

Weak Community is fostered by the consumer market economy that focuses on protecting the individual from the negative influences of the group (Douglas 1992, 132). Weak Community has its origin in Greek dualistic thinking that separated the mind from the body and the body from the spirit. People in Weak Community prefer to make individual choices regarding their responsibility towards others.

Weak Community has two cultural schemas—Individuating and Institutionalizing. The Individuating cultural schema is based on the definition of a person as a singular individual who has the option of making individual choices, whether it is in regard to what they do, what they say, or how they go about their daily activities. As a result of individual decision-making, Individuating cultural schema people do not like others telling them what to do. Ideally no two Individuating people are alike because similarity contradicts individual identity (Silzer 2011, 29). The cultural practices of an Individuating identity can be observed through their preferences for making individual decisions—what they like or don’t like, what they eat or the clothes they wear, the activities they engage in, etc. As a result of their individual preferences, an Individuating person has difficulty accepting any of the four categorizations or labels.

The Institutionalizing cultural schema is also based on the definition of a singular individual, but one who prefers following the rules and procedures of the system. Institutionalizing people prefer clear explanations and detailed instructions of what they are to do and how they are to do their job. They have difficulty making decisions that are not already decided upon by the system. They also prefer doing things routinely or in the proper way (Silzer 2011, 29). Institutionalizing schema people prefer categorization and labels because these helps them perceive their world. This cultural schema provides the motivation for scientific experimenting and research. In fact, various scholars have attempted to interpret the supernatural using categories from the natural world (Bracken 2013, 1003; Wuthnow 2007, 354; Barrett 2011, 213; Pyysiäinen, 2003, 163). The naturalists’ challenge is to describe the supernatural in terms of the natural (Lawson 2000, 345). The cultural practices of an Institutionalizing identity can be observed through their preferences for doing things in an orderly and clear manner or the proper way to do things.

The two Strong Community schemas are Hierarching and Interrelating. These schemas had their beginnings in societies where families needed to share resources with one another in order to survive. These two types are based on an identity as part of a group that focuses on the good of the group over the individual. This includes care of or responsibility for one another in the family or group (Douglas 1992, 133). With the focus on the unity of the family/group, these two cultural schemas are more holistic, integrating the body and the soul, where the universe and creation are considered part of humanity and forces in creation affect humanity and vice versa. The deceased are not considered separate from the living, and the material world and the spiritual world are not considered separate. The principle of inclusion determines the kind of interactions with people inside the group versus those who are outside the group (Douglas 1992, 138).

The Hierarching schema is shaped by a hierarchical or tiered whole in which the people at the top (authority figures) make decisions for the group or family as well as take responsibility for the well-being of family members. That is, the authority flows from the top to the bottom (Douglas 1992, 142). Everyone in the hierarchy knows where they belong (who is higher and who is lower) and everyone knows the expectations of their role/s according to their position. Group members also have the responsibility of ensuring that all the group members behave according to their role/status (Silzer 2011, 30). Group members maintain conformity by putting social pressure on those who don’t conform. The cultural practices of an Hierarching identity can be observed through their preferences for doing whatever the leader asks them to do without question and participating in group activities that care for one another.

The Interrelating schema is shaped by a preference for group members to make decisions together. Each person is considered equal and, as such, each person contributes to the functioning of the whole group, including the sharing of resources—both physical and spiritual. Each person takes responsibility for the others not only in sharing of resources but also in upholding group ideals (Silzer 2011, 31). The cultural practices of an Interrelating identity can be observed through their preferences for group members to do things together, sharing resources equally, and reciprocating help.

Each schema is maintained and reinforced by daily decisions in regard to every aspect of life such as eating, communicating, working, resting, and cleaning, as well as expectations for friendship, leadership styles, and perception of the spiritual world (Silzer 2011, 4).

The preference for a particular way of life can be discovered when a person encounters something unexpected that doesn’t fit their normal way of life or their worldview. Douglas (1992, 5-6) says that people explain bad things that happen to them via their blaming system. They identify the cause of misfortune to a belief that was violated or not upheld and what needs to be done to correct the misfortune. As such, their explanations are moralistic. Each schema directs the blame towards those things or people who do not uphold their preference. These blaming explanations form Culture-based Judging Systems (CbJS) that people use to justify their beliefs for a particular way of doing things, i.e. their cultural schema (Douglas 1992, 3-21, Silzer 2011).

Cultural Schema and Spirituality

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that relate humanity to the supernatural enabling humans to make sense of the paradoxes of life. Geertz (1973) explains:

In religious belief and practice a group’s ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the state of affairs the world view describes, while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well arranged to accommodate such a way of life.… Religious symbols formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life and a specific … metaphysic and in so doing sustain each with borrowed authority of the other (Geertz 1973, 89-90).

Boyer (2001, 5) notes that religion also provides explanations, gives comfort, social order, as well as cognitive illusions. People want to “understand events and processes … explain, predict, and perhaps control” (Boyer 2001, 11). This religious framework of explanations also creates a means for making moral judgments (Bartley 1971, 1).

In some cultures, the focus of religion is on what people believe, while the religions of other cultures focus on the supernatural world with gods, spirits, or ancestors that have knowledge about and control over humans and their activities. That is, how these supernatural beings created the world, how the malevolent ones (evil spirits or witches) cause illness or misfortune, and how religious specialists can manipulate both the benevolent as well as malevolent supernatural beings, including supernatural possession (Sørensen, 2005, 466-467; Wuthnow 2007, 341).

The interest in cognition and religion has been growing as scholars seek to find causal explanations for religion and to better understand the cognitive processes of how religious ideas are transmitted (Näreaho 2008, 83). These studies focus on exploring the counter-intuitive nature of religion (Näreaho, 2008, 87) recognizing that “religion is rooted in cognitive processes that violate the boundaries between ontological domains” (Wuthnow 2007, 345).

Douglas’ Religious Schemas

Each of Douglas’ four cultural schemas perceives religion and the supernatural world in its own way. Douglas (1992, xi) says that the different definitions of the self make it difficult to understand others. In fact people have “muffled ears” when they hear explanations that justify and uphold different beliefs. For example, a scientific explanation of how something works could be easily be interpreted as magic by people who do not not share a scientific worldview.

Weak Community schemas talk about risks, such as market failure, that could pose a problem for the individual, while Strong Community schemas talk about dangers, witchcraft, and taboos that could pose a problem for the group (Douglas 1992, 24-25). Weak Community labels a Strong Community as counter-intuitive or contrary to the natural world because Weak Community explanations of the supernatural need to be in terms of the natural (intuitive) and also validated by the use of scientific methods. Strong Community cultures do not understand the need for scientific studies to justify their beliefs in the supernatural.

The Individuating and Institutionalizing religious schemas find it difficult to understand the realm of the supernatural because they consider the supernatural to be separate from the natural. Only what can be seen or experienced empirically is real for Weak Community. The things that cannot be seen are considered to be cosmic realities (spiritual beings), cosmic forces (fate, karma), local spirit beings (ancestors, ghosts, demons, evil spirits), and the use of magic and astrology (Hiebert 1999, 416-18) Hiebert suggests that as the Western world separates the supernatural from the natural, they have not been able to understand the supernatural realm. He calls this the “flaw of the excluded middle” or the area between religion and science (Hiebert 1982, 35-47). Harries (2011, 17) relates how Africans easily mistake magic for science due to the difference between the Western scientific worldview and the African magical worldview.

In regard to religious practices, Individuating schema people prefer to choose how they experience their religion—how they pray, when they pray, if they pray. On the other hand, Institutionalizing schema people prefer worshiping at a set time and in a set way.

On the other hand, Strong Community (Hierarching and Interrelating) schemas accept and understand the reality of Hiebert’s (1999, 413) “excluded middle” or of the spiritual realm as it fits into their perception of the world. The world of the supernatural is part of everyday living for Strong Community cultures. Although Strong Community people cannot see their ancestors, they believe their ancestors are present every moment and can help people make decisions in their everyday life. Strong Community people often include both the dead as well as the living in their prayers. They also prefer praying together at the same time in the same place with the family/group, as well as doing things that benefit the group as a whole. In the Hierarching schema people prefer the top leader to start and end corporate prayer. They do not feel that corporate prayer is as efficacious if a lower status person leads the prayer.

When people from Strong Community schemas read the Bible, they relate to the stories of evil spirits, demons, witches, fortune tellers, mediums, sorcerers, etc. (e.g. Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-13, Numbers 22:5-38, 2 Corinthians 11: 13-15, Ephesians 6:12, Hebrews 1:14, etc.). However, a translator who comes from a Weak Community schema, may not be able to adequately explain how the supernatural world works because the supernatural is not part of their everyday reality. People from a Weak Community do not see how the supernatural affects everything a Strong Community person feels and does.

Strong Community schema people can easily be afraid of the supernatural world, while Weak Community schema people have a hard time believing in its existence and therefore do not experience the same kind of fear.

Strong Community schema people are not so concerned about how the translated Word is exegeted and preached as they are about how the Word is lived out in everyday life. They do not normally engage in philosophical or theological discussions about particular points but prefer to see how the message affects their everyday lives.

People’s underlying cultural schema determines how they make everyday decisions on every aspect of life. These repeated behaviors shape their identity and influence their language use and determines their use of the translated Word.

Language and Identity

Language also reinforces identity. English speakers tend to have an Individuating or Institutionalizing cultural schema while most other languages have a more collectivistic (Interrelating or Hierarching) schema. For example, English frequently uses the first person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) while East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean among others) prefer the use of the first person plural pronoun (we, our, ours) characterizing group membership and group responsibility for one another. Some languages have further defined sets of first person plural pronouns to distinguish whether the listeners are included or not (Haspelmath 2004, 419; St. Clair 1973, 308, Donahue and Smith 1998, 66-67).

Hierarching languages also have specialized vocabulary that identifies status differences and shows respect and deference. Honorifics are found in pronouns and terms of address, and in politeness as well as honorific registers (Agha 1994, 277). Honorifics also identify people’s position in the social hierarchy reinforcing group identity.

A speaker of an Asian language (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) is required to evaluate and acknowledge her or his sense of place in a given context based on social rules regarding hierarchy, power, age, and occasion (e.g. formal vs. informal) (Lu 2014, 77).

At the same time, East Asian collectivist language speakers must take into consideration the feelings of others before they speak—listening to how they speak, while English speakers listen to the content of what is said without reference to the people being addressed (Zhang and Baker, 2014, 470). English language infants also learn more nouns than East Asian infants who learn more verbs that tie actions to people (Nisbett, 2003, xix). Asian languages prefer topic dominance sentences that promote indirect communication while English prefers subject dominance sentences that promote direct communication (Kiss, 1977, 211). The preference for a different sentence structure underlies the categorization of the rational vs. irrational of English vs. Asian languages. Choice of language use reflects a cultural schema—which language can more adequately express one’s cultural identity and thus promote language use and a higher probability of Scripture use. These are only a few of the language structures that are influenced and reinforced by cultural schemas.


According to schema theory, people receiving the translated Scriptures will naturally seek to fit the Gospel into their worldview. If the Scriptures fit into their worldview, they will readily apply it to their lives. However, if the Scriptures do not fit into their worldview, they may not be able to accurately understand who God is, what Jesus has done for them, and how the Holy Spirit works in their lives. If the translated Word is presented from a scientific perspective with all references to the supernatural removed, people from a magical perspective may not identify with the language or continue using it. They may also incorporate science into their magical perspective. Furthermore, the translated Scriptures might result in “irrelevant projects, unused products, programs without impact, and lost opportunities (Language and Identity Conference theme, 2018).

The biggest challenge for translators from Weak Community (Individuating and Institutionalizing) cultural schemas is to accept the reality of the supernatural, e.g., the role of rituals for the well-being of the people as well as dealing with evil spirits. Douglas’ four cultural schemas can help Weak Community translators to understand how people from Strong Community languages struggle with a new identity in Christ if the translated Scriptures do not take into account the cultural schema of their magical worldview. People with Strong Community schemas may also choose to use a different language (such as English) in order to be able to fit new information into their cultural schema. If this is the choice, the speakers of the receptor language might lose their identity with their original language, leading to confusion and a sense of displacement.

Weak Community translators also need to be aware of their tendency to give logical explanations rather than to demonstrate how the translated Word transforms their lives in how they interact and relate to others. Just as the Word was alive to the original hearers who came from Strong Community cultures, the translated Word is able to help people today from Strong Community schemas deal with the supernatural world of rituals and spirit beings.

When translators from a scientific worldview discover how their cultural schema shapes an identity different from a magical worldview, they will be better equipped to translate the Scriptures from the perspective of a magical worldview. The result will not only enhance identity but will increase language and Scripture use. The result will avoid “irrelevant projects, unused products, programs without impact, and lost opportunities” (Language and Identity Conference theme, 2018).


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