Intercultural Communication – A Missionary Family Experience 


This year I complete 30 years as a full-time missionary, and my wife and I celebrate 24 years of marriage. We have three children aged 19, 16, and 13. As missionaries, we are called to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in cross-cultural contexts. In this paper I explore several paradigms of intercultural communication in relation to my family’s immigration to Portugal at the end of 2020. Specifically, I will be dealing with the first year and a half of our new life in Portugal, which I consider to be the most critical season of transition and cultural adaptation. Several different experiences will be described and analyzed using intercultural studies theory and research. Learning to communicate is crucial during an immigrant family’s initial phase of adjustment. One thirty-two-year missions veteran turned consultant observes that:

Once on the field, some missionaries leave because of unmet expectations. They struggle with the challenges of the work, the hardship of life in difficult places, or they cannot adjust to life in a culture so different from their own. Failing to achieve a working fluency in the local language reduces one’s personal sense of connection with and effectiveness in the host culture. (Vandagriff, 2017)

Many missionaries quit during the first years on the field, and I hope this paper can yield insight for increased success. 

Family dynamics are crucial to long-term intercultural ministry. The missionary vocation my wife and I share does not extend to our children. However, children of missionaries are forced to learn intercultural communication as well. My wife and I have always endeavored to center our ministry around family life. We don’t our Christian service to be something distant, irrelevant, or worse – incomprehensible – to our children. Consequently, this paper refers to the experiences of intercultural communication that our family shared together. 

I proceed then with a definition of intercultural communication. This discipline can be described as, “Interpersonal communication between individuals (or groups) who have been socialized in different cultural (and, in most cases, linguistic) environments” (Jackson 2020). Intercultural communication includes communication between individuals and groups of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and nations (Kitao 1985). 

And what means does this activity employ? People communicate through physical coding that includes language, extraverbal gestures, and media. But even distracting elements such as noise and distortion are part of this coding. Each of us interprets a message within a framework by which we hear, see, and feel the information. If our communication is not, therefore, focused equally on the audience as on the message, it will not be effective (Moreau et al. 2014). 

To the importance of intercultural communication – in particular for missionaries – various contemporary factors are significant: “Globalization; internationalization; transportation and technological advances; changing demographics; the rise in populism, localism, and xenophobia; conflict and peace; ethics; and personal growth/responsibility” (Jackson 2020). 

New Beginning in Portugal

In 2020 my family and I immigrated to Portugal from the U.S. We had only been in the U.S. for three years, having spent most of our lives as a family in Brazil (2002-2017). The initial transition from Brazil to the U.S. in 2017 was also a time of development regarding intercultural communication. Surely the time in the U.S. gave us some useful tools and preparation for the subsequent move to Portugal. 

            Our family arrived in Portugal already possessing one of the most important parts of the physical coding through which people communicate – a shared language. Language can be defined as “an organized, generally agreed upon, learned symbol-system, used to represent the experiences within a geographic location (….) the primary means by which a culture transmits its beliefs, values, and norms (.…) a means of interacting with other members of the culture and a means of thinking” (Samovar, Porter, and Jain 1981). My family and I came to Portugal possessing this primary means of cultural transmission. However, there is a significant difference between the language spoken in Brazil and Portugal. I would compare this to the difference between American English and a strong Scottish or Irish accent. There are a multitude of vocabulary and grammatical differences in how Brazilians and the Portuguese speak. 

            In addition to learning to comprehend a new accent, our family had to learn a new religious language. The religion of both the U.S. and Brazil is rooted in its colonial past. Historically, the U.S. is known as a predominantly Protestant Christian country, a direct result of the religious affiliation of its Northern European colonizers. Although Brazil was colonized by the Roman Catholic Portuguese, a 2020 study found that 26.7% of the population affirms affiliation to a non-Catholic Christian denomination (Religion Affiliations in Brazil 2020, n.d.).  The majority of non-Catholic Brazilian Christians are Evangelical Protestants like our family. Therefore, as Evangelicals in Brazil – although a majority Catholic country – my family never felt like a minority or a marginalized group. According to a 2011 census, 81% of the Portuguese population is Catholic, with 3.3% consisting of other Christian denominations such as Eastern Orthodox and Protestant (“Population of Portugal 2023 | Religion in Portugal,” 2021).  Consequently, this was the first time our family had to learn to communicate as members of a marginal minority religious group.

I will add here that according to the GLOBE cultural framework, Portugal is part of the country cluster Latin Europe, e.g., Israel, Italy, Spain, Portugal (House et al. 2004). Therefore, much of what describes Portuguese culture is true of the region of Latin Europe, sometimes referred to as Southern Europe. 

In some countries, certain religions have been significant historically but not today. The decline of Mainline Protestantism in Northern Europe would be an example of the decline of traditional religion. In contrast, Southern Europe is not only predominantly Catholic historically, the church continues to be one of the most significant factors in Portuguese culture (Medina, 2021).  Portugal is one of the oldest nations in the world, with over 800 years of history and relatively secure borders of its territory (“About Portugal,” n.d.).  This Lusitanian nation has one of the greatest maritime traditions in world history, spearheading the era of exploration in the 15th century (European Exploration – The Age of Discovery | Britannica, n.d.).  The spread of the Catholic faith was one of the foundational motivations for Portuguese explorers and the empire that sponsored them (The Legacy of Henry the Navigator, n.d.).  Therefore, the cultural identity of even secular Portuguese is intimately interwoven with Roman Catholicism. 

How We Did

The success of our family’s new life in Portugal – including ministry – required being able to appreciate their Worldview. Worldview is pretheoretical, “Generally not found at the conscious level, and the assumptions that compose it are not necessarily coherently linked to one another; they may even be contradictory” (Moreau et al. 2014). Of course, our family brought its own presuppositions, including those of a religious, political, and philosophical nature. Our aim was to offer Christian service to the people of Portugal –natives or immigrants – in a way they deemed valid and relevant. But the positive impact of our family’s worldview in this new context would depend on the ability to embody it with love. 

            The principle of love from the teachings of Christ is relevant intercultural communication. As the apostle Paul wrote:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is non self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (New International Version, 2011, I Corinthians 13:4-8) 

My wife and I believed that our Christian worldview gave us something of value to share with the Portuguese people. But we could only transfer the gospel vision fruitfully with attitudes and behaviors according to Christian love. 

            Any cross-cultural experience involves the experience of being an outsider. The term ingroup refers to “groups that we feel emotionally attached to (e.g., family, cultural or ethnic group members, a religious group)” (Jackson 2020). Inversely, outgroup describes, “groups that you feel distant from and may even feel in competition with when there are limited resources” (Jackson 2020). Although our family spoke Portuguese, were still part of an outgroup. We could choose the level of accommodation with which we communicated with the Portuguese. The effectiveness of communication depends on the level of accommodation being used.Communication accommodation theory explores “the reasons for, and consequences arising from, speakers converging toward and diverging away from each other” (Jackson 2020). Seeking acceptance, my family could accommodate its communication to the Portuguese in what is termed convergence. The opposite approach would be to maintain our way of speaking to draw attention to our affiliation with our ingroup – Brazilian American immigrants to Portugal. 

            To be good communicators, we also needed to be aware of negative prejudice towards us as members of outgroups. As Americans, we could be received by the Portuguese with contempt because of the huge recent influx of immigrants from that country. A majority of these American immigrants are Californians like ourselves who have been priced out of the housing market there (Welcome to Portugal, the New Expat Haven. Californians, Please Go Home, 2022). Many Portuguese resent the huge influx of remote working digital nomads and retired expats that have pushed housing prices up in Lisbon. Consequently, Lisbon has recently been cited as the third most expensive city in the world by income to housing ratio (Lisbon 3rd Most Expensive City to Live In, n.d.). 

As Brazilians, our family could be received by the Portuguese with contempt because of the tendency of their former Latin-American colonists to form cultural enclaves instead of integrating into Lusitanian culture (Tostes, 2019).  Brazilians are often perceived by the Portuguese as seeking a better life in terms of security and quality of life – if not always financially – and not necessarily desiring to integrate into Lusitanian society. The long-term goal of many Brazilian immigrants is to gradually bring as many members of their extended family to Portugal as possible. And those Brazilians who can prosper financially in Portugal often have a long-term plan to spend it back home when they eventually return. 

            The inclination for immigrants to develop cultural enclaves instead of integrating into society is hard to resist. People tend naturally – sometimes unconsciously – to be drawn to individuals and groups where language, culture, and values are shared (Jackson 2020). As a family of Brazilian Evangelical heritage, it is natural for us to gravitate towards our ingroup. As soon as we arrived in Portugal, our family began looking for an Evangelical church, which generally have a majority Brazilian membership. Even though my wife and I are missionaries, we were not immune to ethnocentrism, in which identity biases and discrimination are rooted (Jackson 2020). 

            In the beginning of our life in Portugal, the charm of the new culture was captivating. So much of the sights, sounds, and flavors that surrounded us were exciting and fascinating. But as time went by, negative attitudes toward the new culture began to emerge. Some stereotypes of the Portuguese people began to take form in our minds, related to things such as work ethic and dependence on socialist government assistance. This mindset is an example of essentialism, indicating circumstances where groups are presumed to share “universal and homogenous characteristics without consideration for variation” (Sorrells 2015). 

Another negative phenomenon in intercultural communication to which our family was susceptible was othering. Othering refers to social portrayal that entails “the objectification of another person or group” (Abdallah-Pretceille 2003). With this approach, all perspectives, and behaviors of ‘the other’ are attributed to culture, generally disregarding the complex and diverse nature that lies beneath the superficial level (Holliday 2012, 2019). Such a reductionist approach is detrimental to the development of significant intercultural connections (Jackson 2020). 

            During the initial phase of our immigration to Portugal, it became evident that each of us had a unique enculturation. As it relates to intercultural communication, enculturation includes the socialization process, by which “individuals develop the ability to appropriately use and interpret verbal and nonverbal cues in particular cultural contexts” (Jackson 2020). My wife was born and raised in Brazil where she lived until she was 20. I was reared in the U.S. until I was 18 when I left for overseas missionary service. Each of our children have experienced different cultural formations based on where our family was living at critical times of their development. Of the three siblings, my eldest daughter spent the longest time in Brazil – 14 years. My son seems to be the most impacted by American culture, perhaps because he lived there from 11-13 years of age, a very impressionable period. My youngest daughter was 11 when we moved to Portugal and has seemed to adapt the fastest to the new context, especially linguistically. 

Another factor our family has had to navigate in adapting to Portuguese culture is contexting. This term refers to a policy of choosing the proper blend of verbal and non-verbal communication to convey a message. In the U.S., low-context communication is more common, meaning what is being expressed generally exists within the specific words being used. In Portugal, high-context communication is predominant, by which most of the meaning is in the physical context or internalized in the communicants (Moreau et al. 2014). Most of what the Portuguese communicate is not expressed directly and verbally, but rather indirectly and nonverbally (Jackson 2020). 

Brazilian culture is also characterized by high-context communication. Because of her upbringing, my wife tends to read much more into non-verbal communication in her interactions with the Portuguese. Intercultural communication research indicates that non-verbal communication is the primary form of human communication. International studies have found that the amount of non-verbal communication ranges between 65% and 95% (Matsumoto & Hwang 2015). As a result of my wife’s enculturation, she tends to be much more sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and other forms of “socially shared coding systems of communication beyond language” (van de Vijver 2018). My wife’s ability to read into things like body language and eye contact is helpful not only in Portugal but Southern Europe as a whole (Hall 1991). As a missionary, if I want to have influence in Latin Europe I should observe and imitate my wife. 

As someone from a low-context communication culture, learning how to be indirect sometimes feels to me like learning how to lie. Inversely, for high-context communicators such as the Portuguese, learning to be direct can feel like developing an ability to insult people without remorse. Having dealt with this type of cross-cultural difference in Brazil, I came to Portugal benefitting from some prior experience (Moreau et al. 2014). 

             Another aspect of non-verbal communication – chronemics – represents probably the single biggest difficulty our family’s adaptation. Chronemics – the way we understand and appraise time, administer our time, and react to time – affects how we communicate (Berglund 2015). The Portuguese workday is flexible – tending to start between 9:00 and 11:00 am and ending at 07:00 – 09:00 pm. The time of day or night when people gather and communicate is an aspect of chronemics (Moreau et al. 2014). As difficult as it is for our family, we must understand that our concept of chronemics is not universal. If we are humble enough to allow them, such cultural differences can teach us patience. We have learned to schedule meals with Portuguese friends over breakfast or lunch, but not dinner because we don’t want to eat at 10:00-11:00 pm.

            Southern European countries tend to take a polychronic approach to life in which time is perceived as an immediate point in which life happens instead of a road we are travelling on. Polychronic cultures tend to see time as a river that carries all of us along, bringing us experiences along the way. In these cultures, one is considered wiser to participate in these events instead of attempting to resist or control. Instead of viewing events as occurring at a specific moment, polychronic societies view all things happening together. Therefore, we should experience life as it happens rather than attempting to organize it (Moreau et al 2014). 

By contrast, with a monochronic orientation to time, “tasks are done one at a time, and time is segmented into precise, small units so that one’s day is scheduled, arranged, and managed. Time is basically like a commodity; hence, the common saying, ‘Time is money’” (Jackson 2020). Even though Brazilian culture tends to be polychronic, under American influence our family has become more monochronic. Both my wife and I have personalities that desire planning, predictability, and harmony over spontaneity, and improvisation. Living in Portugal, therefore, has been a process of adaptation regarding perspectives of time. 

            Fruitful intercultural communication also requires sensitivity to identity – both our own and that of others. Each culture has a unique concept of identity, which is “(1) developed through primary socialization, (2) formed in different ways in different parts of the world, (3) multiple and complex, (4) both dynamic and stable, (5) both chosen and ascribed, (6) variable in strength and salience, and (7) conveyed through verbal and nonverbal means” (Jackson 2020). 

Foundational socialization in different cultures forms notions of identity related to power that influence intercultural communication. More powerful societies produce definitions of people groups and ethnicities that they intend to exploit. Such views of identity affect individuals and groups on either side of the power balance. As people immigrating from the U.S., our family could be unaware of our position of privilege in the eyes of the Portuguese. Whenever people from different linguistic and cultural contexts relate to each other, their power status is unequal (Jackson 2020). Intercultural communication is affected by the position each part occupies in the social order of power, including one’s nationality and accent (Kubota 2014). My wife and I learned, for example, not to tell the Portuguese we had immigrated because the cost of living in California was too high. I cited earlier the rising cost of living in Lisbon attributed – correctly or not – to an influx of Californian immigrants. As missionaries, we don’t want this power balance issue to undermine our relationships with the Portuguese. 

Another intercultural communication paradigm relevant to our family’s initial integration into Portuguese culture was the dichotomy between individualist and collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures define identity primarily in terms of individual expression and preference. In collectivist cultures, identity tends to be connected to the values and norms of the community. As an American, I have been formed in the most individualistic culture in the world (Moreau et al. 2014), while my wife and children were born into a collectivist culture. 

Portugal is a collectivist culture, expressed by its profile on the uncertainty avoidance parameter used in intercultural studies. A group’s tendency to feel threatened by ambiguous situations and to avoid uncertainty is a key cultural differentiator. Countries with strong uncertainty avoidance are “more averse to risk taking; they tend to favor rules and regulations and seek consensus about goals” (Jackson 2020). In our initial period of transition to life in Portugal, our family found the individualist vs. collectivist dichotomy of particular importance as it applies to relationships. In individualist cultures, relationships are voluntary associations, meaning that it is each party’s prerogative to either deepen ties or distance themselves. In contrast, in collectivist societies people are born into large in-group relationships that they are responsible to preserve for all their life (Moreau et al. 2014). This dynamic relates to the uncertainty avoidance paradigm further emphasizing the tendency to stay within their in-group. 

Inevitably our missionary family has crossed cultural boundaries and consequently the relationships we form in Portugal will be voluntary in essence. My wife and I observed that most Portuguese families tend to relate primarily to their extended families and some close longstanding relationships (e.g., childhood friends). Our children were able to develop friendships quickly enough, but for my wife and I it was difficult to develop friendships with Portuguese people in the first year and a-half. 

            Our family’s cultural, racial, national, and ethnic identities are ingrained in circumstances that are beyond our control. However, other aspects of our identity are influenced by our own choices and self-determination. For example, our religious identity, professional identity, and global/transnational identity – Evangelical Missionaries – makes us conspicuously different in Portugal. If fact, my wife, and I refer to our professional activity as members of a non-profit organization or teachers. Our children also prefer this description to, “Our parents are missionaries”, which the Catholic Portuguese would find strange and perhaps offensive. Jackson (2020) states that “Being different from the majority may stimulate deeper reflection on multiple dimensions of one’s identities (….) This experience tends to raise their awareness about the personal meaning of their regional, ethnic, and linguistic identities” (Jackson). All of us have multiple, dynamic identities which are influenced by “our desire to fit in with particular groups (…) Identities are complex and subject to negotiation; they may be contested or challenged in diverse contexts” (Jackson 2020). As much as my wife and I try to mitigate against negative perceptions, the fact remains that we are foreign immigrants that intend to influence Portuguese religious life. My wife and I must be mindful of the offensive nature of our identity and seek to communicate with the Portuguese in a way that is sensitive to the negative connotations they associate with certain aspects of our religious vocation. 

What I Would do Differently Now

The reflections of this paper lead me to several points where my family’s attitudes, thinking, and behavior could have been better. Understanding that the Portuguese are a collectivist, uncertainty avoidance culture, we could have calibrated our expectations regarding the development of friendships. Contributing to the growth of the kingdom of Christ in Portugal is a long-term project. Although God can do the impossible, I believe that change related to religion in Southern Europe tends to be gradual. Portugal is not a country characterized by a series of radical, sweeping changes in its religious life. Rather, the Lusitanian people have a relatively continuous and homogenous religious experience in Roman Catholicism. It is precisely the Portuguese’s continuity of tradition – political, religious, and linguistic – that sets it apart in the history of nations. 

Another lesson from this period is that when individuals process culture shock positively, they will do so in unique ways. My wife and I worried a lot about how each member of our family was adapting to life in Portugal. We sometimes used one-size-fits-all parameters to evaluate our progress. Looking back, I see that each of us did transition fruitfully, but that depended on our individual personalities and passions. 

I also believe that our family wasted energy trying to distance ourselves from out-group communities consisting of other immigrants such as us. Creating a cultural ghetto of expats is an error no missionary can afford to commit. However, I’m convinced that in a conservative and relatively homogenous culture making inroads takes time. Developing relationships with other immigrants is not the same as isolation. Being able to relate to people who are in a similar situation of cross-cultural transition is like a cup of water to a someone running a long race. You don’t want to stop and drink water too often, but it helps recuperate strength for the next stretch of the road. 

Essentialism and othering are two potentially negative forms of thought that our family sometimes fell into. At times we fell into generalizing attitudes towards the Portuguese which limited what we thought was possible in that context. It is important to avoid overly skeptical and corrective attitudes towards a culture. A missionary should never lose the optimism which believes that their new context is full of surprising potential. My wife and I were right to soberly accept certain realities of the Portuguese context pertaining to religion. But we became skeptical regarding the possibility of change in some areas that the kingdom of God exists to transform.

Regarding some cultural factors such as chronemics, at times our family suffered under exaggerated pressure to adapt. Although our motivation was praiseworthy, some cultural phenomena do not require emulation for fruitful relationships to develop. Our family possesses certain cultural dynamics that make us who we are. Being a relevant source of positive influence in Portugal does not mean nullifying every aspect of our family’s personality. 

I hope this paper can yield helpful insight into how missionary families can successfully transition into new contexts. The wealth of intercultural communication research is not merely a tool they may benefit from. The reality of missionary attrition leads me to the conviction that intercultural communication should be an integral part of preparing missionary families for the field. 


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