A few days ago I received a phone call from a friend in Africa. I’m accustomed enough to international calls that I did not immediately fear bad news. Thirty years ago I might have assumed the worst, but times have changed. International phone calls are easier now, less expensive.
However, I did instantly wonder, “What does he want to talk about? Is there a meeting coming up? A wedding? The birth of a child?”
For the first minute or two of our conversation, I kept wondering. “Why did he call? After the formalities, what will be the subject of this call?”
But three-quarters of the way into our talk, it suddenly struck me. This is all about friendship, relationship and exchange of greetings. There’s going to be no other subject. I was released to revel in the personal connection with a friend — no more, no less. It was a refreshing punctuation mark for a typical day in the U.S.
As I reflected, I remembered a conversation I had had a few months earlier with Kelbesa Muleta, a leader in the Ethiopian Mennonite Church, sitting in his office in Addis Ababa. I was moved by his stories of growing up as a homeless lad on the streets of the city, meeting Jesus through the witness of friends, forgiving his father and sharing the good news boldly as a teenage evangelist. He and his fellow evangelists helped to lay the foundations of a rapidly growing church during a time of persecution.
It helped that they were young and penniless. The authorities paid little attention to him and his friends, focusing instead on the “real leaders,” whom they imprisoned.
Then our conversation moved to his later experience as a theological student in the U.S. At Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., he began to understand the Western world from the inside. Today he leads and serves in Africa, fully content to remain at home, not tempted to exchange the challenges of Ethiopia for those of the United States.
“Here in Africa,” he said, “we live in an oral culture. We’re uncomfortable with communication which consists so largely of email, letters and books. My African education was oral. As elementary students, we repeated and memorized the words of our teachers. Knowledge and truth was conveyed by precise memorization from generation to generation, parent to child and teacher to student.
“In the United States,” he said, “I had to learn how to communicate more by reading and writing. I’m better at it now, but it’s still a foreign language.
“I get an email message from the United States, and I know how important it is to the sender that I answer it promptly and in writing. It’s an act of courtesy and relational integrity.
“But what I really want to do is pick up the phone and talk with the person who sent the email message. That seems closer to the face-to-face relationships which are more natural to me. Your culture is heavily dependent on writing. Mine is oral.”
As Kelbesa spoke, I thought about how important written communication has become in Western culture. He was right, of course. Administrators are judged by the promptness and clarity of their email messages. Preachers write their sermons. We have transformed even the telephone into a machine for sending written texts.
As a consequence, when I send an email message flying out to a global committee or a group of leaders around the globe, I expect prompt, clear responses. After all, how else can we accomplish our business? It’s a simple act of courtesy to respond, in writing. So I am frustrated if the responses don’t come.
But what if I became more sensitive to the oral cultures of the world? What if I picked up the phone? Phones are everywhere now. Rates are low or nonexistent. Often, it wouldn’t be impossible, except where linguistic barriers intrude.
Maybe in the process I would even learn some valuable lessons about relationships in my own culture.
Come to think of it, I could phone just to greet a friend.
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the United States and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.