American and Romanian Values at Odds

Andrew LaBreche

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Fall 2010): 6-9.

A Nation of Contrasts

Latin is the basis for the language of Romania, but this nation is surrounded by neighbors who speak Slavic tongues. A “Latin island in a sea of Slavs,” Romania is in the East, but looks to the West. Over the centuries it has straddled the crossroads of major powers – Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Russians – and has suffered greatly for it. Romanians are both a proud and a defeated people at the same time, and especially proud of their humility.

With Americans they have a love-hate relationship. They are a forgiving people, yet still remind Americans of their abandonment at Yalta. They can be painfully direct, but overall are very indirect communicators. They are wonderfully warm, enjoy life to the fullest, and when necessary, stoically endure intense hardship, yet the national pastime seems to be complaining. They are open and yet closed. They are understandable and yet not. Nothing about them can be ruled out entirely.

A High Level of Religious Adherence

Compared to the rest of Europe, Romania is especially religious. It has an unusually large number of Orthodox places of worship and religious vocations: 14,529 parishes, monasteries, and chapels; 12,173 priests and deacons; and 8,029 monks and nuns. Romania also has 11,063 seminarians and 10,235 public school religion teachers.1 All these figures are proportionately high compared to other Orthodox countries. Romania also has the third largest number of evangelical Christians in Europe, more than all Evangelicals in the rest of Eastern Europe combined. The number of evangelical churches more than doubled between 1989 and 2006, from approximately 1,800-2,400 to at least 5,000.2

Time Consciousness

Although the culture is changing rapidly, Romanians in general are much less time-conscious than Americans. Several years ago when I first arrived in Romania, we were invited to a friend’s house for a birthday party. He said 7:00 p.m., so as good Americans, we arrived within five minutes of 7:00 p.m. He answered the door, clearly not dressed yet, still cleaning the house, and with a very surprised look on his face, asked why we had come early. The rest of the guests showed up “on time” around 8:00 or 8:30.

This is not to say that nothing is “on time” from an American perspective. Trains (usually) leave at the time posted. When meeting with someone from a significantly higher class, one must be on time, but between friends or in an informal gathering, “on time” can be within an hour of the announced starting time. As one can imagine, a lack of understanding of this significant cultural difference can create tremendous conflicts, especially for Americans who consider punctuality a moral issue.

Contrasting Perspectives on Planning

Americans often reject old ways in favor of something new. Mottos like “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” and “Plan ahead” are heartfelt and closely tied to faith in progress and action.3 The problem American evangelical missionaries encounter in cultures without a strong future orientation is clear: “Given our penchant for planning, it should not surprise us that we are often frustrated when we go to societies where people do not plan ahead. Even more frustrating is the fact that in many cultures people not only do not plan, they think it is wrong to do so.”4 Romanian culture does not consider it wrong to plan for the future, but in Romania it is very difficult to make plans that will actually come about because so many unanticipated events occur each day. Eventually one gives up on planning because unexpected and uncontrollable events frequently make planning useless.

In general, Romanians are also much more fatalistic than Americans. Describing Romanian culture, former U.S. foreign service officer Yale Richmond states: “Events should be allowed to happen, since people have little ability to change them.”5 One of the best examples of the influence of fatalism, to the point of its almost becoming a positive value, is the Romanian ballad “Mioriţa,” which relates the story of two shepherds who plot to kill their companion, a third shepherd. Mioriţa, a ewe lamb of the third shepherd, warns him of the plot. But instead of defending himself as the ewe advises, he asks her to tell the two murderers to bury him near the sheepfold. What is striking from an American perspective is the passivity of the hero in the face of death. He does nothing to defend himself and only whiles away the time philosophizing about life.

An interesting exchange was observed some years ago during a lecture on this story given by a Romanian to a group of mostly American evangelical missionaries. After finishing a very emotional recounting of the story and commenting on the beauty and meaning it holds, the Romanian narrator asked the audience for their thoughts. One American missionary said, “Why didn’t he just kill the other two?” The Romanian was noticeably taken back and mumbled how everyone had missed the bravery of the hero in facing death. By way of contrast, Lucian Blaga, a prominent Romanian philosopher and poet, went so far as to describe the shepherd’s death as a “sacramental act.”6

In keeping with their Enlightenment heritage, Americans see the world as consistent and orderly, operating according to natural laws that apply uniformly over time and space. If Americans know how things work, they are confident they can rule nature, engineer societies, make things happen, and be in charge of their lives. Rather than accepting the unexpected as a normal part of life, Americans are upset when things go wrong and are quick to place blame and correct faults. They assume that if they do things right they will succeed, whether in running a company, constructing a building, or planting a church. Dominance of nature—and the world—has been very much a part of the Western ethos.7

This concept of a rational order in the world that explains all events is the basis for the huge emphasis one finds in American culture on problem solving. In fact, from an American perspective, reality is brimming with problems to be solved.8 Romanians are much more willing to tolerate ambiguity (or as Americans would describe it, chaos). Much of this tolerance for ambiguity may simply stem from an inability to plan with any degree of certainty.

Task Versus Relationship Orientation

Americans place high value on planning, efficiency, productivity, and profit. The American emphasis upon tasks to be accomplished inevitably leads to a focus on techniques, on how to do things. However, in Romania, as in many traditional societies, life revolves around relationships, which are often ends in themselves, not means to an end. People do work together to complete common tasks, but friends and relatives often gather informally to simply enjoy one another’s company, not waiting for holidays or a special invitation. In Romania, relationships take precedence over plans and structures. Work must wait when relatives and friends arrive unexpectedly.

Romanians find meaning in life not necessarily in accomplishments (although that is changing in the large cities), but in social connections. Consequently, people generally give priority to cultivating relationships over completing tasks. Hospitality to strangers and generosity are thus highly valued because they directly relate to the emphasis upon relationships.

The church is affected by this significant area of difference between American and Romanian evangelical cultures. Romanian churches, oriented more towards relationships, differ from American churches, which focus on order. Meeting times are governed less by clocks and more by human exigencies. Typically, Romanian services begin when some (to American eyes) undefined number has arrived and generally end not so much at a fixed time but when the service is done. Time at church focuses heavily on personal and social relationships rather than the accomplishment of a task or goal.

Church polity, too, is different in Romania. More emphasis is placed on relationships within the church than on strict adherence to constitutions, voting, and Robert’s Rules of Order. From an American perspective much more is accomplished informally and outside official meetings. Potentially conflicting views are very diplomatically and carefully explored before any public meeting takes place. If the views of potential adversaries are not known beforehand, participants wait to express opinions until the most senior person (generally the pastor) has spoken. At the same time, leaders are careful to respect the opinions of other socially important figures present. On the positive side, the practical outcome of this is decision-making by consensus. On the negative side, it can lead to subtle power struggles, gossip, and backbiting.

Headstrong Americans

Unfortunately, American evangelical missionaries too often attend meetings with “all the answers,” ready to solve everyone’s problems, but with solutions to questions that are not being asked, let alone considered a problem needing fixing. This ethnocentric assumption of Americans that they understand the problem (whatever that may be) better than do nationals and that they also have the solution, only tends to confirm the widespread view among Romanian Evangelicals that Americans are arrogant and condescending. Very clearly, conflicts can result. Often, however, because of subconsciously held ethnocentric values, Americans may be totally unaware of having given offense, instead thinking they are being very helpful—helpfulness being a strong American value in itself.

Differing Views on Social Rank

Americans are often insensitive to social rank and can cause great offense in cultures that place a higher value on formality and social status.9 In the high context culture of Romania, each person, upon meeting another, attempts to establish as accurately as possible the status of the other person. At times this even means not shaking the hand of those significantly below you, an act incredibly offensive to Americans. Even though I was personally aware of this as a cultural norm, it still raised my emotions when a colleague of mine did not shake the hand of another Romanian friend of mine who happened to be of the working class. At other times Romanians are taken aback by American informality with others or a lack of “decorum” in meeting someone significant.

Americans are very proud of their democratic system of government, yet problems arise when they assume that democracy is the only Christian way.10 Americans expect to be able to express their opinions and to exert an influence on the final decision taken. Everyone should be given a chance to speak and have an equal voice in the decision.11 When practiced in a context where negotiations and decision-making are much more subtle and less public, as in Romania, insisting that one’s voice be heard and “demanding” to exert an influence on a final decision is considered proud and arrogant.

Collectivism Versus Individualism

Answers to one question from the World Values Survey underscore the observation that Romanian culture has a more collectivist orientation than does American culture. Only 28.4 percent of Romanians considered independence an important quality for children to be taught at home, compared to 62 percent of Americans.12

Related to one’s self-identity is the high value North Americans place on being accepted or liked. This need for acceptance can cause significant interpersonal problems because Romanians, relatively speaking, are not an affirming people. Praise and compliments are considered detrimental to one’s sense of humility, so are seldom given. Thus the typical American craving for a feeling of acceptance is often not met, and strong perceptions of not being appreciated develop, causing great potential for intercultural misunderstanding. On the Romanian side, the American desire for approval is often interpreted as narcissistic selfishness. In contrast, the strong Romanian emphasis upon humility can lead to the paradoxical result of people actually being proud of their presumed humility.

Who Is Being Honest?

In North America it generally is worse to tell a lie than to hurt someone’s feelings. In many other cultures it is the reverse, even if it means bending the truth somewhat.13 In even mundane contacts such as asking directions, this factor comes into play. In order to please, Romanians tend to tell foreigners what they think foreigners want to hear.14 In asking directions one may receive detailed responses, whereas in realty direction-givers simply may not know. Without any idea of the location, Romanians still want to help, or perhaps, not lose face.

Responses to the questionnaire administered to American missionaries and Romanian Evangelicals indicated each group considered the other dishonest. Romanians in general weigh the truth in terms of its potential to damage a relationship. The result is that facts often are left unsaid and problems, from an American perspective, are “swept under the rug” in a “dishonest” fashion. Because Romanians are very adept at indirect communication, they tend to “read into” what is said, thereby deciphering what the speaker is “really saying.” When Romanians speak this way with “straight talking” Americans, they often assume something was said that actually was not intended. From the American perspective indirect allusions and inferences, if caught, are seen as deceptive at best and dishonest at worst. Thus, what may not in fact be dishonesty is assumed to be so by both sides.

Efficiency Versus Bureaucracy

Efficiency is very important to Americans, including American evangelical missionaries. They want to get things done, not waste time, and accomplish their goals, all by the most efficient means possible. It is difficult for Americans to understand how a people could think differently. But under the Communist system, a different thought pattern developed in which productivity statistics mattered more than efficiency or quality of goods. Former U.S. Foreign Service officer Yale Richmond describes the Romanian bureaucratic system as one that is half Ottoman and half Habsburg and “combines the worst features of both.” He exaggerates, but those who have spent hours standing in Romanian lines waiting for a chance to be yelled at would probably agree. In theological terms, Richmond humorously describes Romanian clerks as “omnipotent but not always omnipresent.” 15

The perpetual bureaucratic grind that continues in post-Communist Romania is one aspect of daily life that truly exasperates Americans. Thus, American evangelical missionaries come to Romania with a clearly thought out, detailed ministry strategy, including a specific plan to achieve these goals. Frustration is the result because the missionaries are coming to a culture that does not place a high value on efficiency. In fact, even the simple act of going to town with a list of 10 errands is fanciful because of bureaucracy and a general lack of a customer service mentality—although it is changing rapidly. Given this scenario, a former missionary friend gave this valuable advice: “Consider yourself very successful if three of the 10 errands are accomplished, or even if you went to town, got nothing done, but enjoyed the walk.”

In contrast, in most of the non-Western world, including Romania, “being and becoming” take priority over “doing.” This emphasis is also seen in the high respect for intellectuals and thinkers in Romanian culture, in contrast to the suspicion businessmen often face.16 F


1 Monica Heintz, “Romanian Orthodoxy between the Urban and the Rural,” Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers, No. 67, 2004, p. 5;


3 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 131-32.

4 Ibid., 119.

5 From Da to Yes: Understanding the East Europeans (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1995), 134.

6 Lucian Blaga, Orizont si stil [Horizon and Style] (Bucharest: 1936), 120-21.

7 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 139-40.

8 Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett, American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, rev. ed. (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991), 68.

9 Ibid., 90; Paul G. Hiebert, “Popular Religions” in Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission, ed. by James M. Phillips and Robert T. Coote (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 185 and 286; David J. Hesselgrave, ed., Theology and Mission: Papers Given at Trinity Consultation No. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 348-64; Marvin K. Mayers, Christianity Confronts Culture: A Strategy for Cross-Cultural Evangelism, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 130; Eugene Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 41; Serena Nanda, Cultural Anthropology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1991), 301.

10 S. A. Grunlan and M. K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 217.

11 Stewart and Bennett, American Cultural Patterns, 63-64.

12 Paul E. Spector, Cary L. Cooper, Juan I. Sanchez et al., “Do National Levels of Individualism and Internal Locus of Control Relate to Well-Being: An Ecological Level International Study,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22 (2001), 824.

13 Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou, Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 37.

14 Richmond, From Da to Yes, 148.

15 Ibid., 140-41.

16 Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights, 117 and 121.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Andrew LaBreche, “Ethnocentrism. U.S.–American Evangelical Missionaries in Romania: Qualitative Missiological Research into Representative Cross-Cultural Value-Based Conflicts,” Ph.D. dissertation, Evangelical Theological Faculty of Leuven, Belgium, 2007.

Andrew LaBreche is an American missionary who has served with Greater Europe Mission in Romania since 1997.

Editor’s note: Final portions of the present article will be published in the following two issues of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Spring 2011) and (Summer 2011).