Culture lessons from Zoom

Like a lot of people, I have been living my life via Zoom. I’ve had the privilege of working in multiple international teams, across different contexts and Zoom meetings seem to provide a great way to observe some of these cultural differences. Zoom meetings can be difficult at the best of times, especially as a lot of the social behaviours we rely on in different settings are not available to us. Also, because everyone is being watched all the time (if in gallery view), you seem to be able to observe a lot more at once. This makes cultural differences seem even more apparent.

A part of it is the newness of frequent Zoom calls. One thing I have learnt is that no matter how long you have been in a culture, is that you will never understand all of it. New contexts often have a totally different set of rules. As frequent Zoom calls are a relatively new social phenomenon, we’re still creating Zoom protocols in our own cultural context, let alone working out the others. Also, as behaviour is mostly dictated by our internalised cultural values, these work their way out fairly intuitively in different situations. However, if it is not your own culture, you will have to go through a process of observing how different cultures do it. (You can make some guesses, but there will always be surprises!)

Also (and this is the really tricky part of working cross-culturally), if you are unaware of a particular behaviour, you may not even notice it happening. This means that you might be blissfully unaware of how your behaviour is going against what everyone else is doing.

It’d be interesting to do a study (or, if I’m honest, briefly read the conclusion of one as I don’t have to for that) that looks into these particular behaviours. However, from what I have observed, it seems that culture may affect the following aspects of a zoom call:

  • When you join. Does the meeting start before, dead on time or after? When
  • How you enter. Do you speak straightaway to reassure the host of your arrival or do you wait to avoid interrupting conversations? Do you have your camera on straight away or do you wait until you know who has already entered the call?
  • The role of the host at the start. Do you say hello to everyone as they enter? Do you wait until everyone has arrived to speak?
  • Muting your mic. Do you put your microphone on mute so that you don’t distract or interrupt others? Do you use the unmuting of the microphone to indicate that you want to speak? Do you keep your microphone on so you can interact more naturally and conversationally?
  • Pausing to answer. Do you wait to see if others unmute their mic or indicate in another way they want to speak or do you answer straightaway to avoid awkwardness?
  • Body language. Do you use body language within Zoom calls? What body language do you use and what does it indicate?
  • Leaving a call. Do you say goodbye? Who do you say goodbye to and how many times? Or do you just leave as soon as it ends?
  • Offering technical advice. Are you willing to suggest how to solve technical problems in the Zoom call? Do you remind people to mute/unmute?

Now, obviously, some of this will be personality and some of this will be based on how proficient people are on Zoom.

Understanding Brits on Zoom

I’m only an expert on British culture, so I don’t want to assume things about other cultures and get it wrong. It may have been wiser to say this was “English” culture as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have subtle but important differences. Also, these are generalisations, so individuals may do all of these or some (and sometimes none). Another good thing to remember, is that native English speakers from different cultures may not share your culture. The cultures of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand can be vastly different, for example.

However, here are some things that Brits will have a tendency to do:

  • Arrive between two minutes or two minutes after the time. They want to be punctual and not keep people waiting. However, they may not feel comfortable joining on their own, so may try be acceptably late. An alternative option is that they may arrive early but not turn on their mic or video straightaway. It means “I’m here and ready, but don’t feel the need to talk to me.”
  • They will not announce their arrival. They will wait until they know how many people are there and whether there are conversations going on already. They will wait for a break in conversation before talking to avoid interrupting others.
  • They will usually mute their mic. They don’t want to interrupt others or distract the call with things going on around them. Also, you can indicate you want to speak next by turning on your mic. It get’s a little frustrating if people don’t notice this and jump in and cut the conversation queue. Also, those who don’t mute their mics may make Brits a bit stressed as we can’t tell if they want to speak or not.
  • Body language is still important for Brits. We will usually pause before answering a question to the group to watch who wants to speak. We will look for unmuted mics, people sitting up or leaning forward to show they want to speak. Give Brits a chance to go through this process, because sometimes they might not get a chance to talk at all.
  • We will say a few goodbyes and thank yous. We will probably not say goodbye to individuals but to the group. We will then leave. Sometimes, in very large meetings, we will leave without even announcing it.

This is because of our values of politeness, being fair, not causing a fuss and being private. These will influence how we do Zoom. Other cultures will have different values and they will do it differently. Therefore, openness, equality, spontaneity, hospitality and others might have a role to play. So remember, if they do it differently, they are not being rude or doing it wrong. They are trying to practise other values which their culture says is the priority.

  • If you are a Brit, do you agree with these?
  • How do people from your culture use Zoom?

Mark 5: Jesus’s cleansing power

In chapter 5 of Mark, we see what it means to usher in God’s kingdom and the power of the good news. Jesus shows his authority over evil spirits, sickness and even death itself. We’ve also previously seen how Jesus has power over sin. It’s Jesus’s power over all of these things that makes him the only candidate to be able to redeem us all forever. He has dominion over evil, sin and death; being able to irradiate it and free his people from it. Furthermore, this chapter reveals how Jesus removes everything that is impure.

First, we see Jesus remove a legion of impure spirits from the possessed man. The man lived in tombs, which automatically made him unclean, but he was also possessed by unclean spirits, which of course was the bigger issue here. He would have been a bloody, bleeding, dirty, ritually unclean , presumably naked mess. Jesus deals with this by allowing the impure spirits enter animals that were considered impure — pigs. (Note, that Jesus did not drive the pigs off the cliffs, the entry of the demons did.) The drowning of the possessed pigs echoed the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. Jesus was the new Moses, defeating the true enemy: the spiritual forces of evil.

In the second half of this chapter, Jesus interacts with two unclean people: one by virtue of her illness, the other because she is dead. However, Jesus is able to change their unclean states into those of being clean.

Therefore, if you ever feel too dirty, unclean or somehow damaged for Jesus, it is unlikely to be the case. You have to be more spectacularly unclean than someone possessed by a hoard of demons, someone who has been bleeding for years, or someone that is dead. So, it is reassuring that Jesus can restore us to cleanliness, no matter how bad it gets.

Mark 4: a fruitful gospel

In Mark 4, we get various parables about preaching and the Kingdom of God. A lot of these are quite well known, especially the first, which is the Parable of the Sower. The interesting thing is, though, that other than the initial planting in each of the parables, the farmer does not do much else until harvest.

First, in the Parable of the Sower, the farmer only does that. He casts the seed. The rest of what happens is not really due to any effort on his part. The destruction of the seed is not because of faulty action of the farmer; there is no judgement on him for where his seed lands. Then the seed that does produce the crop does so because of the soil, not the efforts of the farmer. Even the multiplication of fruit seems arbitrary. Jesus says that some seeds produce crop thirty times the original, some sixty, some one hundred. What Jesus doesn’t tell us is the reason. He doesn’t say, because the farmer was diligent in his weeding, watering and fertilising. It just says the seed that fell on good soil produced crop of some number.

In another parable within this chapter, it seems to be making this point more explicitly. Again it uses an analogy of seeds. Verses 27-28 says,

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

The passage literally tells us that it does not matter what the farmer does. The farmer could rest or toil, but the seed, which symbolises the Kingdom of God here, grows regardless. The farmer does not even know how it grows; we, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t know how the Kingdom of God grows either. The seed produces crop all by itself.

Of course, that does not mean that God does not use us and that we do not have a role in spreading the gospel. (This has been used as an argument against mission; it’s up to God not us.) But what it does tell us is that it is not under our control. So I don’t know why some churches are number obsessed when the Bible literally says, sometimes it’s thirty, sometimes it’s one hundred but there is no reason. Basically, our job is to sow the seeds. Then we watch as God allows his Kingdom to take root and to grow. And what a marvellous miracle that is.

Mark 3: Conflict

In this chapter, Jesus gets in to more conflict. First it is with the Pharisees, who disagree with him healing someone on the Sabbath. Then he gets into conflict with his own family. He famously says that those around him are his mother, brother and sisters, rather than those looking for him.

This does make me wonder whether conflict is just a normal part of the Christian faith. Will there always be people who disagree with us, even to the point where they want to kill us. Now obviously this is tricky for a number of reasons.

First, it is discerning whether the conflict is motivated for righteous and good reasons. The conflicts Jesus found himself in were obviously acceptable. He was sinless; it was always the other parties that were wrong. How do we know then when our conflicts are sinful or righteous? This is especially the case when, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to show unity and love for one another. In fact, unity is one of the most important pieces of evidence that we are sent by Jesus. Therefore, if we are in conflicts with one another then we are not being particularly good witnesses for Christ. So, I suggest, that if the conflict is with another believer, it is wrong. Of course, the fact that we are reminded so often to live peacefully, patiently and lovingly with one another means we are likely to forget this. (You don’t remind someone to do something that comes naturally to them.) It takes effort but it’s an effort we should take.

Then, it is perhaps that we should expect conflict with non-believers. Perhaps not to the extreme shown here, but we should expect it nonetheless. But, we need to check our hearts and be humble. I don’t think we should be antagonistic, frustrating, stubborn or arrogant in this, as this is not a good witness. In fact, our words should be seasoned with salt and our answers should be full of grace. We should not pick a fight the the sake of picking a fight. However, we should not be surprised if opposition comes our way.

Mark 2: do you know Jesus?

Mark 2 continues with providing Jesus’ authority, but also that he has the ability to heal both our outward problems in the form of sickness but also our inward sin. This is not to say that a person’s sickness is caused by their sin, rather that sickness and sin are both a type of natural evil that has no place in God’s kingdom.

Now there are some really interesting things in this passage. First, the order in how Jesus responds to the paralysed man. First, he heals his sins. Then, he heals his body. God’s concern for our internal sickness, the sickness of our heart, which is sin, is greater than his concern for our bodily sickness. This is because God knows what is of a more eternal importance. Unless God deals with our sin in this lifetime, we are unable to be eternally healed.

Another thing that people often seem to overlook is the Pharisees’ reaction. They said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They are absolutely correct; their theology is spot on. One thing that amazes me is about the gospels is that the Pharisees’ theology was, in fact, often right. You could not fault their Biblical knowledge. Yet, they did not recognise Jesus. You may have memorised the whole of scripture. Your arguments might be water-tight. But if your knowledge of scripture does not help you to know Jesus better, you’ve missed the point somewhere. It is through Christ that the meaning of Scripture is revealed.

The theme of the teachers of the law not really knowing Jesus continues through this chapter. They rebuke Jesus for associating with sinners. They ask him why he doesn’t fast. They argue with him about the purpose of the Sabbath. Each time, they do not recognise who he is and what he has come to do.

So, my question is this: do I know Jesus? I might have a good theoretical knowledge; I might be able to sing all the names of the books in the Bible in the right order; I could probably do a good flannel-graph version of most the parables. I could know the Bible inside and out. But do I actually know the person of Christ, who is the Son of God?

Mark 1: Jesus’ authority

So, I’ve finally read all the New Testament books with fewer than 10 chapters! There are quite a few Old Testament books that are below 10 chapters that I’ve still yet to read (in some cases, ever). However, I thought I would tackle one of the gospels. Mark is the shortest, so I thought I’d start there.


Mark is certainly fast-paced, which probably accounts for why it’s the shortest of the gospels. In the first chapter, you start with John the Baptist, then you have Jesus’s baptism, temptation, some healings and casting out of demons, the proclamation of the good news and the calling of the first disciples (but not in that order). Mark does not linger over each event, and moves quickly from one to the next.

One of the interesting things is how Mark gets straight to Jesus’ identity and his ministry. Luke and John have introduction that come before Jesus is explicitly mentioned. Matthew has a similar introduction, but gives us Jesus’ genealogy and nativity story. Mark begins with the idea that this is about Jesus, then gives us a prophecy to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture. We have John the Baptist proclaim Jesus’ importance, and then the heavenly declaration of Jesus as God’s son. So, in a matter of ten verses we’ve had Isaiah the prophet, John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit and God declare who Jesus was. The temptation in the desert is dealt with in one sentence, but we are told Jesus was attended to by angels, again, showing the readers who he is.

Therefore, when we get to his public ministry in verses 14, we have a good idea that what is going to happen is going to be amazing. He is the son of God, of course. He declares that God’s kingdom his near. The way he shows this is by showing how God’s kingdom has power over sickness and spirits. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s perfect nature and will rules over earth. Therefore, evil, in the form of sickness and unclean spirits, is driven out as Jesus proclaims the kingdom. Furthermore, this just proves Jesus’ authority (the demons recognise it in verse 24, then the people realise it in verse 27).

Mark 1, then, sets up Jesus’ power in authority in two ways: through the testimony of others (including in scripture and from God, himself) and through is powerful deeds. It encourages us to know that Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture and that he does have this power. Especially as believers know we have been given this same authority and Jesus is with us until the end of the age.

Jude: A against false teaching

It’s somewhat reassuring (at least I think it is…) that there are so many New Testament passages about false teachers. That might seem like an odd statement to make, but hear me out. As I hear about some preachers today, many of them with a lot of fame and a lot of money, who distort the truth, it’s hard not to become disheartened. However, we are warned time and time again that false teachers will come. They will distort the message of God into something evil for their own desires and gain. So, I may get disheartened, but God knew what would happen and God, in his justice, will deal with the issue.

So, what do these false teachers look like? There’s a number of things that they do or say, which tells you they are false teachers, set out to only help themselves:

  • they give permission for immoral behaviour;
  • they reject other authorities;
  • they pollute their own bodies;
  • they think about profit;
  • they are grumblers and fault-finders;
  • they boast about themselves;
  • they flatter others to manipulate;
  • they scoff;
  • they are divisive;
  • they follow their own desires or instinct;
  • and, most importantly, they deny the significance of Jesus Christ.

So, then, this helps us realise what a real teacher is:

  • they don’t permit immorality;
  • they are humble and submit to others;
  • they lead a life of purity;
  • they are self-sacrificing;
  • they are joyful and encouraging;
  • they admit their faults;
  • they praise others with authenticity;
  • they honour and respect others;
  • they seek unity;
  • they seek the kingdom first, pursuing the Lord’s will through the leading of the Holy Spirit;
  • they preach the importance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Jude also tells us how to treat others, and given the context, perhaps those who are caught up by these false teachings. It is to show mercy, “snatching them from the fire” (v. 22), but also to hate the practices of those who err.

He also gives advice on how to stay in line with the faith. You are to build up your faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. In that way we can stay in God’s love and be patient for the mercy of Jesus’ arrival.

And finally, Jude ends with this doxology, which I am just going to paste here because it’s great:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

verses 24-25

3 John: being hospitable

This letter is addressed to a particular recipient, a man named Gaius. This letter to serves to encourage Gaius in what he is doing and to commend him in his role is supporting the wider church.

Whereas 2 John warns against letting false teachers stay in the believers’ homes, this letter praises Gaius for his hospitality towards genuine teachers. Gaius is contrasted against a man called Diotrephes. Diotrephes seems controlling, overbearing and power-hungry. He is not welcoming to travelling teachers.

I suppose the lesson in this letter, who would you rather be: Gaius or Diotrephes. Gaius is remembered for putting others’ needs before his, for opening his home up and accepting fellow believers. He often, it seems, opens his home to those who he has never met before. I’m sure that wasn’t an easy decision, as it can open yourself to being vulnerable. (I imagine it could have been even riskier in those times.) Diotrephes, as verse nine tells us, “loves to be first”. Therefore, he seems to spread rumours about other authority figures and refuse to welcome them.

Of course, we answer, I want to be Gaius! But do our lives actually reflect that? Are we sometimes eager to cling onto our power or reputation? Are we intimidated of those that might be seen as better than us? Do we belittle others in order to bolster our ego and reputation? Or, are we open handed and hospitable? Do we welcome travellers and strangers into our homes? Do we put the needs, reputations and honour of others before ourselves? I wonder what the church would look like if everybody followed this better example.

Time again

There are different cultural concepts of time. The Western concept of time tends to be strictly linear. It progresses and marches on. Time is a resource to be used and it is something that is strictly measured and things occur because they should occur at that time.

Other cultures, time is cyclical, the seasons come back round, the daily tasks happen again. There is a coming-back element to it.

Other cultures still, don’t quite see time as what dictates when things happen. Things happen when they happen. So routines don’t matter much. You go to bed when the day’s tasks are done and when you’re tired. You eat when everyone is ready to eat. (If you’re British, and you’re saying, that’s me! You’re probably wrong. If you think children should go to be before the adults and that dinner is somewhere between 5:30-8:30 than you just have the first one, but defined in loose terms.)

Then, of course, there is Jeremy Bearimy.

At the moment, I can see the cyclical nature of life. I’ve been bought back to times before. I’m back at my parents for the next few months, living in the room that I grew up in. I’ve started studying again, and being reacquainted with theorists such as Saussure, Foucault and Said like they are old friends. My current church in Southampton is going through a similar process of changing its view of the church body that my previous church went through.

So, there is a time for everything. And now is a time to return to the old ready for the new.

2 John: love and truth

2 John is a single chapter and it is pretty short. Essentially it is the ancient equivalent of snopes.com or factcheck.com. It is warning the members of a church (who the author – probably the disciple John – calls the lady chosen by God and her children) about false teachers that are travelling around spreading a false gospel.

It essentially says that if the teacher does not teach about Jesus Christ coming in the flesh then they are wrong. He also reminds the church to continue in love.

This short letter is actually quite a helpful lesson in the age of fake news. What are the main criteria of what we consume, post and share? Well, perhaps that it promotes love and testifies of Jesus Christ? I wonder what social media would look like if we followed those rules.