By: Brandy Lovelace   |   Posted: August 18, 2022   |   Updated: August 18, 2022

Writing to a child in a different culture is super interesting — but also a little tricky! Here are some tips and tricks to avoiding any confusion when writing the child you sponsor!

What To Avoid in Letter Writing: Cultural Insensitivity

Writing to a child in a different culture is super interesting — but also a little tricky! Here are some tips and tricks to avoiding any confusion when writing the child you sponsor!

Written by Brandy Lovelace
Photography by Nico Benalcazar and Yrahisa Mateo
Boy with both hands on his face smushing his cheeks making a funny face.

If you’ve ever talked to someone who grew up in a different culture, you know just how fascinating it can be to learn about another country and its foods and celebrations.

But even as we celebrate each culture’s quirks, it can be easy for us to say or do something that might come across as offensive. A real-life example … when I was in college, I went to Brazil, and I kept giving everyone the “OK” hand sign. Which is odd, because I don’t do that much in real life. And extra odd, because the missionary we were working with quickly let me know it’s actually an offensive gesture!

Now, there’s no way I can come up with EVERY faux pas from every culture. But here are some things to consider when you send your next letter.

(And a side note – don’t let this be a hindrance to writing your child! We have amazing translators who know how to avoid anything that would be damaging. But it’s always good to know how to communicate in ways that are loving and respectful!)

Local Conflicts

You’ve probably received emails at some point about things like local conflicts and natural disasters in the countries where you sponsor. Asking your child how they’re doing after a hurricane is one thing. But asking them to weigh in on conflicts in their country is another.

Even if the child you sponsor is older, in many countries it is not appropriate to say anything that may seem critical of the decisions or actions of the local government. While you may acknowledge your child is facing a challenging situation, refrain from commenting on the nature and details of the conflict. And be sure not to criticize any of the parties involved in the conflict.

Try this instead: Simply let them know that you’re praying. Express to them that although you don’t exactly know what they’re going through, you’re thinking of them. Encouraging words and Bible verses remind them that they’re not alone — and that you’re thinking of and praying for them often.

Lost in Translation

Think about all the things you say every day that would get lost in translation. I’ll get you started.

“I’m so pumped.”

“Sick as a dog.”

“That’s a piece of cake.”

You may not use any American phrases like that in your letters. But make sure you’re speaking clearly and plainly — kind of like you would talk to a child in your day-to-day life!

Try this: Show, don’t tell. Describe things in your letters, and avoid clichés and American phrases. It’s good practice in clear and compelling writing!

Girl wearing traditional clothing: a blue sweater, white shawl, and a green skirt. She is standing in a field of wild flowers and is reading a letter from her sponsor.

No Kids Wants to Talk Politics

We mentioned earlier that we should avoid talking about local politics. But we can go a little broader than that. Most kids aren’t interested in talking politics, even if you’ve heard interesting things on the news about your child’s home country.

But it’s bigger than that. In many cultures it can be dangerous to speak out about the local government. Even an implication that you’re siding with one candidate or party can be extremely risky.

Try this: Talk about the culture! Ask about food and games and weather and pets. All things that kids would love to talk about!

Culture Isn’t Right or Wrong

One of the reasons Compassion has chosen to run its programming exclusively in partnership with local churches is that we believe in the power and beauty of the cultures of each country where we work. We are not trying to Americanize the children in our programs — instead, we are celebrating those cultures!

So while it’s just fine to share about your own culture, and the unique “culture” of your family, do not present it as “right” or the child you sponsor’s culture as somehow “wrong.”

Even while you work to avoid cultural insensitivity, it’s also important to remember that every person in a culture does not think the same. So although it’s good to research and understand where your child lives, work not to make assumptions. We’ve all seen the awful stereotypes about work ethic or even the ones that simply assume every person from a culture is good at a certain topic. Learn about the culture by asking questions and not making assumptions.

Try this: Ask your child to share about their culture by asking questions about food, holidays and games. Don’t make assumptions, and seek to learn about favorite subjects in school or what they want to be when they grow up.

Write to the Child you Sponsor Today!