Sunday, July 09, 2017

Seminary CM7: A Culture Map

This is the seventh post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
1. In this post I largely want to summarize the ideas of a book by Erin Meyer called The Culture Map. Although the book was written for businesses, it gives some helpful models by which to categorize and understand various cultures around the world.

There have been some in the past who have reacted negatively to terms like "cultural relativity" and "contextualization." Some of this reaction is based in an "all or nothing" mentality. The fact that some aspects of Christian faith are contextual does not mean that all are. That is to say, relativity on some things does not mean relativity on all things!

Romans 14 makes the point. In this chapter, Paul is basically saying that different Christians have different convictions on some issues, and that is okay as long as they hold their convictions with faith. In other words, Paul is saying that--on some issues--right and wrong is relative to the convictions of the individual. Obviously this is not true of murder or adultery!

The same goes with culture. There is no culture were is it okay to murder innocent people from a Christian perspective. The kingdom core of an earlier post applies to all cultures.

But there are also aspects of morality that play out differently in different places. In fact, all morality has to play out in a cultural context because, as we have seen, all humans live in culture. So the gospel always involved contextualization. It is sheer ignorance that some American Christians of the past have unthinkingly assumed that their Christianity was not incarnated in culture just like everyone else's.

"When you are in and of a culture--as fish are in and of water--it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture" (25).

On the 8 scales that follow, there is no right or wrong. There is just different from my culture.

2. Communicating--High vs. Low Context
The United States is the most "low context" culture on the planet currently. This means that we assume those with whom we are speaking have no context against which to understand our meaning. "Say what you mean and mean what you say." "Tell us what you're going to say. Say it. Then tell us what you've said."

Accordingly, all other cultures in the world are more indirect in their information. You have to read between the lines. In Japanese culture, this is called "reading the air." There will be an assumption that you mean more than you say and a Japanese person will expect you to be able to read between the lines, so to speak. In China there is intentional beating around the bush. In French there is the "underneath understanding."

I find the description "explicit versus implicit communication" a clearer way of expressing this dynamic of different cultures.

3. Evaluating--Direct Negative Feedback vs. Indirect Negative Feedback
Interestingly, how explicit a culture is about information does not correlate exactly with how you give negative feedback. French culture, for example, is not very explicit in general when communicating, except when it comes to negative feedback (see also #8 below). The French, German, Dutch, Russian, etc. are very direct when it comes to sharing negative feedback.

However, United States culture is much more hesitant to give negative feedback bluntly. When it reaches that point, a person tends to be in serious trouble. A French person may not realize how serious the situation is, because negative feedback is readily given in French culture, while positive feedback is rarely given. By contrast, it is customary to say something nice in the United States before giving negative feedback.

4. Persuading--Principles First vs. Applications First
Those from the US tend to be practical and pragmatic--we are perhaps the most pragmatic culture in the whole world. We are most convinced by "how" arguments and inductive arguments. By contrast, many parts of the world (France, Russia, Germany) are "why" cultures in which you give the principles and the background first, then deduce from there.

This section was interesting for me in terms of the academy. For example, Wesley Seminary was founded to be an inductive, problem based learning, pragmatic style learning culture. But professors are almost always trained to be principles first, "why" thinkers. Let's just say the original vision is not likely to last.

If you want to convince someone from Germany, you have to give them the philosophical basis before going for the throat. But in US business, we want you to "cut to the chase." We want to know the bottom line. I've wondered if this gives us an advantage in war.

Meyer puts Asian cultures in a different category she calls "holistic" thinking. This approach sees the interconnectedness of everything. This approach needs the big picture before understanding the specifics.

I experienced some inner conflict in some of these sections because of intra-American debates that reflect these cultural differences. Analytical versus phenomenological approaches to philosophy map to the difference between British and continental cultures. In American theology, there are the presuppositionalists of the Reformed tradition and the Charles Finney types that tend to be more "American" in their approach to evangelism.

I take sides on these issues, but this book is suggesting we are in part talking cultural conflict here.

5. Leading--Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
Some cultures clearly pay more attention to hierarchy than others. For example, can you skip lines on the organizational chart? Can a janitor have lunch with the president? Do you contact the person on the same level as you?

Again, I've seen some of these issues in the university where I work. Some bosses I've had have been very open to skipping people on the org chart. If you need information from a certain person, you contact that person directly.

Others have been insistent on following the chain of command. If you need information from x but you are on the same level as y, you contact y and he or she contacts x for you. It would seem that there is no absolute answer here but it is a matter of culture and personality.

It does seem to me--a matter of some inner conflict as I worked through this book--that some models accomplish certain goals better (and I realize my American task orientation is at work here). I thus had values in conflict as I read. On the one hand, I want to affirm that there generally aren't right and wrong cultures. Yet it seems that certain cultural approaches are more effective in certain areas than others.

6. Deciding--Consensual vs. Top-Down
Interestingly, even though some cultures like the Dutch or Scandinavian are very egalitarian--the boss is one of the gang, referred to by first name, rides a bike to work like everyone else--how decisions are made can be a quite different thing. While US businesses tend to be more egalitarian, for example, bosses tend to make decisions.

In Germany, by contrast, the team makes the decisions and consensus is important. In the US, the boss may make an unpopular decision, but everyone knows she is the boss. That's what bosses do. This is experienced as very heavy-handed in other cultures. By contrast, while Japanese culture is very hierarchical, decisions tend to be made by consensus.

So hierarchy and decision-making do not always map directly to each other, although they often do.

[More inner conflict. I prefer to be a consensus leader, but recognize that sometimes a leader has to make a decision or at least should. Otherwise you can languish on forever in indecision, which can do more damage than simply making a decision and moving on.]

Another element is how easily a decision is changed once it is made. This relates to the principles-first versus applications-first distinction. In Germany, once a decision is made it is made. But in the US, if new information surfaces, the decision can be altered. Meyer distinguishes between "big D" decision making and "small d" decision making.

Again, this gets at some of my pet-peeves even in US organizational culture. The principles-first approach seems to me philosophically inferior and, in our current climate, just as likely to run your organization out of business in changing times. It certainly seems likely to lose you a war.

7. Trusting--Task-Based vs. Relationship Based
This is the distinction between "peach" and "coconut" cultures. Americans tend to share a lot of information with complete strangers until you get to a certain point, the peach seed. We tend to be task-based in our business relationships. This relates to the principles-first versus applications-first issue.

Other cultures are more like a coconut. A gruff exterior means nothing. It takes relational work to get beneath the shell. Once you are there, however, there is deep relationship. If you want to make a business deal, you had better build a relationship. Spending time together eating is not a waste of time but an essential part of the process in these cultures.

8. Disagreeing--Confrontational vs. Avoids Confrontation
If I were writing this book, I might have put this section right after the one on negative feedback. Some cultures are very aggressive when it comes to confrontation, but it does not mean what it means in US culture. Two French individuals may be very negative and confrontational toward each other and yet hold hands walking out of the room.

For the US, however, this level of confrontation tends to break relationships. In Asian culture, there is also a strong need to "save face" in public. In the US, we confront individuals in private.

9. Scheduling--Linear-Time vs. Flexible Time
Many of us will know the stereotypes of hot versus cold cultures and how time in some cultures is much less of a thing than it is in others. In US military and business culture, "on time is late." But when my sister was a missionary to the Philippines, we used to talk about "by and by" time. "We'll get there when we get there."

There's a tendency to put a moral judgment on such things. "Being on time is a sign of virtue." But this is not true in many cultures.

10. A very interesting book. Very eye-opening, yet also difficult. It seems to me that there are some betters and worse to achieving certain goals in certain contexts (that is my American task-orientation speaking) yet I also want to affirm that these are not moral evaluations. Different cultures are just different.

What I had attributed to personality differences in an organization now face the complication of possibly being cultural level differences.

Next Sunday: Culture 8: Two-Thirds World Christianity

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

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