by Mark Suredhran
We live in an inter-connected culturally diverse and vibrant world. What happens to one country can multiply rapidly to other countries due to the rapid flow of data and people from one place to another, whether it is the spread of a disease or an event that quickly becomes a movement like “Black Life Matters.”
Understanding and interpreting various cultures can be draining if not impossible at the frightening speed at which we have to process information and make decisions. Even trying to answer questions raised by our children, who usually seem like ‘first responders at the scene,’ because social media feeds them almost as it happens. It can take a toll on us.
Traditionally, we trained cross-culturally to prepare ourselves for a particular country we were planning to go for a visit or for missions. Today, that model, while still helpful in a number of situations, may overwhelm us because of the diversity of cultures that are hitting us from around the world. Even if we do not go anywhere, the world has come to us, especially here in Singapore.
I live across one of Singapore’s larger universities. Students and faculty members from around the world pass by the block of flats where I live. We shop at the same grocery store nearby. We eat at the campus cafeteria and order similar food and perhaps share the same table with others. Our children too are exposed early in their lives to cultures other than their own in school as well as on school trips. They also spend semesters away doing ‘Exchange.’
In my years of serving as a missionary as well as helping debrief missionaries back on furlough, I have come to realise that it is not enough to just prepare to engage the dominant culture of the receiving country. We must prepare ourselves to work with members of a team from around the world in order to be effective. Many casualties of missions are not directly linked to the actual work of reaching the locals but the inability to serve together within a multi-cultural team.
Another phenomenon that has slipped in is the multi-generations working together. When I asked a healthcare professional about one challenge that he faced at work and without hesitation he said, “Intergenerational communications and their relationships at my workplace.” I too have the privilege and challenge of leading those in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s in my current team. It can be fun but it can also be challenging.
How do we best prepare ourselves and our family for the ever-present cultural mix we face in a highly globalised world today? How do we better equip ourselves to engage a diverse workforce? How do we effectively then fulfil our calling to be light and salt to our world?
Whether governments or employees in the work space, we trip over a number of forces at work. The fallenness of humanity continues to be the biggest challenge. Other strains that we have to deal with are personality differences, personal preferences, maturity, lack of emotional quotient as well as misreading and reacting to the cultural values of others that differ to our own.
In this article, we shall deal specifically with Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and how by developing it we can better forge synergy at work for greater effectiveness and engage cultures not our own.
Before we define what CQ is, perhaps it is important to define what culture is.
“Culture is a way of behaving, thinking, and reacting, but we do not see culture. We see manifestations of culture in particular objects (things made or used by people) and actions (what people do or say).” (Nida,1986, p29)
We often react to behaviours of people around us before we dig in to find out why or where that behaviour is coming from. Our tendency is, “we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour,” (Covey, 2008, p52) This affects our reasoning and how we react. Understanding the effect of culture on an individual and in a given situation is a key starting point.
As an older Asian man leading an intergenerational, multi-cultural team of artists and musicians, I have had to learn that while some may dialogue more about a suggestion from me, others tend to take suggestions as decisions based on my position and seniority. Years of painful misunderstandings finally clarified what was really going on. Silence from team members did not necessarily mean that they agreed but have respectfully kept quiet about their opinion, which I had misconstrued as agreement. As a leader now, when I suggest something, I would make sure that they know when I am inviting counter suggestions or dialogue and when a decision is being communicated.
Some years ago, my family and I were on missions for three years. The work we were involved in included reaching international students from various parts of the world, mostly Asians, but my team mates were Singaporeans, Americans and Australians. The textbooks for preparing for our time in the mission field dealt mostly with how to reach another homogeneous culture. While some principles were great, most of the time my struggle was the inability to relate to multiple cultures at the same time, switching and adapting to people of different cultures within a day. It was quite draining and I was basically reacting to external stimuli and going with the flow, making many mistakes along the way. I realised that I was not alone. Almost all of us struggle with, not just different personalities, but understanding and responding to our cultural mix. Unconscious biases keep popping up and if these are not addressed, it could result in distancing and we drift to affinity groups/cliques or end up being isolated.
There were many incidents, but one that hit hard occurred at a time when I was not around. A misunderstanding took place between a Western couple and an Asian in the team. The western couple expected a dialogue with verbal apologies, while the Asian mother felt that she had already settled it, by the way she had forgiven them in her heart, albeit without a verbal apology. I did not realise it then, but now years after learning more about the role of culture, I realised I could have mediated this reconciliation better by highlighting the cultural value clash that was simmering below the surface. Asians generally come from a shame and honour culture where communications usually happen indirectly whereas western cultures tend to be verbal and direct in their approach. To apologise in front of everyone was shameful to the Asian. As the mediator, I knew no other way to approach the situation and ‘forced’ a western approach. I should have met them separately and explained that both wanted reconciliation. I could have highlighted the different cultural values present and we could have come up with a third way to resolve the conflict.
On another occasion, I was trying to sell my car before I returned to Singapore, and a fellow American missionary friend and colleague was interested. I had a small car and I told my bigger built American that he should not buy over my car, that it was not the best fit for him and his family. He was greatly offended. I was bewildered and confused. I thought I was acting out of love by suggesting that he should consider a bigger car. He however said, “I think I am capable of making that decision for myself.” Later on, he shared that in his country, someone who did what I did, sounded like a used car salesman with something to hide. We both laughed over it eventually when we clarified that it was my Asian parental instincts that tripped me. I was doing it with good intention but it backfired in this instance. He thanked me for loving him and I thanked him for opening my eyes to a different cultural value than mine – how one culture may be expressing concern but it can be misinterpreted by another.
It is important to note that most conflicts may arise from differing interests and they may not matter so much. However, conflicts dealing with deep seated values, cultural or otherwise, run deep and are more sensitive. This is where a skill set such as Cultural Intelligence might come in handy.
I have found that cultivating CQ helps me to navigate through multiple cultures in a day, whether I am talking to someone from America in the morning, India and Mongolia in the afternoon and finally reach home to switch mindset to speak to my spouse and son at home. Maybe you are a Singaporean and only work with locals, but as long as there are people different from you, the principles still apply. In fact, the guards are down when we relate to our own nationalities and culture, but this is where conflicts arise because no two people are the same as we differ in our upbringing and experiences.
So, what is Cultural Intelligence?
“Cultural Intelligence is the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic and organisational cultures.” (Livermore, 2009, p4)
Cultural Intelligence Center’s approach is that CQ is more than cultural awareness and it involves four capabilities: CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy and CQ Action. Research has found that unlike personality traits and IQ, Cultural Intelligence can be developed. As such, one can grow in Cultural Intelligence to better adapt to others with different cultural values.
CQ Drive deals with the motivation and interest one has in engaging with other cultures. CQ Knowledge deals with our ability to dig deeper beyond behaviour to uncover beliefs and cultural values. CQ Strategy is the capability to be aware and plan the course of action. CQ Action is how we adjust and adapt to other cultures without losing our own cultural identity.
There are ten cultural values that can help profile an individual no matter where they are from around the world. This is a starting place for individuals and groups to appreciate their own cultural values as well as others around them. Each cultural value comes paired together defining the opposite values within the spectrum. They are not right or wrong, but they highlight differences. The list here is a chart developed by The Cultural Intelligent Center:
Individualism: Emphasis on individual goals and individual rights
Collectivism: Emphasis on group goals and personal relationships
Low Power Distance: Emphasis on equality; shared decision making
High Power Distance: Emphasis on difference in status; superiors make decisions
Low Uncertainty Avoidance: Emphasis on flexibility and adaptability
High Uncertainty Avoidance: Emphasis on planning and predictability
Cooperative: Emphasis on collaboration, nurturing, and family
Competitive: Emphasis on competition, assertiveness and achievement
Short-Term: Emphasis on immediate outcomes (success now)
Long-Term: Emphasis on long term planning (success later)
Low Context/Direct: Emphasis on explicit communication (words)
High Context/Indirect: Emphasis on indirect communication (tone, context)
Being: Emphasis on quality of life
Doing: Emphasis on being busy and meeting goals
Universalism: Emphasis on rules; standards that apply to everyone
Particularism: Emphasis on specifics; unique standards based on relationships
Neutral/Non-Expressive: Emphasis on non-emotional communication; hiding feelings
Affective/Expressive: Emphasis on expressive communication; sharing feelings
Monochronic/Linear: Emphasis on one thing at a time; punctuality; work and personal life separate
Polychronic/Non-Linear: Emphasis on multitasking; interruptions ok; work and personal combined.
The examples of conflict I cited earlier can be evaluated through these cultural values frameworks. For example, those who were quiet and those who were more verbal in meetings may fall into the Low Context/Direct and High Context/Indirect communications. This is similar to the Western couple and the Asian mother conflict. My conflict with my American missionary colleague could be because of a number of values that were at work, but especially the cultural value of Universalism on my part. I assumed what I value is true for all other cultures. Many times, the best place to develop our CQ is in the crucible of other cultures where we see our own values more clearly and which help decipher the others.
I recently did a CQ Assessment with my work team of 11 people. It was awesome to see each person’s cultural values and the range where we all fit in as a team. It was interesting to note that that there were significant differences to cultural values among Singaporeans and there were significant similarities with those from America and North East India. So, assumptions and stereo typing can trip us if we are not careful.
After this exercise, one staff managed to find the language to speak to another staff to clarify a misunderstanding for something that she earlier did not have the vocabulary to even broach the subject. This awareness is CQ knowledge and is the beginning of steps we can take to celebrate our diversity and yet work towards adapting to one another. It helps to bridge and build respect and not get muddled into thinking that a conflict in these values are personal attacks.
Cultural challenges are not a new phenomenon. The Bible has a number of examples of culture-based conflicts where values set deep within a culture could derail the work of the Kingdom.
Early in the birth of the church the racial and cultural fault lines were already beginning to show. In Acts 6, a dispute over the Hellenistic Jewish widows who were overlooked in the daily serving of the food had to be dealt with. This bias by the native Hebrew Christians needed the attention of the apostles to help settle this racial conflict.
In Acts 15, the whole Jew/Gentile debate that led to the Jerusalem council is a case in point: the gospel we preach must not have racial or cultural divides but we must find meaningful adaptation in order to not breach the unity of the Spirit that Christ Himself died for.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross . . .” Eph 2: 14,15b,16 (ESVi)
Jesus death not only freed us from our sins but also broke the dividing racial wall so that from then on there is “no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:28 (NLT)
Christ not only died so as to reconcile us with God, but also with one another and especially those who are different from us. If we do not acknowledge this, we are down playing what Christ had done on the cross for those around us and the world.
Many a misunderstanding have risen from miscues of cultural values and assumptions by well-meaning, devout believers who are unconsciously biased in their interpretation of Scriptures through their own cultural lenses or lenses handed down from our teachers. After studying the scriptures in the historical and cultural context, even though we may do a good job translating principles over to our own culture, unfortunately we may universalise it to other cultures too. It is a good practice to suspend judgement until we have sought clarification.
I have found the well held principles that I have been taught and ones that I have followed all my life may not be as complete as I think they are, until I hear the perspective of the other. I have come to see dimensions of scriptural truths open up when I read it through another cultural lens, confirmed by the Holy Spirit and shaped together by others who desire God and His truth.
The Great Commission of our Lord in Matthew 28:18-20 directs us to “make disciples of all nations (ethnos).” So, we arm ourselves with not just the gospel entrusted to us but also by cultivating and developing our cultural intelligence to help us first understand our own cultural values and appreciate the cultural values of others in order to better present the message of Christ in a way that the nations will appreciate.
“For though I am free from all, I made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Cor 9: 19-23 ESVi
The apostle Paul was well versed in the various cultures he was reaching. His message on Mars Hill for example, to a mostly Gentile audiences in Athens, had very different starting points in his message than in the synagogues where the predominantly Jewish audience were well versed in the Old Testament. Paul began, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship . . . as even as your own poets have said, ‘for we are indeed his offspring.’” He observed and studied their cultural artifacts and even their poets to bridge the gospel. Ultimately, he preached Christ crucified and resurrected, which should be the only offence to our sharing and not because of our conduct or wrong cultural cues.
I have found my development of Cultural Intelligence, especially in the last ten years in ministry, greatly beneficial as I lead a diverse team at work or have a spiritual conversation with someone from another faith or culture. When diverse cultures effectively work together, I have found it produces a quality of work unlike a homogeneous team. On the other hand, if not led well, it can be quite ineffective. So armed with this skill, we hope we can harness the strength of diversity and better manage the challenges that come with multi-cultural and multi-generational teams.
CQ has enabled me to better understand and love others within the Body of Christ and reach out to others. It does not replace the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives but just like other skills we put in our bag, this is an essential capability venturing forward in the 21st Century for effectiveness, no matter what we do, but especially in helping fulfil the Great Commission.
“If people refuse to become followers of Jesus, we hope it will not be because we were obnoxious, reckless, sloppy, irresponsible, ill-prepared, or because we were well-meaning but badly informed. People’s lives are at stake.”- Duane Elmer. “Cross-Cultural Connections”
Covey, Stephen, R., and Merrill, Rebecca, R. The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Free Press, New York. 2008.
Livermore, David. Leading with Cultural Intelligence, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, 2009.
Nida, Eugene A. “Devils and Doubts.” In Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions, 134-177. [9th W. Carey printing]. ed. Pasadena: W. Carey Library, 1986.
Mark is a certified Cultural Intelligence coach, has been in ministry with Cru Singapore for the past 35 years. His experience spans ministry among college students, the marketplace, as well as pioneering the music ministry, Forerunner. He worked in Victoria, Australia for 3 years, reaching international students and training staff there. He is now head of Crea, the creative arm of the ministry, which reaches out to artists and musicians.