Operational Issues - Inter-cultural Differences

Operational Issues in Partnership: Inter-Cultural Differences

Author: Alex Araujo | Retired. Formerly with Partners International and Interdev.
 
This article is part of a series on major issues that leaders may encounter in the life cycle of mission networks and partnerships. it focuses on the implications of inter-cultural differences that can challenge a network.


  1. Use of English
  2. Group Dynamics
  3. Place of Devotionals in Programme
  4. Sense of Time and Schedules
  5. Segregation and Integration of serious and humorous language
  6. Funding
  7. Problem Solving
  8. Cost of Participation in Meetings
  9. Consensus Building
  10. Democratic Process
  11. Status and Education
  12. Age Differences

One of the things we need to recognize about our partnerships/networks is that they are unlikely to be mono-cultural. In some of the larger “International partnerships/networks” we are likely to have people from many different cultures – Koreans, Indians, Americans, British, South Africans, etc. – and they all do things differently. Even in some of our more localized inter-cultural partnerships/networks, such as in India, there may well be cultural differences as well – i.e. people from Bengal do things differently from people from Tamil Nadu or Kerala!

Increasingly, there will be people from many different cultures in our inter-cultural partnerships/networks. Each culture tends to have different ways of looking at the world. Each culture has different ways of doing things. If we can manage our cultural differences effectively, that will lead to stronger relationships, a clearer understanding of each other, and therefore the likelihood that the partnership will work more effectively, and the Kingdom will increase.

With the increasing diversity of people in our partnerships/networks, we need to recognize that cultural differences do have an impact on our partnerships/networks. However, the one thing which we need to remember in dealing with culture, is that difference is not wrong! In fact, one of the major strength of a Partnership is in its diversity just as the strength of of many nations are in their diversity. But we need to recognize the diversity and learn to both respect it and work with it.

The following are some considerations and points of advice that can help to minimize the impact of a variety of inter-cultural issues in Partnership contexts. Twelve common inter-cultural issues are listed.

ISSUE 1: USE OF ENGLISH – to what degree is the use of English a problem; knowledge of the language, idiomatic expressions, slang, pronunciation, and accent

 
Considerations:

  • Differences in English fluency – those most fluent can process comments and documents faster, respond faster
  • Language and thought processes are inter-related. This can mean that sharing ideas in English by the less fluent participants may be harder for others to understand
  • Participation of the less fluent may be awkward or frustrating for more fluent participants
  • Less fluent participants are more likely to become resigned to being observers
  • Well-meant attempts to draw less fluent into discussions may put them into embarrassing situation because they have not been able to fully understand previous comments and are afraid of not speaking to the subject
  • Facilitators may be tempted to make inconsistent attempts to include those less fluent out of consideration for the others in group

What may help:

  1. Facilitator should assess language composition of participants ahead of time and make provisions for it and be sensitive to the level of English language understanding.
  2. Distribute in advance all written material translated in all the major languages represented, though the English document may be the “official” one.
  3. Recruit and prepare translators and obtain translation equipment as appropriate.
  4. Plan to balance amount of material to be covered and give sufficient time to allow effective participation of everyone —
    regardless of language. Balancing applies to individual sessions as well as to the whole consultation.
  5. Consider including representatives of major language groups in steering/planning committee.
  6. Allow time for occasional same-language breakout groups to ensure good comprehension of topics.
  7. Encourage language groups to name a spokesperson. Orient the spokesperson/s to their role of seeing that their language group is being able to stay active in consultation.
  8. Learn to re-state jargon and idiomatic expressions in plain English.
  9. Allow participants to express their views in their own language ~ not English.

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ISSUE 2: GROUP DYNAMICS – comparative degree of participation in group meetings: plenary, small groups, seminars, meals and other informal settings

 
Considerations:

  1. Not all cultures conduct meetings in the same way. Westerners have a more democratic approach to meetings, allowing and expecting everyone to speak freely and ask questions as needed. Other cultures may prefer to have clearly defined permission to comment at clearly defined moments and need leaders to state those times clearly.  
    In India, for example, decisions are usually made by the “Opinion Leaders” or Organisational / Denominational heads – not by the members of a committee. Keep this in mind otherwise the Opinion Leader can easily over turn a decision you have taken hours to reach in the bigger meeting.
  2. Some may divide a session into presentations, discussions, and decision-making parts. Others may prefer to have presentations in one session with discussion at a later time to allow for private discussions and consultation with colleagues.
  3. Westerners (Particularly Americans) may assume that everyone feels equally free to speak up at any time. They may assume that those who don’t speak don’t have comments or agree with what is being said. Others may feel it inappropriate to speak without consent from the meeting leader, that it would be discourteous to interrupt in the presence of an Elder Leader, or prefer to allow some moments of quiet reflection before speaking. These differences can result in them being outrun by other participants in the meeting.
  4. Some may state thoughts assertively — seeking to persuade — while others present ideas tentatively for consideration and perhaps agreement. The more deferring ones may feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the assertive ones, more so if there are language differences already involved.
  5. Communication in many cultures is not so much by “what we say” but by “what we don’t say” – so the tone, body posture, and level of trust are all important and revealing.
  6. Participants from deferring cultures may be misunderstood as weak or disinterested because of lack of aggressiveness in participation. Conversely, participants from assertive cultures may be perceived as pushy and dictatorial.
  7. “Face saving” is very important in many cultures, so how you deal with it is important. Shame is sometimes a bigger concern than guilt. Participants should be made to understand that rejecting an idea is not rejecting the person who gave it or it leads to resentment and non-cooperation.

What may help:

  1. Try to learn the different meeting habits of various cultures. This is especially important to know of people planning to attend a meeting. Design your agenda and meeting format to accommodate reasonable differences.
  2. Plan for smaller meetings (“outside the Board Room” as one Facilitator put it) with the “Opinion Leaders” and for Organisational/Denominational heads (even in one-to-one-meetings) to discuss the major decisions and come to a solution. This can be later presented to the plenary session by an Opinion Leader and will he readily accepted. Remember in many cultures, consensus is reached outside the Board Room by a few Leaders not by a large group
  3. Allow breaks between discussion and decision phases of a meeting so people can consult one another, reflect, and develop an informed opinion with their leaders
  4. Use different formats for different meetings and alternate facilitation between Western and non-Western participants. This requires knowing potential facilitators and whether they can run a meeting effectively in such a situation.
  5. Recognize the importance of “face saving” and try not to hurt people’s pride or value. Show them that rejecting an idea is not rejecting the person who gave it. Show them that “it is not what you bring to the table but who you are” that matters.
  6. Look at people not objectively but personally — recognizing their personality/age/position when asking questions or opinions. Defer to age and position when appropriate. “Hero Worship” is an important issue in many cultures that you cannot ignore.
  7. Notice and welcome uncomfortable changes in the way meetings are held in order to get true participation from all parties. Remember the goal: an effective partnership, not an efficient meeting.
  8. Recognize that communication in many cultures is not so much by “what we say” but by “what we don’t say” so pay attention to the tone or body posture of each speaker is revealing and read between the lines.
  9. Remember that the level of trust is most important. Encourage people to feel valued and secure in what the say. Confidentiality of “who said what” must be stressed.
  10. Avoid putting people on the spot. Give advance warning and time to prepare thoughts and comments.
  11. Encourage people to allow and welcome several seconds of silence between comments. This will be uncomfortable at first, but will give more people (including some Westerners) a chance to speak.
  12. Facilitators can re-state a point in different words to give people a further chance to understand and respond. Avoid abbreviations, local expressions, and slang. Develop a more straightforward vocabulary that less fluent people are more likely to have learned in their English courses.

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ISSUE 3: PLACE OF DEVOTIONALS IN PROGRAM – integration/segregation of spiritual and practical perspectives

 
Considerations:

  1. Some cultures feel necessary to make the devotional perspective central to proceedings while others like to briefly affirm Biblical foundation and then proceed with the issues of the meeting. Both cultures can misunderstand the motives of the other — one thinking the other is too religious, while the other thinks the one is not religious enough.
  2. Learn the expectations of those in attendance. How much time should be devoted to devotionals? Every meeting? Once a day?
  3. How long should devotionals be?
  4. The Lord’s Supper ceremony…should we do it? if so, who should lead? Christians differ on the appropriateness of this practice outside a local church context. Others have no objections. Some believe it should be directed by an ordained minister, while others believe it is acceptable for lay people to do it.

What may help:

  1. Again, try to learn the views of various cultures represented in the meetings.
  2. Remember that preferences about format and duration of devotionals are not equivalent to degrees of spirituality. In the end, all participants will most likely welcome more integration of prayer and seeking the Lord throughout the proceedings ather than simply having scheduled devotional time.
  3. If the Lord’s Supper ceremony is wanted, consult with participants to find a way that is less disruptive or concerning. Keep in mind that the end goal is an effective partnership, not to persuade people on secondary issues.

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ISSUE 4: SENSE OF TIME AND SCHEDULES – starting on time, going over scheduled time, revising agenda impromptu

 
Considerations:

  1. Task versus Relationships: This is a common practical difference between Western and non-Western cultures. Westerners tend to see time as a resource to be used rationally. Non-westerners, often do not think of time that much. For them, time is there, and we live in it, but it doesn’t have the same sense of currency or value that Westerners attribute to it (“time is money”). These diverse views of time can become a problem when having meetings with a mixed—culture group.
  2. Not all cultures value a highly structured meeting. Some want meetings to begin and end on time while others don’t really care that much. It is possible for people to learn to follow the clock more closely. It is also possible for people to learn to measure effectiveness without the clock. Compromise is advisable.

What may help:

  1. State the issue as part of the event planning process, and consider how to design the agenda in light of those cultures that are expected to be represented there; in most cross-cultural situations, letting people know you are aware of differences before tension develops can be an effective way of avoiding or minimizing tensions
  2. Identify the issue at the opening of consultation and let participants know you are aware of the differences. You might also let them know what if anything you planned to do to reduce or minimize the problem

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ISSUE 5: SEGREGATION VS. INTEGRATION OF SERIOUS AND HUMOROUS LANGUAGE

 
Considerations:

  1. Not everyone is comfortable with joking during serious meetings. For some it is an indication of a lack of seriousness. For others, humour is a helpful way to ease tension.
  2. All cultures appreciate humour, but they may have different ways and occasions for it. It is not safe to assume that humour will be welcomed equally by everyone.
  3. Joking can be particularly offensive when there is laughter soon after someone has finished speaking. Americans, for example, sometimes laugh during meetings as an affirmation to the speaker, or whenever there seems to be tension, they may laugh to lighten the moment. Others may see and feel differently about this.

What may help:

  1. If you plan to tell jokes from the front, at least explain to the audience the healthy role that humour plays in your culture, and also acknowledge that some participants may not appreciate the point.
  2. Learn humour that is more universal in nature so that all participants have the ability to understand it. Learn jokes that have a more universal theme.
  3. Learn to achieve your objectives without recourse to humour (at least humour in the form of spoken jokes).
  4. All cultures understand humour, especially when it manifests itself spontaneously during a meeting or event. it is the purposeful jokes intended for entertainment that are harder to communicate cross-culturally.

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ISSUE 6: FUNDING – perspectives, relevant factors

 
Considerations:

  1. Funding is always an underlying issue in conferences, even if not openly mentioned. Some participants may have a budget for conference and travel expenses, and the issue is not significant. Others go through a painful process of securing the funds to participate and are consciousness of costs will vary depending on how easy or hard the process has been.
  2. Different levels of funding can be deduced from clothing, menu choices, airline choices, frequency of use of telephone and other technological gadgetry.
  3. These subtle perceptions present emotional challenges that for some may be in a continuous battle to overcome.
  4. Fear that funding will go to the organizing/hosting group, not to all.
  5. When joint projects are considered, some may refrain from enthusiastic support because they don’t have means to fund their involvement. If Westerners will provide most of the funds, this in itself modifies the relationship. It need not be a big problem, but it can be and is worth being aware of.

What may help:

  1. Less affluent participants do not have the option to compromise upwards by spending more on personal clothes and gadgets. It would be good for the more affluent to compromise by avoiding unnecessary contrasts.
  2. When in mixed company, dress more simply, eat more frugally, and leave techno-gadgets in your room.
  3. During free time, choose activities that less affluent participants can share.
  4. Remember that affluence does not correlate with godliness, wisdom, or competence.
  5. Change how we speak of resources so that money is seen as just one humble form of resource, and the resources of the less affluent can be seen for the real high value they have. This approach alone can demystify the subject of money in partnership discussions.
  6. Remember “Face Saving” and treat all people equally not in terms of affluence. Show them that ‘it is not what you bring to the table, but who you are” that matters

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ISSUE 7: PROBLEM SOLVING – public versus private, face-saving, mediator, or direct negotiation

 
Considerations:

  1. Westerners tend to be more analytical and linear about problem solving, focus on defining elements of a problem, and systematically look for the “broken” piece to fix or replace. Others may have a more relational approach where the nature of relationship defines the relative value of the problem and a solution is for the purpose of preserving relationship. This means that if relationship survives with partial solution, motivation for a full solution may not be there.
  2. Discussion of problems in public is easier for some and harder for others. Westerners are more used to analytical separation of person from problem (though emotions may be suppressed). Many other cultures however prefer indirect, private negotiations instead of group problem solving, with public statements always positive.
  3. Embarrassment and face-saving concern may prevent effective public discussion of disagreements.

What may help:

  1. In mixed-culture environments, it is best to explore disagreements first in private, and seek to understand when it is appropriate to take it to whole group and in what way.
  2. When disagreements emerge during meetings, the facilitator needs to be ready to propose tabling and pursuing the case in informal meetings before face-saving becomes an issue. Once that happens, it becomes harder to go back to a healthy basis for resolution.
  3. Train partnership facilitators on a few basic principles of identifying and defusing public embarrassment.
  4. Look for solutions that can be stated so that everyone wins. Show them that rejecting an idea is not rejecting the person who gave it. Do not blame or shame a person in public for what he has not done. Save his face by talking to him privately instead.

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ISSUE 8: COST OF PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS – how it affects attitudes/attendance

 
Considerations:

  1. It is no secret that cost can determine who participates. Those with access to funds are not always the ones best suited for participation. Often, participants who are subsidized are very conscious of their dependent status, even though they may not mention it. When such people are contradicted in meetings, they may interpret it as a criticism for lack of gratitude, or as a threat that they may not be invited for the next one. This may shape how they participate. This may manifest itself very subtly, at the emotional subconscious level, and one would cause embarrassment if he/she were aware of it. Nevertheless, if one feels uncomfortable enough in a setting, it will affect his participation, whether or not he has identified the cause of his discomfort.
  2. The need for a subsidy may combine with a strong hierarchical cultural background to make one see himself as holding lower status because he needs financial aid.

What may help:

  1. Selection of participants needs to be considered carefully in light of the purpose of the meetings. As much as possible, get endorsement from highly regarded leaders for the ones you invite to participate.
  2. Be intentional in treating subsidized participants with dignity, reassuring them that they rank just as high as everyone else in the meeting. Do not reveal publicly who is subsidized.
  3. Avoid what may appear to be deferential treatment to those with better finances. Even if you didn’t mean it, people from a different culture may logically interpret your actions in that way.
  4. Honour those who consider themselves lower, by giving them appropriate prominence in meetings.

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ISSUE 9: CONSENSUS BUILDING – voting open/secret? time for private consultations needed?

 
Considerations:

  1. Consensus building varies between cultures. Voting is fairly common and understood in certain cultures. There is consensus around the principle that the person or item with the most votes prevails. This is consensus about the process for coming to decisions. Individuals may still disagree as to the specific resolution, but they accept the democratic voting process as valid to make the decision.
  2. Some other cultures build consensus around the issue itself, not the process. For them, it is important that everyone eventually agree on the item to be decided. This kind of consensus cannot be achieved by voting alone. It usually involves informal discussions, negotiation, time, and patience.
  3. A voting process may create tension and discomfort, as well as force people to feel they must take sidee with one against another. Some may need to consult other members of delegation, or vote as a bloc, rather than as individuals, which means they need time to consult with one another.
  4. As stated before, in many cultures decisions are usually made by the “Opinion Leaders” or Organisational/Denominational heads not by the members of a committee. This should be kept in mind otherwise the Opinion Leader can easily overturn a decision you have taken hours to reach in the bigger meeting.

What may help:

  1. Create time in agenda for various ways of building consensus.
  2. Do not impose voting if people are uncomfortable with it.
  3. Encourage voting by delegation when appropriate, rather than forcing individuals to decide apart from their colleagues.
  4. Allow time for people to discuss in their own language to make sure they understand the issue being voted on.
  5. Plan for smaller meetings (‘“outside the Board Room” as one Facilitator put it) with the “Opinion Leaders” and for Organisational/Denominational heads (even in one-to-one-meetings) to discuss the major decisions and come to an agreeable solution. This can be later presented to the plenary session by an Opinion Leader and will be readily accepted. Remember in many cultures consensus is reached outside the Board Room by a few leaders not by a large group
  6. Always consult various delegation leaders about the intended process before launching it publicly.
  7. Encourage feeling that decision comes from the whole group, rather than one group out-arguing another.

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ISSUE 10: DEMOCRATIC PROCESS – attitudes toward decision making, authority issues

 
Considerations:

  1. Democratic processes are not mandated in the Bible, and at times may even be anti-Biblical. Scriptures often recognize hierarchy of maturity, discernment, and wisdom, rather than one person-one voting. Prayer and fasting as part of the decision-making process are often modeled in the New Testament prior to a decision. Note however that maturity, wisdom, and discernment may not always be easy to determine.
  2. Some delegations may have a culturally determined internal hierarchy, with one or more ranking over the others. Giving the subordinate equal vote with his/her superior may cause problems within a delegation.
  3. Age, maturity, and position are important in many cultures, especially when it comes to decision making. People in these cultures will often defer to the aged leader and his views. The democratic process however expects buy-in by everyone once a decision is made, regardless of how each voted. This may seem dishonest in different contexts, or an unfair expectation to place on those who voted against it.

What may help:

  1. Identify the decision-making customs of cultures represented to determine what adjustments are needed.
  2. Identify Opinion Makers and invite them to help you as shown before.
  3. Recognize the difference between issues that can be decided on the spot and those that may require consultation with superiors or the home office. Allow breaks and facilities for people to consult with others.

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ISSUE 11: STATUS AND EDUCATION – influence on participation

 
Considerations:

  1. Westerners are more accustomed to equal participation regardless of formal status. For example, someone with a Ph. D. is no more authorized to speak than a college student or a local pastor. This is not so in many other cultures. In these cultures it is unreasonable to expect a person to speak up when the head of his denomination is present. The idea is that the denominational head will speak for him due to the fact that they have an acknowledged status recognition system.
  2. Some groups may not defer to a denominational head in a meeting, but might to the author of a popular Christian book, or to a prominent preacher. If we were not as influenced by status we would not place such great importance in giving titles to one another.
    When people from these two systems try to work together, tensions and misunderstanding may arise.

What may help:

  1. Be aware of internal relationships and status within the delegations that are represented.
  2. Do not expect certain participants to speak up freely. Rather, create situations in which his/her input can still be obtained.
  3. Break up delegations by creating small group opportunities where people can speak without their boss present.
  4. Play down the status of participants by avoiding uses of title in written and spoken instances. Do not use titles in name tags. This can be a delicate issue in some settings so be flexible. If it is important for the “Right Reverend” to participate, and if he insists in having his title used, don’t fight it. Generally encourage a Biblical approach, where the only title directly attributed to us is “servant”. Perhaps even a devotional on the topic may be helpful.
  5. Again, use discretion and flexibility and don’t make this a cause of dissension.

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ISSUE 12: AGE DIFFERENCES – influence on participation in proceedings

 
Considerations:

  1. Similar considerations as above.
  2. When naming group leaders, be aware that some younger individuals may feel uncomfortable leading an older person. Also, know that at times younger people may not speak up until an older person has had his turn.
  3. Keep in mind that respect for elders is a strong value in most cultures.

What may help:

  1. lf all other things are equal, name the older person to lead a group.
  2. In this and the above item, smaller and informal meetings make it easier for younger and people of lower status to participate.

We welcome your comments! What principles have you found to be helpful? Add your comment below!

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