CQ – How are we different? Part Nine – Context

I hope you have had a good holiday season. Did you indulge yourselves and/or your children? Or did you practice and/or teach restraint? Or some of both? Did you think about the future and practice some long-term time orientation while thinking of the new year and beyond? Or did you just think about bowl games and parades and immediate results as a short-term oriented culture? Are you plunging into the new year of 2020 with high uncertainty avoidance or low uncertainly avoidance? Understanding your own cultural tendencies will help you have more awareness with people who may be a bit different from you.

This week we will talk about communication. As you probably already know, communication can be challenging. When you add the cultural dimension of context, it becomes more so.

Context is the extent to which communication is indirect and the degree to which the context is used to provide meaning. An individual with a Low Context Orientation values direct communication and believes people should “say what they mean and mean what they say”.

A person with a High Context Orientation pays attention to what isn’t said as much as what is said and a great deal of attention is put on where people are seated, how people are dressed, and reading in between the lines.

In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer’s entire first chapter is on communication, specifically context. (I highly recommend the entire book for understanding cross-cultural issues.) Giving an example of how dramatic the cultural difference in this area can be, Ms. Meyer says:

“In the United States and other Anglo-Saxon cultures, people are trained (mostly subconsciously) to communicate as literally and explicitly as possible. Good communication is all about clarity and explicitness, and accountability for accurate transmission of the message is placed firmly on the communicator. ‘If you don’t understand, it’s my fault.’

“By contrast, in many Asian cultures, including India, China, Japan, and Indonesia, messages are often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines. Good communication is subtle, layered, and may depend on copious subtext, with responsibility for transmission of the message shared between the one sending the message and the one receiving it.”[1]

Those of us who have learned to communicate in low context cultures struggle with understanding high context. We don’t know what we don’t know; we do not know what to ask or look for and we often have a high expectation of others to speak clearly. In the US, we have a saying: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Because of those expectations, this is one of the cultural differences that creates some of the largest points of conflict for many teams.

Look at this chart comparing lower context versus higher context communication. [2] Any surprises?

How do you fall on the chart below with low context versus high context communication? Do you have any conflicts with people that might be explained by this different cultural dimension?


Low Context                          Communication                                High Context

History can help us understand the different communication styles. Compare the US and Japan. Until WWII, there had been little international input to Japan’s culture and language. So over time, they developed a way to communicate between the lines. On the other hand, the US is a melting pot of cultures. People had to learn to be more specific in their use of words to communicate.

Two things to note: 1) On the chart above, it’s all relative to others. Though Central Europe is more direct than Asia, notice how it compares to the US. When an American is talking with someone from Central Europe, it might feel like the Central European  is far more subtle. But if the Central European is talking with someone from Korea or Japan, the European will sound far more direct.

And 2), there are different kinds of communication which can be more nuanced, with more distinctions. For example, Americans are low context in general except when giving feedback. The Brits and Dutch generally tend to be opposite; they will “tell it like it is” in their feedback.

Here are some tips:

With Low Context Communicators

  • Be direct and explicit
  • Focus on getting your message across clearly

With High Context Communicators

  • Recognize the importance of silence/reflection
  • Pay careful attention to what is not said

In closing, I will again highly recommend Erin Meyer’s book. You can find it on Amazon here. The hard copy version has a different subtitle, but I think it’s the same content.

Happy communicating!

[1] Meyer, E. (2015). The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures, p. 31. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

[2] https://media.risechina.org/uploads/2019/03/low-high-context.jpg  Retrieved January 6, 2020.

Just a reminder that I get a lot of my information from training materials from the Cultural Intelligence Centre.


CQ – How are we different? Part Four – Power Distance

As we continue this series on cultural dimensions, today we are going to look at power distance. This is an aspect of culture that can cause a lot of trouble if not understood well. So let’s just jump in.

Power Distance is the extent to which differences in power and status are expected and accepted. A person with Low Power Distance prefers to forego formalities, titles aren’t important, and he/she may find appropriate ways to challenge authority, in general, more egalitarian. A person with High Power Distance prefers to follow the chain of command and is less likely to question authority; usually this culture is more hierarchical.

When coming from an egalitarian/low power distance culture, often a leader will act as part of the team. In some cultures, the boss or professor might even expect first names to be used and no titles. However, this can really confuse people from hierarchical/high power distance cultures. Titles and the chain of command are very important.

In businesses, this can mean a person from a Western egalitarian culture will have some leadership challenges if transferred to work in an office set in a hierarchical culture. It just won’t work to be a “part of the team.” The “team” will expect more input and clear chain of command to be used.

In education, children coming from hierarchical cultures will have been taught NOT to disagree with a teacher, not to ask questions. If the teacher comes from an egalitarian culture and is taught to “learn with the student,” she may not be prepared to help a student who doesn’t ask questions or speak up in class. It helps to understand where the students are coming from.

Consider this chart taken from a book I highly recommend, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.[1]

General traits of egalitarian cultures: General traits of hierarchical cultures:
It’s okay to disagree with the boss openly even in front of others. An effort is made to defer to the boss’s opinion especially in public.
People are more likely to move to action without getting the boss’s okay. People are more likely to get the boss’s approval before moving to action.
If meeting with a client or supplier, there is less focus on matching hierarchical levels. If you send your boss, they will send their boss. If your boss cancels. Their boss also may not come.
It’s okay to email or call people several levels below or above you. Communication follows the hierarchical chain.
With clients or partners you will be seated and spoken to in no specific order. With clients or partners, you may be seated and spoken to in order of position.

(Meyer’s chapter on “How Much Respect Do You Want?” discusses the different perspectives on power and leadership and includes some historical background and advice.)

Look at the comparison of these countries in Low and High Power Distance. The higher the bar, the more authoritarian the culture. The blue represents China; the purple represents Hungary; and the green shows the US.[2]

Here are some helpful tips in relationships from high and low power distance cultures:

With Low Power Distance people:

  • De-emphasize formalities;
  • Question or challenge authority.

With High Power Distance people:

  • Follow the chain of command carefully;
  • Do not question authority—particularly in public;

Please remember, there is right or proper way here. One end or the other is not more or less correct. For Christians, Jesus is LORD and our authority, but he is also our Friend who works with and beside us all the time. It works both ways and we must be prepared to adjust and adapt according to our situation. If you have ideas or questions about egalitarian/low power distance or hierarchical/high power distance cultures, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.

[1] Meyer, E. (2015). The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures (p. 131).New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

[2] Taken from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/ where you can put in up to three countries to compare cultural dimensions.

CQ – How are we different? Part Three – Individualism versus Collectivism

In the last blog, we talked about cultural dimensions. We can also use the word values and some say cultural value dimensions. However, for simplicity, I am planning to only use the words “cultural dimensions.” A cultural dimension is referring to an aspect of a culture that can be put on a line graph or continuum.

An important reminder from last week’s blog: keep in mind as we delve into this topic that the descriptors of a culture in terms of dimensions will only give an idea. Be careful never to put people in a box, nor to assume everyone from a specific culture will be “just so.” There will indeed be personality differences, as well as the impact of life experiences.

This week we will look at Individualism versus Collectivism, which is the extent to which your personal identity is defined in terms of individual or group characteristics. An individualist is motivated with personal incentives and goals and is more comfortable with autonomy versus working on a team. A collectivist is motivated by group goals; long-term relationships and who knows whom is very important. The U.S. is often described as the most individualist culture in the world and China as the most collectivist culture.

Looking at these photos, how might these children look at personal space or independence differently, based on their upbringing?

How might their upbringing influence the way they will approach a conflict?

Possible indicators of an individualist include desiring personal accountability and saying things like, “I’ll take care of this.” When you are working with an individualist, allow for autonomy and recognize the important or rapid decision making.

On the other end of the continuum will be collectivism. The possible indicators for a collectivist would be the person’s first consideration being the impact on the in-group. That “in-group” could be the family, the village, the society, the class, the team, etc. The collectivist also might say, “Let me check with our team” before a decision is made. When working with someone who is more collectivist, be sure to create time for consultation and consensus-building. Also recognize the importance of building lasting relationships.

If it helps to visualize each dimension, think of a line graph showing a continuum between the two different extremes of that dimension. For example, here is today’s dimension:


Individualism                                                                             Collectivism

When you think about the definition of these two ends of the spectrum, where do you land? Keep in mind there is no right or wrong way to be. One end or the other is not more correct.

If you are interested, you can also look at a handy website where you can put in up to three different countries for a comparison. In the spectrum between individualism and collectivism, the higher the number of the graph, the more individualistic the culture.

Thought for the day: Having lived in cultures that are much more collectivist than the US, I have realized that perhaps Americans have some things to learn. There is value to caring about the group goals, not just focusing on MY needs, MY wants, MY plans. Sometimes we should think about the greater good.

Think about it. When you have tension with someone, how much of that is because of your individualistic perspective? And how can others learn to be generous and helpful if we are always insistent on being independent and refusing to ask for or accept offered help?

Of course, the other side of that question will be, how will someone be able to think for themselves if we are always focused on what the group thinks?

Balance. We always need balance.

If you have ideas or questions about individualism or collectivism, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.

CQ – How are we different? Part Two – An Introduction to Cultural Dimensions

In earlier blogs, I have introduced the idea of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and what culture is. To move toward the goal of being culturally intelligent communities, I now want to start focusing on understanding some of the cultural differences we run into in everyday life. When we talk about cultural differences, we often use the words “values” or “dimensions.” Geert Hofstede started doing some research back in the 60s already about how the different cultures approach different aspects of life and started listing different cultural dimensions. (See Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 3rd edition.)

Cultural questions come up every day. For example, “how do we relate to the boss?” or “how should I give negative feedback?” or “should I speak directly or indirectly?” These all are strongly affected by the culture we grew up with. As I discussed in the last blog, we can have cultural differences that everyone can see (the tip of the iceberg). But we also have that which is deeper, values that are less obvious, influenced by our religious and/or family background, ethnicity, etc.

When looking at cultural differences, there are many values or dimensions on which we could focus. Over the next weeks, we will look at a variety of those differences. It will be like looking at a finely cut diamond. You can look at the stone from a variety of angles and see different lights and aspects of the diamond. But it is still the same diamond.

So, too, people are still people. We are all human beings deserving dignity and respect. And yet, we are diverse in many ways.  We face racial, ethnic, generational, national, gender, and religious differences, to name some. Understanding our differences can help us develop empathy and the ability to see things from a different point of view, thus enabling us to use our diversity for strength rather than polarization. In my very first blog, I mentioned that Culturally Intelligent Community is one where the people have the capability to relate to one another effectively, no matter how diverse it is.

An important thing to keep mind as we delve into this topic is that the descriptors of a culture in terms of dimensions or values will only give an idea. Be careful never to put people in a box, nor to assume everyone from a particular culture will be “just so.” There will indeed be personality differences, as well as the impact of life experiences.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common cultural dimensions. Over the next few weeks, we will define and look at the impact on culture of:

  • Individualism versus Collectivism
  • Power Distance
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Cooperative versus Competitive
  • Short-term and Long-term Time Orientation
  • Low and High Context
  • Being versus Doing

After we finish these, we may look at a few others, such as honor/shame. Then I plan to start looking at how these values impact what is going on in the classroom, church, and other possible places where cultural differences can cause tension.

As I discuss some of the different dimensions or values, you can think of situations which might fit that dimension. If you have ideas or questions about a particular issue, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.

Last word: as we go forward, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the word dimensions rather than values.


In case you missed it, I asked the senior pastor of the International Church of Prague to turn one of his sermons into a guest blog for me. Here is the continuation from July 22, 2019.

Acts 2 describes a gathering that was both multicultural and multi-lingual at the beginning of Jesus’ Church.[1] The scripture further identifies at least 15 different ethne[2] hearing the message of the Apostle Peter in their own language.  God was intentional about racial diversity at the beginning of the church because at the core of His heart, God loves all “ethne.”[3]  

To see into the mirror of self-critique requires a deeper sense of calling.  It is a divine call, a call to unity not for the sake of others or even for the transformation of an individual’s own sinful bent, but for the glory of Jesus. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his speech at the “March on Washington,” boldly declared, “I have a dream…”  His dream envisioned children of all races coming together to bring reconciliation and healing.  But what is often overlooked is that his dream pointed to something even greater. “I have a dream that one day…, ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’ This is our hope.”[4]

Many people have sought to follow Dr. King’s example of love and peaceful change.  What set him apart, however, was not his methods but the motivation that fueled them.  “This is our hope”[5] – all flesh, all ethne, seeing Lord’s glory revealed together.  He saw Jesus being glorified by all peoples.  This hope fueled Dr. King’s work.  When the passion of every follower of Jesus is for his glory and to show his worth by loving others from all ethne with self-sacrificing love [6], then the church will display Jesus’ great worth and worship.

            The fullness of Jesus’ glory will be revealed through the redemption and reconciliation of all peoples.  Unified worship proclaims in living stories that Jesus has overcome the brokenness that scars all humanity and is worthy of all glory and honor. “Worthy are You,”[7]  this is the new song that the church universal will sing of Jesus before the throne of God.  When the church commits itself to the work of reconciliation and making disciples of all ethne, not just overseas, but within their own congregations, this great anthem will resound to all the earth and proclaim the ultimate worth of Jesus Christ.

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:5-11 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?”

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:9-11  

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Genesis 26:4 “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”

[4] King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference Speech) August 28, 1963, Washington, D.C. The quotation in Dr. Kings speech is Isaiah 40:4-5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), John 13:35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

[7] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Revelation 5:9

Cultural Intelligence – How do we get there? Knowledge Part Two

As I mentioned last week, after developing our CQ Drive, we should look at our CQ Knowledge. CQ Knowledge (cognition) is your understanding about how cultures are similar and different. Individuals with high CQ Knowledge have a rich, well-organized understanding of culture and how it affects the way people think and behave.

There are four sub-dimensions of CQ Knowledge to be aware of and to develop.[1]

Business/cultural systems is an area which focuses on the degree to which you understand how various cultural systems shape the way we do business and how we interact with people. This includes the understanding of different economic systems, legal practices, religion, art, and the meaning of various cultures and symbols, etc.

What’s wrong with the following photo?

This may be an extreme example, but consider how some other situations might play out:

  • Taking a Hindu colleague to dinner at a place known for their beef dishes.
  • Scheduling a conference call on a Friday with the Middle East office.
  • Setting up shop above a Buddha statue in Thailand.

I suggest you read Expand Your Borders by David Livermore to begin improving your knowledge of Business Cultural Systems.

Interpersonal: cultural values, another sub-dimension of CQ Knowledge, is that which measures the degree to which you have a grasp of the cultural values or dimensions. (I will spend more time in the future discussion cultural dimensions.)

The Socio-linguistics sub-dimension is your understanding of another language and your overall grasp of different uses of language—verbal and nonverbal. This largely relates to your ability to read and understand a language other than your own, but it can also refer to how you use the same language in different cultures (e.g. the same word meaning different things such as “boot” in UK and USA English.)

 Consider the little things when communicating cross-culturally. For example, changing the way you write the date for various contexts (20 March or March 20) or referencing something specific about the person’s context (e.g. Chinese New Year, a recent election, etc.) can demonstrate you’re not just communicating robotically. When emailing, respect cultural differences in relation to how you address people (e.g. “Mr.” versus “John”) and refrain from using slang or abbreviations. It’s best to start more formally.

 The leadership sub-dimension is your understanding of how leadership needs to change for various cultural contexts. Leadership is often taught as if it’s universal. But it isn’t. How a leader works in Korea is different than in Germany which is different than in the UK.

 One way to develop your understanding of different leadership preferences is to poll your team to see how much they want their leaders to provide very specific instructions.

Why think about leadership? You will work with leaders in different contexts, and they will act out of their cultural background. You need to be aware of what’s going on here. For example, this photo is very North American. In other parts of the world, we need to understand there is a clear line of authority that must be respected.

One way to start improving your CQ Knowledge is in your reading or listening, whether blogs or news or a daily Bible reading. When reading (or listening to) blogs or the news, think through what the cultural background of the writer/reporter is, as well as the people and events being reported about. As you read the Bible, think about how the culture of the writer and the audience influenced what was written. And ask yourself, how does your culture influence the way you read it?

[1] Most of this material comes from the Cultural Intelligence Center training materials.