by Keith Walker
How, if ever, should we use generalizations regarding the character of national or ethnic groups? Looking at research and reality.
All Cretans are liars!” Of course, this popular rendering of Epimenides’ famous statement is a paraphrase. It is used by philosophers in this form as an example of a certain class of paradox. Paul’s quotation of Epimenides in Titus 1:12 translates more rigorously as “Cretans are always liars.” Even so, it is hardly more complimentary—and many have been disturbed that the apostle to the Gentiles should indulge in such blatant stereotyping. This is not a shining example of missionary sensitivity toward Cretans, say some.
Of course, Paul can be defended. While the Titus quote accuses Cretans of a propensity toward untruthfulness, they are not unique. He offers a similar generalization about humanity as a whole in Romans 3:9-18. He is also aware that Epimenides is himself a Cretan (which is what makes the statement a paradox).
It is surely more acceptable for Paul to quote an insider than to make such a stereotypical attack from the outside.
Moreover, there is something of an irony here. Paul, the Turkish ex-Pharisee, is using Epimenides’ judgment of his own sixth century BC community as part of an attack on first-century AD Judaizers. The comparison will have been uncomfortably barbed for these ethnically Jewish Cretans. It is likely that their identity was more invested in their Jewishness than their birth on Crete, just as Paul’s identity had been invested in his Jewish heritage rather than his Tarsus origins. There is surely some deliberate humor in Paul’s quotation of Epimenides.
Paul’s use of Epimenides does, however, raise a question: How, if ever, should we use generalizations regarding the character of
national or ethnic groups?
The question is vital to the world of mission as our teams of workers become increasingly diverse. In my own mission we have many diverse field teams. One currently includes nineteen nationalities. As I have travelled teaching the Bible to mission teams on four continents, one of the most frequent and pressing issues needing serious discussion has been the challenge of cross-cultural relating.
And it has not been relationships with the host culture which have been the cause of pain and heartache. It has been relationships between team members. Often, cross-cultural misunderstanding has been cited as significant: “I just can’t get on with the [nationality], they are just so…” “I need to be honest with you brother Keith, I find the people you send from the U.K. difficult because… We are not like that. We value…”
Whether intentionally or not, we find ourselves analyzing other cultures in terms of those we meet from those cultures. We generalize from our particular experiences and evaluate those cultures against our own. Personal relational joys and difficulties become pieces in the jigsaw puzzle we create in order to understand our world and its peoples. Even if not all Cretans are liars, we conclude that all Brits are this, all Americans are that, all South Africans are the other. The detection of national cultural traits is a vital tool that we deploy in making sense of our experiences.
Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions
Dutchman Geert Hofstede has undertaken a lifetime of research on national cultural traits. While working for IBM in the 1960s, he turned a long-standing interest in national cultural differences (arising from a teenage friendship with an English girl) into a life-long professional research project (Centre for Intercultural Learning n.d.). Using relatively simple questionnaires within IBM’s multi-national workforce, he built a quantitative picture of national cultures.
His influential book, Culture’s Consequences, was first published in 1980. His statistical approach led him to conclude that cultures may be analyzed in terms of five basic dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity versus femininity, individualism versus collectivism, and long-term versus short-term orientation (Hofstede 2001, 29). The cultures of different countries are scored according to the degree to which they reflect, for instance, individualism or collectivism (see chart below). The scores are simply comparative measures of preference for individualism. Using his measuring method, Hofstede has found examples of cultures with scores for individualism as high as 104 and as low as 11.
Hofstede’s work has been subjected to significant critique at an academic level. An award-winning paper published in 2005 by Barry Gerhart and Meiyu Fang offered a fresh analysis of Hofstede’s data. They concluded that “whilst national culture differences can be important and must be understood, their role needs to be put in the context of other important contextual factors, including organizational culture” (Gerhart and Fang 2005, 971). This re-analyzing included a fresh consideration of the variances both between and within cultures. To that point I will return.
Whatever critiques may be offered, Hofstede’s work has undoubtedly been influential. Many have found it intuitively helpful in accounting for the differences between teams of workers in different cultures and between members of multi-cultural teams. This includes those reflecting on cultural differences as they impact mission practice, not least multi-cultural mission teams. Jim Plueddeman’s book, Leading across Cultures, is an important example (2009, 93-99, 116-119). Mission workers have found the Hofstede dimensions, especially those of “power distance” and “individualism” to be helpful concepts in getting a handle on the relational challenges they face.
Power distance is defined by Hofstede as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Individualism is “the preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only” (2001, 98). Plueddeman explores these particularly helpfully, drawing not only from Hofstede, but from the GLOBE Study (House, et al 2004).
But may all of this just be a sophisticated, but questionable form of stereotyping? Some fear so. This includes both academics and mission workers who find that they or their culture is inadequately or inaccurately explained by the Hofstede approach.
Gerhart and Fang concluded that many nations demonstrate high levels of cultural variation within their boundaries and that such variances mean that the national level “differences typically provide a poor description of any single individual or small number of individuals from a country” (2005, 982). Plueddeman would agree with that and notes that “country differences give a general idea of what to expect, but cross-cultural practitioners would be wise to observe and evaluate each encounter with an open mind” (2009, 96).
There are also legitimate questions about what constitutes a proper cultural boundary. Hofstede’s analysis distinguishes between the Dutch and Belgians, but assigns just one score to West Africans. It does not acknowledge the cultural tension within Belgium, or the cultural similarity between Dutch-speaking Belgium and Holland.
Those of us who know West Africans from different countries realize that very significant cultural differences exist across the sub-continent, and even within larger nations such as Nigeria. I have both Ghanaian and Nigerian friends, and have concluded that any generalization about West Africans is questionable—although upon reflection that may be a paradox somewhat akin to that of Epimenides!
So is it all baloney, this national-cultural analysis? Even Hofstede’s critics note that while his data may be frail, his ideas are robust (Hickson 1996). His five dimensions fit with other analyses of cultural traits. Most agree that national cultural traits truly exist and are worthy of attention when thinking about cross-cultural teams, especially in relation to cultures which are relatively homogeneous (Gerhart and Fang 2005, 982). Plueddeman draws on three major studies in his presentation of “power distance” and “individualism”, but wisely avoids the use of quantitative measures.
Legitimate and Illegimate Sterotyping and the Good News
Few doubt that U.S. citizens are, on average, far more individualistic than South Koreans. The chart on page 158 suggests that, and critics of Hofstede do not demur. What this does not mean is that if I visit an SIM mission field (say Ghana) and meet two people, one from the U.S. and one from Korea, I am at liberty to tell them that the one is more individualistic than the other.
Despite the fact that I am not a Cretan, I may be proved a liar if I do. It is even less likely that the Korean would have a personal individualism score of 18 and the American, 91, even though these are their national averages. Apart from the statistical improbability that they fall on the mean, there are other factors.
Gerhart and Fang’s work suggests that, for instance, the experience of being part of SIM (and their preparation for missionary work) is likely to have had significant impact on the cultural preferences of both. Moreover, their experience of life in Ghana will have its own effect, modifying the preferences they brought with them on their flights from the West and East, respectively.
Korean and American cultures are at either end of the individualism scale. My own culture is rather like U.S. culture in this respect. It is likely that these two colleagues grew up with preferences at a distance from each other. But it is equally likely that their life experience has set them on a trajectory toward convergence, for their experiences will have provided them with opportunity to understand that their two end-scale cultures are not the only ones that exist and function well. While cross-cultural exposure can confirm individuals in their preferences, in the case of good missionaries one would anticipate at least a growing tolerance of difference. That is good news.
Moreover, the generalization that British culture is extremely individualistic should caution me. If I am working in a collectivist culture, not only may I find it different, but I may find it incomprehensible. Despite the relative cultural diversity of modern Britain, I may never have experienced collectivism. Indeed, while I may have some theoretical understanding of what collectivism is, I will not easily get inside the skin of collectivist cultures and peoples. By contrast, my Korean colleagues will do so readily. For even if their personal preferences have been modified by (say) an experience of living in the West to learn English, they know how (at least) one collectivist culture works.
If I approach them on the basis that as Koreans they may be able to help me decode the culture in which we are all working, I could hardly be accused of illegitimate stereotyping. I am recognizing that their different experience of life may enrich mine. This too is good news.
There is more good news. The gospel of grace has the power to help us in relation to cultural weaknesses. The Bible offers a critique of our lives individually and it offers a critique of societies. The Lord’s assessment of Sodom and Gomorrah resulted in judicial destruction—this despite Abraham’s repeated mathematical pleas for mercy, for the twin cities were stereotypically evil. Yet when Paul affirms Epimenides’ epithet regarding Cretans, he does so in the hope that gospel truth has the power to defeat untruth and create a transformed culture within Cretan culture.
During the 2011 riots in London, the initial reaction of many was that they were racially connected. In the early hours of the rioting, they assumed that the rioters would be black young people aggrieved over the shooting of a black young man by police. Such stereotyping was wrong on two counts. First, white people (and not just young people) were involved. Second, there are many black young people in South London who are committed Christians. Transformed by the gospel of grace, they refuse to confirm the stereotypes that get played up in the media.
Similarly, whatever its strengths, the individualism of my culture may make me prone to sinful manifestations of self-centeredness which are particularly offensive to colleagues from collectivist cultures. Yet the gospel of grace is surely a transforming factor. I am not captive to my national culture. That culture neither excuses me, nor, in Christ, enslaves me. I cannot justify my self-centeredness through self-stereotyping (“I’m English, that’s how we are”), nor would it be fair for colleagues from other cultures to write me off as though transformation were impossible (“Just ignore it, he’s English”).
While Paul affirms that “Cretans are always liars,” the Cretan circumcision group are to be rebuked in order that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). Grace working through truth wins.
Homogeneous and Diverse Cultures, and the Training of Cross-cultural Workers
Thus far, we have explored the dangers of stereotyping and the value of recognizing that nationally distinct cultural traits do exist. Now we return to the matter of variance within cultures.
I want to suggest that diversity and the lack of diversity are critical to any exploration of cultural traits. Hofstede acknowledges variance within cultures. His method of calculating scores for each nation provides a mean figure for each country. It does not, however, offer an easy evaluation of variance, the degree of diversity. (This lies at the heart of the Gerhart and Fang critique.)
Let us consider the matter of power distance. In a mission organization with any degree of hierarchy, differences in power distance are a likely cause of misunderstanding and conflict (Plueddeman 2009, 105). Let us imagine three national cultures—A, B, and C—each represented within a mission team. A and B have the same low power distance score of 35 according to Hofstede’s measure. They differ significantly, however, in that while A is highly homogeneous with regard to power distance, B is diverse. Culture C exhibits high power distance mean score of 65, but like A is homogeneous (see chart below).
If you like to think graphically, the cultures can be represented in terms of how the preference for power distance is distributed in the three populations (see chart on page 158). It shows that an average member of population A will have a power distance score of 35 and the vast majority of his compatriots will score between 22 and 47. Nearly all people score between 22 and 47 in this homogeneous culture. By contrast, while an average member of population B also scores 35, a significant number of his or her compatriots will score above 47 or below 22. It is a diverse culture.
At the first level of training for multi-cultural teams, it may well be adequate to simply alert workers to differences in mean power distance scores. This would likely be typical of training workshops in the mission world.
However, there is a second level of awareness that needs to be explored. If we simply use Hofstede’s mean scoring, A and B may be misunderstood as being identical with regard to power distance, for they both have a score of 35. And so it may be presumed that they will be familiar with and easily embrace similar leadership structures.
But this may not be so. In B’s culture, leadership structures will need to accommodate a wide range of preferences. Thus, members of cultures A and B may find themselves in unanticipated conflict when the team interacts about issues of leadership and structure. Training needs to note that each of Hofstede’s five dimensions are themselves two-dimensional. There is a significant risk of over-simplification if Hofstede’s insights are employed without some caution.
The second level of awareness that needs to be explored is personal interactions between team members. Imagine that within this team drawn from cultures A, B, and C are individuals Andrew, Bunmi, and Carlos from the respective cultures. Andrew’s personal score on the Hofstede scale is 30, Bunmi, 55, and Carlos, 60. Each is within a standard deviation of their culture’s mean score. Expressed non-technically, none of them would be viewed as eccentric in their home country. But notice that despite the fact that Bunmi and Andrew come from cultures with identical power distance scores, it is Bunmi and Carlos who are more alike in their personal preferences regarding power distance.
Plueddeman is correct that practitioners need to approach each interaction with an open mind, for culture is highly variegated, and individual representatives and small groups from within cultures even more so.
Training and Grace
Effective training which prepares people for the complexity of real-life multi-cultural interactions will build from the simpler Hofstede model toward a more nuanced approach. It will avoid the pitfalls of stereotypical generalizing by equipping workers to discuss both their culture’s preferences and their personal preferences.
Such self and other-awareness will aid the navigation of the challenges that face the mission movement as our teams become delightfully diverse. It will help workers neither to pre-judge colleagues simply on the basis of the culture in which they grew up, nor to ignore the fact that personal preferences are significantly shaped by our home cultures.
Above all, it will allow for the grace of change. All Cretans are liars, all Brits too. For “all have turned away; their tongues practice deceit” (Rom. 3:12-13). Yet there is transforming grace for Cretans and Brits. Thanks be to God!
The diversification of the world of mission is one of the blessings of living when we do. It is a remarkable privilege to serve with those from other cultures. Doing so may enable me to identify the good in my culture. As I interact with gospel people from other contexts, the gospel we share can cause good to shine with greater lustre by polishing away those ungodly tendencies to which my culture makes me prone.
Centre for Intercultural Learning. "Culture Does Not Exist." Accessed October 6, 2011, from www.international.gc.ca/cfsi-icse/cil-cai/magazine/v02n03/1-3-eng.asp.
Gerhart, Barry and Meiyu Fang. 2005. “National Culture and Human Resource Management: Assumptions and Evidence.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 16(6): 971-986.
Hickson, D. 1996. “The ASQ Years Then and Now through the Eyes of a Euro-Brit.” Administrative Science Quarterly 41: 217-228.
Hofstede, Geert. 2001. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations. London: Sage Publications.
______. n.d. "Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions." Accessed October 6, 2011, from www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php.
House, Robert J, et al. 2004. Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.
Plueddeman, James E. 2009. Leading across Cultures. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
Keith Walker is U.K. director of Serving in Mission (SIM-UK) and serves on the international leadership team of SIM. He teaches Johannine missiology at the master’s level in the Wales Evangelical School of Theology. Keith is also involved in grassroots church planting.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 156-163. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.