Newsletter #503 – Why Care About Culture?

In response to an earlier newsletter, Ruedi Giezendanner referred me to a fascinating article with a long title, “Cross-Cultural Mentoring: A Brief Comparison of Individualistic and Collectivist Cultures.”

The author, Sunny Hong, reminds us of the differences between individualistic cultures that value individual uniqueness, independence and equality, in contrast to collectivistic cultures where group goals are more important and where there are more firmly defined social distinctions and expectations. Of course there are wide differences between people within any one culture but Western countries (especially the United States) are individualistic in comparison to the collectivistic mindset of Eastern countries including Japan, Korea and China.

Hong focuses on mentoring but her conclusions apply equally to coaching, counseling, leadership, teaching, ministry and broader social relationships. These issues were never mentioned (or perhaps never recognized) in my training as a counselor. My coaching instructors insisted that the principles of coaching apply universally, without need for adaptation. But try taking an individualistic mindset into a collectivistic culture and there can be misunderstandings and communication failures. More harm than good can follow when culturally-insensitive business people, diplomats, missionaries, relief workers and mission trip participants go abroad without awareness of cultural perspectives and differences. This applies in work with neighborhood minorities as well as internationally. Mentoring or coaching in an individualistic culture seeks to help others grow professionally by setting goals and developing ways to fulfill personal visions. This is like parenting where children grow up, leave home and don’t seek further parental advice. In collectivistic settings, coaches or mentors are respected and knowledge-filled gurus or teachers who continue to retain authority and provide wise answers on a more permanent basis. Individual initiative and self-motivation are not valued.

According to Hong’s article, when there are differing expectations and assumptions regarding the purpose of mentoring [or coaching], there often is confusion and misunderstanding for both parties. Cross-cultural people-helping also can be unproductive when there are different views about goals, responsibilities, the meaning of success, boundaries, power, privacy, respect for time, transparency, self-disclosure, and feedback, among others. Before you decide to teach, coach, counsel or lead in other cultures, consider reading Hong’s article. And please comment or share your experiences. Is all of this as important as I am suggesting?


  1. Thanks for bringing up an extremely important matter.

    Also see
    Hofstede identifies, across several nations, five enormously important inter-cultural variables, including individualism-collectivism.

    Equally important are the ways in which all foreigners contradict their own speech by eleven other, non-verbal, signals. See Donald Smith, “Creating Understanding” and “Make Haste Slowly”.

    Cross-cultural workers often prove most effective by limiting their interaction to a small number of insiders with whom they share enough commonality that they can evaluate ideas together. Let insiders do all or most of applying ideas within their society.


  2. Many years ago I came across the following article when I was teaching the Bethel Bible Series.

    The Eastern Vs. The Western

    The following represents a suggested list of attitudes and value differences between the East and the West. It has been provided by Rev. Tran Einh Trong, Vietnamese Apostolate, Richmond, Virginia

    We live in time – You live in space
    We’re always at rest – You’re always on the move
    We’re passive – Your ‘re aggressive
    We like to contemplate – You like to act

    We accept the world as it is –
    You try to change it according to your blueprint

    We live in peace with nature – You try to impose your will on her

    Religion is our first love – Science is your passion

    We delight to think about the meaning of life – You delight in physics

    We believe in freedom of silence speech –
    You believe in freedom of articulation

    We lapse into meditation – You strive for articulation

    We marry first; then we love – You love first,; then marry

    Our marriage is the beginning of a romance –
    Your marriage is the happy end of a love affair

    It is an indissoluble bond – It is the contract
    Our love is mute – Your love is vocal

    We try to conceal it from the world –
    You delight in showing it to others

    Self-abnegation is the secret of our success –
    Self-assertiveness is the key of your survival

    We’re taught from the cradle to want less and less –
    You are urged every day to want more and more

    The love of life is our ideal – Conquest is your goal

    We glorify austerity and renunciation –
    You emphasize gracious living and enjoyment

    Poverty is to us a badge of spiritual elevation –
    It is to you a sign of degradation

    In the sunset years of life, we renounce the world and prepare ourselves for the hereafter. –
    You retire to enjoy the fruits of your labour

    I have found the above to be worthy of consideration in dealing with people of different cultures.

    Yours in Christ

    Brian Hogan


  3. Dear Gary,
    It is so interesting to read comments from two friends and colleagues of mine. I have been overseas more than half of my life, and seem to have absorbed a lot of Eastern culture. Now that I am living in Canada I don’t fit any more, so I feel a bit lost in this, to me, alien culture. At one point in my career it was suggested that I should learn Sunny’s language, as I was close friends with a number of her people!
    It is nice to read quotes from my friends on your site.
    Hope Hurlbut


    1. Thanks for writing again Hope.

      I grew up in Canada and once went to study in London. At first everything seemed similar to Southern Ontario but the longer I was there the more I saw huge cultural differences. And of course, we all know the shock of coming back even to our home country after a few months abroad. I go back to Canada now and see US-Canadian differences that I never noticed when I was growing up or in college at McMaster or U of T.


  4. After 26 years of missionary service as a church planter, counselor and teacher, I say a heat yes, it is very important! Also, for some of us (thinking of myself in particular) it takes a lifetime to learn. Still learning!


    1. THANK YOU EVERYBODY. I seriously did wonder if anybody would read this and/or find it as interesting as I did. Of course I was familiar with the individual-collectivist culture distinctions but I especially liked the application to mentoring that came in the article highlighted in my newsletter-post. I am not surprised that most of the replies come from people who are living in other parts of the world or involved in missions or international ventures. I am sad that so many people living in the US (maybe in some other countries) are so unaware of cultural issues in what we all do.

      And, of course I love Gordon’s comments about still learning. I think that is a theme that shines through all of the responses. Of course we all know that when we stop learning we stop growing (and often stop living).


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