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?