Understanding the culture scale, Equality/Hierarchy, through the lens of honor & shame

You can take a quantum leap in understanding your cross-cultural ministry partner by understanding the five basic culture scales. Today’s focus: Equality/Hierarchy.

According to Brooks Peterson in Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, there are five basic culture scales. They are: 1) Equality/Hierarchy, 2) Direct/Indirect, 3) Individual/Group, 4) Task/Relationship, and 5) Risk/Caution.

Peterson’s Five Basic Culture Scales

What I plan to do in this series of posts is to explain these one at a time, and further, to enhance our understanding of them through the lens of honor and shame. I also hope to clarify this through biblical illustrations.

Let’s start with Equality/Hierarchy. According to Peterson:[1]

A style based on equality means people prefer to:

  • be self-directed,
  • have flexibility in the roles they play in a company or on a team,
  • have the freedom to challenge the opinion of those in power,
  • make exceptions, be flexible, and maybe bend the rules, and
  • treat men and women in basically the same way.

A style based on hierarchy means people prefer to:

  • take direction from those above,
  • have strong limitations about appropriate behavior for certain roles,
  • respect and not challenge the opinions of those who are in power because of their status and their position,
  • enforce regulations and guidelines, and
  • expect men and women to behave differently and to be treated differently.

Equality: Where employees are granted the power to take initiative even if they don’t have a position or title after their name.

Hierarchy: Where the manager is expected to take control and make the decisions.

You may note that while Peterson’s descriptions are framed in business language, they are highly applicable to the work of cross-cultural ministry partnerships; this outline simply describes the way our values of equality or hierarchy invariably influence the different ways we relate to and work with others.

An example from Scripture: David spares Saul’s life / 1 Samuel 24

The Scripture passage of 1 Samuel chapter 24 is part of a series of events in which Saul tries, directly and indirectly, to get rid of David. Understanding the cultural value of honor and shame brings much clarity to these events.

Let’s do a little review:

David gains great honor and public acclaim by defeating Goliath the giant Philistine (1 Samuel 17). David’s courage is in the context of defending the honor of God and the honor of God’s people.

And David said to the men who stood by him, What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God? ( 1 Samuel 17:26 ESV)

David’s victory resulted in a huge accrual for him of achieved honor.

In chapter 18, Saul becomes jealous of David. Notice how the achieved honor of David was publicly recognized by the women who danced and sang in celebration of David. Note also that Saul recognized that David’s achieved honor also seemed to be elevated by the women to a form of ascribed honor.

As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom? And Saul eyed David from that day on (1 Samuel 18:3–9 ESV).

It is easy for us to recognize Saul’s jealousy. But when you add to this the understanding that in an honor and shame culture, honor is a zero-sum game, the power of this value to influence behavior is raised to another order of magnitude.

What does this mean, that honor is a zero-sum game? Simply this: It is the belief that “everything in the social, economic, natural universe, everything desired in life: land, wealth, respect and status, power and influence exist in finite quantity and are in 
short supply.”[2] In other words, If you gain, I lose … And if I gain, you lose. It is the belief that we cannot both increase in honor at the same time, because it is ‘a limited good,’ there’s only so much land …  there’s only so much wealth … there’s only so much honor.

From an honor and shame perspective, King Saul saw that his ascribed honor as king was threatened by the achieved honor of David. Saul’s very personhood, his total identity was threatened by David, and this caused him to rage with jealousy and seek David’s demise. Saul’s honor was at stake, and I believe he considered it the equivalent of a mortal threat. Naturally, Saul became obsessed with finding a way to kill David.

After a series of attempts by Saul to kill David (1 Samuel 18–23), chapter 24 finds David and his men in the innermost part of a cave, and when they go toward the entrance, they discover to their surprise that their mortal enemy King Saul is there sleeping. Some of David’s men say here’s your chance to kill your enemy, but David says no

And the men of David said to him, Here is the day of which the LORD said to you, Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you. Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. (1 Samuel 24:4 ESV)

Because of David’s loyalty to the position of the king who had been anointed by God—along with his obedience to the Spirit of God—David was committed to respecting the ascribed honor of Saul. Using the terminology of the culture scale of Equality/Hierarchy, this story illustrates David’s commitment to hierarchy as opposed to equality.

He said to his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed. So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way. (1 Samuel 24:6–7)

David was displaying his commitment to God. To quote Peterson near the beginning of this post, David is an example of “taking direction from those above, having strong limitations about appropriate behavior for certain roles, and respecting and not challenging the opinions of those who are in power because of their status and their position.”

What are some applications to cross-cultural partnership? Understanding that most of the peoples of the non-western world hold to the values of hierarchy as opposed to equality, it is likely that western and nonwestern partners will confront situations where this collision of values will cause confusion and sometimes conflict. Here are some examples:

  • A westerner may be visiting the cross-cultural partnership and discover that he or she is treated with respect and honor that is unusual for western culture. This may make him or her feel uncomfortable, and one may want to refuse the honor given. But be careful: it can be disrespectful of their culture not to receive the honor they want to give you. Principle: A westerner should graciously receive the honor he or she is offered.
  • A westerner may want to display the attitude of being a servant-leader by doing things to serve others in an egalitarian manner. Like washing the dishes after a meal with your host family in their home. You may have a sincere heart in doing this but this can violate the hierarchical values of the home and society where you are serving. Principle: Don’t be a showoff.
  • A westerner may want to become friends or exchange email addresses with a member of the church family which is led by a nonwestern Christian pastor/leader. This may be viewed as inappropriate by the nonwestern leader because it displays an independent attitude which is not in keeping with the hierarchical values of their culture. It could cause conflict or suspicion between the western Christian leader and the majority-world Christian leader. Principle: Keep the primary relationship between leaders.

What do you think? What examples can you share to illustrate tensions that can develop in partnerships because of the dynamics represented by the culture scale of Equality/Hierarchy? Please comment.

Note: If you want an assessment of your own personal cultural style, go to Brooks Peterson’s web site: accrosscultures.com. Select the link, Begin the Peterson Cultural Style Indicator. You will be able to compare your own cultural style to the general cultural style of the nation where you are engaged in a cross-cultural partnership. There is a fee of $50 for this assessment, but I think it’s an excellent investment in your understanding of the contrast in cultural styles and the adjustments which people on both sides of your partnership may need to make—in order to achieve greater understanding and a more effective partnership.

1. Brooks Peterson: Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People
from Other Cultures
(Boston: Intercultural Press) 2004, p. 37

2. Jerome H. Neyrey: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminister Press) 1998, p. 11


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