Understanding the culture scale, Individual/Group, 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: Individual/Group.

Peterson’s Five Basic Culture Scales

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” –African proverb

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. Previous posts focused on the culture scale of Equality/Hierarchy … and Direct/Indirect. In this post, we are looking at Individual/Group, which refers to the degree to which people identify themselves as independent individuals versus interdependent members of a group.

According to Peterson:[1]

An individual style means people prefer to

  • take individual initiative,
  • use personal guidelines in personal situations,
  • focus on themselves,
  • judge people based on individuals traits,
  • make decisions individually,
  • put individuals before team,
  • be nonconformists when necessary, and
  • move in and out of groups as needed or desired.

A group style means people prefer to

  • act cooperatively and establish group goals,
  • standardize guidelines,
  • make loyalty to friends a high priority,
  • determine their identity through group affiliation,
  • make decisions as a group,
  • put team or group ahead before the individual,
  • conform to social norms, and
  • keep group membership for life.

An example from Scripture: Moses (the individual) pleads with God to enter the Promised Land, but is forbidden because of his identification with the rebelliousness of God’s people (his group).

The story begins in the book of Numbers. God’s people are at Meribah in the Wilderness. They desperately need water. Frustrated and angry because of the incessant grumbling of the people he was leading, and desperate for God’s provision, Moses hears from God:

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” (Numbers 20:8 ESV)

But Moses does not simply speak to the rock in obedience to God.

And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. (Numbers 20:11 ESV)

Moses’ disobedience carried a heavy consequence.

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12 ESV)

Instead of obediently speaking to the rock in order to get water, Moses was guilty of striking the rock (twice!) with his staff. Water came out from the rock, but Moses had failed to obey God. The English Study Bible states, “As the prime mediators of God’s laws to Israel, Moses and Aaron had to be exemplary in their obedience. Their failure to follow the divine instruction exactly led to their forfeiting their right to enter Canaan.”

Now let’s go forward several years in the story to the book of Deuteronomy. The point in the story is just prior to Moses’ death and the people of God being led into the Promised Land by Joshua. Moses describes an encounter with God that is connected to the happenings in Numbers 20.

23 “And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying,
24 O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?
25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.
26 But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.
27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan.
28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.
29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.

(Deuteronomy 3:23–29 ESV)

When I read this passage recently, I was struck with God’s immediate rejection of Moses’ request. Of course, God was re-affirming what he had told Moses in the first place. But considering the overall faithfulness of Moses to God, and the tremendous burden Moses bore in leading God’s people for 40 years through the Wilderness—it seemed to me God was harsh.

However, let’s look at Moses’ words more closely. Moses said, “But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me …” (v26). This indicates that God’s anger at Moses was not simply the result of Moses’ disobedience in Numbers 20; God’s punishment toward Moses the individual was also a result of the stubbornness of the group of people he was called to lead. You can observe this dynamic at work—that group responsibility is just as significant as—and at times more significant than—individual responsibility.

What about the cultural value of honor and shame?

Moses’ honor before a holy God was compromised—both by his individual disobedience to God—AND by the stubborn sinfulness of the group he was leading. This profound sense of identification of the individual with the group is widespread in the Scriptures. For just a few examples:

  • The covenant blessing of God to Abraham and his descendants was not to individuals, but to groups: “… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). The word “families” in the Hebrew is the word, “mishpahoth … This is used for smaller groupings, like those referred to by the English words clan, family or sometimes also lineage.”[2]
  • The prophet Isaiah acknowledged … “And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; … ” (Isaiah 6:5 ESV). Isaiah was likely the most righteous man in the land but saw his own uncleanness profoundly connected to the uncleanness of God’s people.
  • Consider Apostle Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ: “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it” (2 Cor. 12:20–24 ESV). It appears that community trumps individuality in the body of Christ—and that God wants our desire for individual honor to be in balance with—if not in submission to—the unity of the community.

What are some applications to cross-cultural partnership? It is vital for Christians from western lands to understand that most of the peoples of the non-western world hold the value of the group in MUCH higher esteem than the western value of individuality. Therefore it is likely that western and non-western partners will confront situations where this collision of values will cause confusion and sometimes conflict. Here are two examples.

  • Because of the high value of individuality in the west combined with an expectation to get things done fast, western Christians may expect non-western leaders to make decisions quickly—and without need for much input from their community. But decisions in non-western communities are made much more slowly—there’s a need for consultation with more people; this takes time.
    • Principle: Western Christians leaders should expect decisions will be made much more slowly by Christian leaders in the majority world. They will need to learn to suspend judgment, and exercise patience in these cross-cultural relationships.
  • When taking a team cross-culturally for a mission trip, there is an amplified need for your team work in unity. If on your team there is an individual who is loud, displays high individuality in the way they dress or act, or challenges the consensus of the group, your non-western partners may view that individual and the group leader with suspicion.
    • Principle 1: Invest extra time to prepare your team to respect leadership and one another, and to serve in a spirit of humility and Christian unity.
    • Principle 2: Be willing to exclude ‘prima donnas’ from your mission team—people who are “regarded as egotistical, unreasonable and irritable, with a rather high opinion of themselves not shared by others.”[3] (Note: Even though this attitude is clearly un-Christian, God only knows how many western Christians show up in non-western lands with precisely this attitude.)

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 Individual/Group. 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, 2006) p. 46

2. Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins: “Nation” & “People” in Hebrew and Greek, as found in: http://strategyleader.org/peopledefinitions/nationpeopleshebgreek.html

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prima_donna


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