Understanding the culture scale, Task/Relationship, 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:

Peterson’s Five Basic Culture Scales

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 … and Individual/Group. In this post, we are looking at Task/Relationship, which refers to the degree to which people focus firston getting work accomplished (Task)—versus building trust between people (Relationship).

According to Peterson:[1]

A task style means people prefer to

  • define people based on what they do,
  • move straight to business—relationships come later,
  • keep most relationships with coworkers impersonal,
  • sacrifice leisure time and time with family in favor of work,
  • get to know co-workers and colleagues quickly but usually superficially,
  • use largely impersonal selection criteria in hiring (such as resumés or test scores), and
  • allow work to overlap with personal time.

A relationship style means people prefer to

  • define people based on who they are,
  • establish comfortable relationships and a sense of mutual trust before getting down to business,
  • have personal relationships with co-workers,
  • sacrifice work in favor of leisure time and time with family,
  • get to know co-workers and colleagues slowly and in depth,
  • use largely personal selection criteria (such as family connections) when hiring, and
  • not allow work to impinge on personal life.

An example from Scripture: Jesus praises Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet

The classic text for comparing a task-oriented person to a relationship-oriented person is the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel. Martha is doing the expected work of a woman in her culture; Mary, however, is sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him.

Jesus visits Martha and Mary, by Otto van Veen, 1597 (public domain)

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.
41 But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things,
42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.

(Luke 10:38–42 ESV)

There are several things we can observe from this passage using the lens of honor and shame. Jesus Christ was honored by Mary; Martha was not. Several things are plain:

  1. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet. Her humility is evidenced by her posture. She physically expressed her recognition of the honor of Jesus. In the economy of honor and shame, feet have a particular meaning. Feet are among the least honorable parts of the human body—in contrast, for example, to the right hand. This honor/shame contrast is contained in Psalm 110:1—“The LORD says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The meaning in Mary’s action of sitting at Christ’s feet was profound and plain in their honor-shame culture—and surely was clear to Martha.
  2. Mary was listening. Mary gave honor to Jesus by doing nothing except listening in humility to the Savior. The sacredness of her attention fittingly corresponded to the sacredness of the One in the room.
  3. “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Martha was serving, getting stuff done. In defense of Martha, one could say that it was Mary who was the one distracted; it was Mary who should have been serving and getting work done. But Jesus praised Mary, and critiqued Martha.
  4. Martha was preoccupied with herself. Note what she said: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Could it be that Martha’s service was a smokescreen for her preoccupation with herself? No wonder Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the good portion.”
  5. In the end, Mary was the one willing to give honor to Christ by her humility, and as a result, was praised by Jesus. This overturns one of the classic features of the honor and shame culture, namely, that honor and shame is a “limited good” … or “zero-sum game.” 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. Here in the story of Mary and Martha, it is Mary who willingly ‘loses’ self-honor by giving honor to Jesus—and yet, in the end, instead of losing, she gains a compliment from Jesus: Mary gains honor from the Lord.

Using Peterson’s words, above, might we say that Mary was someone who prefers to “define people by who they are,” while Martha was someone who prefers to “define people by what they do?” Can we say that Mary did not try to impress Jesus by her service, and Mary gave immense honor to Jesus by sitting at his feet, listening and learning attentively, affectionately?

What are some applications to cross-cultural partnership?

Understanding that most of the peoples of the non-western world hold to the values of relationship as opposed to task, it is likely that western and majority-world partners will confront situations where this collision of values will cause confusion and sometimes conflict. Here are some suggestions for task-oriented Christian leaders in order to avoid these conflicts:

  1. We are very familiar with the relational style of networking. In networking, people often consider first what they can gain from the other person. For some, this is their primary relational style. Ultimately, this is a task-oriented, rather than a person-oriented relational style. At its worst, networking tends to “objectify” people into categories of what they can do, rather than to simply honor who they are. Christians can get sucked into this kind of superficial relational style. Unfortunately, partnership with national missionaries can have this dehumanizing edge, because sometimes westerners think of the cost-effectiveness factor above all else. Principles to consider:
    • Networking has its place in the Christian community. But when spending time with your cross-cultural partners, leave your networking style behind.
    • Be intentional to focus on the person who is your ministry partner—his or her life, family, story, struggles. Share your story, too. Focus on honoring the one you are with in the present moment by listening with your heart. Ask open-ended questions and learn. Listen … Listen … Listen! (Check this blog for other posts on empathic listening.)
  2. Give honor; avoid flattery. Flattery is giving pseudo-honor in order to get something. Can you imagine sitting at the feet of your cross-cultural partner—perhaps not physically—but spiritually? Are you willing to wash the feet of your cross-cultural ministry partner? There is simply no substitute for the spirit of Christlike servanthood.
  3. When visiting your cross-cultural partner, plan for informal time together. If you are on a seven-day mission, consider spending one day together, leader-to-leader, family-to-family. Just talking and praying and laughing as friends. This must be intentional. Consider … just being together as friends … accomplishing nothing … simply honoring one anothers’ personhood in Christ. The honor you will give to your cross-cultural partner will be immensely appreciated. The trust you build will pay huge dividends later on.
  4. Obviously, there are tasks to accomplish. Jesus Christ has commissioned us with the magnificent, enormous task of discipling the nations. But let us remember, Jesus taught us that this “task” is first and foremost a relational journey: “… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 ESV).

What do you think? What do you find to be helpful in bridging the gap between cultures relative to task and relationship? Your comments are most welcomed.

1. Brooks Peterson: Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2006) p. 52

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

Leave a Reply