Cultural Intelligence

Improving your CQ to engage the world

David Livermore | Apr 1, 2009

It’s hard to be deemed a legitimate church ministry for youth these days without running a full-fledged short-term missions program. Nearly one-third of all American high school students participate in some kind of religious cross-cultural experience before they graduate from high school. More than 5.5 million 13-17 year old Americans have cumulatively gone on more than 11.5 million mission trips. This involves more than 2 million trips a year just for this age bracket. [Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 69.] However, kids and youth leaders alike are often under-equipped to face the cross-cultural challenges presumed upon them.

Much more needs to be understood about the short-term missions phenomenon. But researchers continue to find that the effectiveness of short-term missions is positively related to the participants’ personal growth in cultural intelligence. And those leading short-term missions trips need to grow in cultural intelligence and learn how to help others in them as well. Cultural intelligence is one of the most important aspects of making short-term missions an effective tool for mission and formation for everyone involved.

Cultural intelligence involves reaching across the chasm of cultural difference in ways that are loving and respectful. This journey begins with a desire to love people but must move toward an ability to effectively express that love. It’s an ongoing journey for all of us, myself included.

Why we do what we do: Cultural values

Look around you. What do you see people doing? Why are they doing that? To empirically observe what is happening around us is one thing. But to move toward interpreting why they do what they do, and to ask the same thing of ourselves, is a much more challenging process. As we begin to explore the cultural values that shape why people do what they do, we can begin to move from a surface-level understanding to depth.

The six cultural values we’re going to explore stem from long-standing literature on how human beings deal with their environments. [For more on this, see Hofstede, Pedersen, and Hofstede’s Exploring Culture (2002), Parson’s The Social System (1950) and Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner’s Riding the Waves of Culture (2000).] All throughout history, societies of people have been faced with the recurring issues of how to deal with one another, with environmental circumstances, and with time. Every cultural grouping interfaces with these values somewhat differently and each of us as individuals falls somewhere along the continuum described for each value. Comparing your personal values with the values of the cultures of which you’re part and others you encounter is one of the most important ways to enhance your CQ. [Lingenfelter & Mayer offer a self-assessment of many of these values as well in their book Ministering Cross-Culturally (Baker 2003).]

Identity: I vs. We

The opposite ends of the identity spectrum are usually described in cross-cultural research as individualism versus collectivism. This cultural value considers the extent to which personal identity is defined in terms of individual or group characteristics.

Of all the cultures studied, the United States has the highest individualism score, 91 on a scale of 1-100. People from individualistic cultures are more inclined toward self-reliance and retaining functional, relatively loose bonds with others. This helps explain our American “no strings attached” approach to relationships. China is on the far end of the collectivism side of the continuum, scoring 20 on a scale of 1-100, which helps explain guanxi-the personal relationship between people which obligates them towards one another’s needs and desires. People from collectivist cultures usually have strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.

Hierarchy: Top-Down vs. Flat

Hierarchy as a cultural value is the degree of inequality that is assumed to be appropriate and normal. This value, often measured as power distance, reveals where the power lies and how it’s structured. Power distance is the extent to which differences in power and status are expected and accepted.

Americans prefer to see everyone as equal. We tend to avoid formal titles as much as possible. But we have to beware of too quickly making judgments about how this relates to the way we value hierarchy and power. For example, though we emphasize an informal, “he’s just a regular guy” kind of communication, that doesn’t mean there aren’t power structures in place. In fact, the U.S. culture is by no means the lowest in power distance. Places like Israel, Austria, and the United Kingdom are at the lowest end of power distance measurements.

Risk: Tight vs. Loose

This next value, risk, deals with the degree to which a culture tolerates uncertainty and ambiguity. On one end of the spectrum are cultures that are tight, a value sometimes measured as high in risk or uncertainty avoidance. [For the purposes of this book, I’ve merged uncertainty avoidance and tight versus loose as one category of cultural value, but there’s benefit to viewing them independently as well. See M.J. Gelfand, L. Nishii, & J. Raver, “On the nature and importance of cultural tightness-looseness”, Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1225-1244 (2006).] As much as possible, people in these cultures control for the unexpected through safety and security measures and through strict laws. People in tight cultures tend to prize order and self-discipline. Life is ordered by clear rules and is characterized by limited ambiguity.

On the other end of the risk value are loose cultures. These are places where ambiguity and unpredictability are welcomed. Strict laws and rules are resisted and people are more accepting of opinions different from theirs. Loose cultures are often more individualistic because loose rules and room for ambiguity allows individuals to pursue their own objectives while not infringing on the rights of others.

Time: Short vs. Long-Term Orientation

Time and the way a culture views it might be the cultural value with which we’re most familiar. The most basic level is the distinction in socio-ethnic culture of clock time versus event time. Clock time is most typically found in industrialized cultures where punctuality and tight adherence to a schedule are the overriding values in order to efficiently manufacture the products. Event time describes cultures where time is meant to serve the relationships and events that occur within a given day.

In the world of organizational culture, an organization’s orientation toward time is said to be the most important cultural value to understand. The most critical understanding of time for the organizational domain is whether the organization is most oriented around the past, present, the near future, or the distant future. Churches oriented around the past often had a period of perceived success known as the “glory days” and as a result, old-timers in the church continue to look back longingly remembering what it was like back then. Homegrown staff members are likely to fare more easily in these kinds of churches rather than outsiders who come in.

Many churches and ministries are pretty caught up with the present. To be fair, the very real ministry demands of broken homes, unemployment, and funerals keep many pastors and their teams pretty oriented around tending to the immediate needs of today. Those ministries that are most oriented toward the future can be divided into ministries primarily interested in the near future-What do we see happening in the next 3-6 months here?-whereas those interested in the distant future have regular conversation oriented around big, audacious dreams for who they are going to be in their community and in the world.

Communication: Explicit vs. Implicit

Given the highly behavioral nature of communication, it could be argued that communication is as much a reflection of the other cultural values as it is a value itself. But communication its process has some value-laden dimensions for many cultural contexts.

Some cultures are very interested in what comes from experts while others are suspicious. And this is where the multiple cultures of which each of us are part can cause internal conflicts for us. Another way of thinking about communication is seeing the degree to which explicit versus implicit communication is valued, sometimes referred to as direct versus indirect or low versus high context communication. Direct communication refers to instructions that specifically state and direct an action whereas indirect communication relies upon input and understanding from the listener and the surrounding environment.

Western nations like the U.S. and the United Kingdom tend to be very low context cultures, which use very direct communication. Very little of the context is assumed for knowing how to act. As a result, directions are visible and explicit. Many Latin cultures are high context cultures where information about how to act and instructions are assumed and indirectly implied rather than explicitly stated. Most of us who are used to low context, direct cultures have felt the challenge of being in a place that we label as “not well marked” because there aren’t “good signs” to tell us where to go.

Though U.S. culture is very direct and low-context, many ministry organizations are very indirect and high-context. Churches in particular tend to assume a high level of understanding based upon history with a church culture. It’s assumed people know when to sit, stand, and close their eyes. Many churches following a liturgical tradition do little to explain the meaning behind the liturgies taking place.

Achievement: Being vs. Doing

The question examined through this value is “How does this cultural group define and perceive activity?” This can be measured on a continuum of being versus doing. Every culture will have some individuals who are more inclined toward spending time with people and engaging in nurturing, feeling-oriented activities and other individuals who are more inclined toward completing tasks and spending their time in thinking-oriented activities. But in general, doing cultures value results and materialism, while being cultures value relationships and quality of life.

The generational contrasts in this cultural value are something I observe in the differing approaches to mission by established leaders in missions organizations compared to many younger leaders who are interested in mission. For the most part, emerging ministry leaders are skeptical of ambitious programs and campaigns to complete the evangelization of the world. Slick marketing campaigns that over-strategize how the kingdom is going to be consummated or over-stated descriptions about what any one organization or leader is accomplishing leave this generational culture unimpressed.

Instead, there’s a longing among the emerging generation in mission for more “being” oriented values, including relationships, deep connections, and stories about God working through the underdog. There’s a desire for us to be honest about the pitfalls of Western missions. And as a result, there are countless stories of emerging leaders leaving large, stable evangelical organizations to work with friends in small, off the radar ministries.

Moving Forward in our CQ Abilities

Cultural values play an integral role in becoming more culturally intelligent. They allow us to begin to understand some of the dynamics shaping how people see the world. They’re generalizations so they’re not the whole story. There is no substitute for building relationships and sharing experiences with individuals and coming to know one another more deeply over time. But cultural values provide a starting point.

What do we do with all these discoveries about ourselves, our cultures, and the cultures of others? As we begin to understand what lies beneath the visible, we gain an appreciation for the need to think and listen first, and act and speak second. All this increased understanding is leading us somewhere. It’s moving us toward more effective love and service.

CQ is valuable for every believer as we seek to live out the presence of Jesus among the varied cultures where we find ourselves. But it’s especially essential for leaders. “If [leaders] do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.” [Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2004), 23. ]


The following questions are designed to help you assess your own—and your ministry’s—values according to the six scales mentioned above. Use this with yourself, and then with your ministry team, to process your ministry culture’s values and how those impact your relationships across various types of cultural differences.

  1. Where is your church on the continuum of individualism versus collectivism? Do people in your ministry view their faith maturity primarily in light of their own journey with Jesus or in light of where your faith community as a whole is in relationship to Jesus? How about you?
  2. To what degree does the organization where you serve value hierarchy? How does that compare with your own leadership preferences?
  3. What tendencies might a loose culture have that most reflect the kingdom of God? How can those be embraced? Ask the same questions of a tight culture. Where does your ministry culture fall on this continuum?
  4. Are you most concerned with the past, present, or future right now? How might that shape the way you interact in the various cultures you regularly encounter?
  5. Think about a cultural context of which you’re part-whether it’s your socio-ethnic group, your ministry, or your peers. What kind of information is important to you as a group? Are people there most drawn to stories and experiences or research and statistics?
  6. Think of an individual you know who seems to value “being” over “doing”. How does that affect the way you relate to this person? How do you see it affecting his/her interactions in various cultural contexts?
  7. Observe the cultural values at work in others’ behavior. Think about what your own behavior reveals about your values. If you journal, what phrases show up again and again? In your conversations, what phrases do you hear or say repeatedly? How does your personality align with the cultural values we just explored?

NOTE: This article is an excerpt from David A. Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2009). Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group:

Photo by Juan Di Nella

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David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership. He’s president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan. Dave has done training and consulting with leaders in 100 countries across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Dave has authored several books, including Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage our Multicultural World, and The Cultural Intelligence Difference. Dave has been part of the Short-Term Missions research team with FYI and contributed to Deep Justice Journeys.

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