Musing about mission: Cultural Intelligence

What’s cultural intelligence? It’s a bit like IQ but related to culture, the ability to recognise different and unfamiliar cultures and interpret what’s going on – the capacity to work and relate across cultures.

We all look at the world through cultural spectacles. Guinea pig? In the UK people think of pets, in parts of Perú people think of food.

Picture1These notes, from a staff meeting, are based on my experiences, when we used this my comments formed the basis for sharing and discussion as other people talked of their experiences.

Most of these notes use categories by David Livermore, who suggests cultural intelligence is made of four key things.

Cultural Drive

The level of interest in and motivation to adapt to different cultures. This is often seen in perseverance, especially when you have been in the new culture long enough that it’s no longer new, fun and exciting. Without drive you don’t engage in the culture. You might be interested in travel, or in serving, but if you aren’t interested in immersing yourself in a local culture it’s hard to be really involved in mission.

We all know the stereotype of the Brit on holiday in Spain who is not interested in how the Spanish do things but just wants to live in a warm climate with their home culture. Well, I’ve met people on Short term mission trips, who don’t want to eat local food, or get up close and personal with the local culture as well.

Cultural Knowledge

This is our level of knowledge and understanding about a culture, but also our understanding of how cultures vary.

Cultures vary in all sorts of ways. To give you some examples:

  • The history and structure of society. The history of Europe with wars and empires is quite different to parts of the world that have been invaded and colonised, whose traditional forms of organisation have been replaced by more ‘western’ models. The religious practices can also vary enormously.
  • The understanding of time. For example: event time v clock time. What’s more important, the conversation you are having with someone now, or the time which means you will be late for a meeting. In Iquitos I quickly learned that 7pm means not before 7:30 but before 8pm. So aim for 7:40; I learned more slowly that a new way of thinking would become more natural so I didn’t need to think about it. One of my colleagues told the story of arranging to meet some American missionary friends for pancakes at 8 o’clock on ‘pancake day’. Naturally the US folk assumed this meant 8am for breakfast (when else do you eat pancakes), the Brits intended 8pm
  • High context v low context cultures. High context (everyone is an insider and understands what’s going on, as in a family). Low context (nothing is assumed, instructions need to be given, as when the cabin crew explain the emergency procedures). In Perú I had to learn how to shop; wait to be served, take the bill to the cashier and pay, and then return with the receipt to collect by goods.
  • Individualism v collectivism are you worried about individual rights, or what’s best for the group? Do the young people choose careers based on what they like doing, or what society needs?
  • Power distance. The social distance between leaders and followers. In some places subordinates don’t question the boss, children don’t question parents and even adult children are expected to follow their parents. This is also about how people are honoured in a society.
  • Uncertainty avoidance. How at ease are we with risk and unpredictability. Generally, Brits are ok with some uncertainty, whereas some cultures are more structured and ordered (consider Germany or Switzerland). Other structures are less ordered.
  • Conflict avoidance is another one that differs across cultures.

All of these things help, but it’s not a manual to study, but things to learn through practice. Some of them are not entirely clear cut; it might appear that a culture is less ordered, but that’s because it’s a high context culture where everyone knows.

I also wonder sometimes, if this whole categorisation thing is a very western approach to culture anyway.

But it’s worth noting: a little knowledge can be dangerous – you pretend you know things. But what you learn in one place isn’t necessarily true elsewhere, and really it takes a decade or more to get to understand a culture.

Cultural Strategy

Your level of awareness and ability to stop and observe what’s going on in others and in yourself. Your ability to plan for cultural interactions. This is in part about your cultural self awareness, but also how you can think about how to respond.

  • Through noting what cultural preferences / stereotypes / prejudices I have.
  • Through my ability to be aware that things are different. Just because there’s Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Facebook in a different place doesn’t make it similar (Pizza Hut in the UK should copy Perú and do take away Pizza rolls). At first, I found middle class Perú really challenging, I’d visited the jungle for several years and was familiar with it, but middle class Perú was a whole new set of categories.

For example, look at how people drive! How the treat red lights. When you are in a car as a passenger, how do you feel about the fact you are on the wrong side of the road and there’s traffic coming towards you. Or that the driver anticipates the lights changing and moves off even though they are still red.

Alternatively, look at when people are smiling or not smiling. I’ve been to weddings where the bride doesn’t smile because that would be inappropriate.

This is also relevant when we read the Bible. I hear people talk about the biblical view of marriage or family with little appreciation of the different cultures that existed in the biblical periods. Can we hope to have an understanding of eldership without an understanding of what that conveyed to the people at the time?

Cultural Action

Our ability to act appropriately and adapt behaviours; knowing when to adapt and when not to.

  • How can you show respect to people?
  • In some cultures doing things with your left hand is taboo (which would be really hard for me as someone who is left handed).
  • How close do you stand to people? Latin American’s usually stand closer. I’m not a hugger, but I learned that’s what you do and got used to doing it.


For me, I’ve often found that Americans from the USA are the hardest. In a mission context you are all the English Speakers, and it’s easy to assume that you share lots of things in common. But actually, that’s not entirely true, we use different words for things, we make different social assumptions and often you have different politics. And the things we find funny, the ways we poke fun at each other, these can be very different. Closer cultural differences are sometime harder to spot and navigate!

Now back in UK, I forget what it’s like in Perú and keep having to remind myself not to assume, but cultural intelligence isn’t just something for global mission it can help us relate to people in the UK who are different to us as well.

See also:

Photo by Meru Bi from Pexels

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