Well, that was fun!

These are conversations I wish I had had years ago- I wonder why I didn’t ever do it before?  The cultural values I investigated were particularism/universalism, low/high power distance and individualism/collectivism.


I had experienced a collision in this orientation recently when we were planning how to sell off our belongings.  The first people to hear about our leaving were the administrators (higher status) and they came to us expecting to ask for things first.  But they were not the people we had the closest relationships with and to whom we would have preferred to give first choice.  So to try to make it ‘fair’ we sent out a list to everyone and had everyone text their choice at the same time.  Everyone could get one item.  I explained why we were doing this in great detail, and very apologetically, to everyone I talked with but it was obviously not what they were expecting. Those of ‘lesser’ status- including 3 of those I talked with were delighted, because they would not normally have been able to get anything!

My friends remarked that it’s very much ‘who you know’ when it comes to jobs or services (like visas). But when you don’t know the right people, it’s very frustrating and they kept referring to the orientation towards particularism as a problem.  They see the value in the universal application of rules but had all taken advantage of relationships at various times because everyone else does.

Conversations in this area made me wonder– should I have just done what was expected (affirm that those of higher status are more important and thus deserving of more things and preferential treatment) and ignored my sense of ‘fairness’ or is it okay at times to challenge the way the culture does things? Because we are leaving it’s easier to ‘ruffle feathers’ in the politest way possible, but if I had to live and work with these people it may have been more difficult.

Low / High power distance

I have been particularly frustrated by the orientation to High power distance especially since our current administrators are very authoritative and secretive and have been allowed to make decisions that have negatively impacted our school without anyone questioning them. (In fact, one person I had intended to interview had been put on compulsory leave for a month – a disciplinary measure as a result of her speaking out against the administration.) My friends agreed that often in organizations this high power distance is still expected –they may not like it, but they go along with decisions made for them without questioning them.  There are, of course, exceptions. Our first Nigerian principal insisted on consensus from the faculty and went round and round . . .and round the table – wearing everyone down into consensus. The biggest change all four of my respondents noted was in family structure.  The patriarch of the family used to make all the decisions (like forbidding anyone to harvest tea for 2 years from a field or deciding what food a woman could and could not eat) but it is changing, and most family heads will meet to seek consensus from all members. All four thought that this was a change for the better.


This is the area which has rubbed on my day-to-day life most often.  Two examples: A mother here is known by her children’s name (i.e. Mama Daudi) and is happy to do so because the child belongs to her and is part of her.  But I always felt that when I knew a woman by her child’s name, I didn’t know the woman herself.  I wanted to know HER name. But of course my friends were astonished because that IS her name.  In fact when they were asked to call us by our first names, one friend said he did so, but always looking over his shoulder expecting his mother to appear and punish him for being disrespectful! When the youth or choir are called up to present at church, or when asking for an answer from the class there might be a long pause before anyone would stand or offer an answer because no-one wanted to be seen as wanting to be the first. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  Despite the changes that my friends saw coming in this area towards more individual considerations, they felt that most people felt themselves part of the community first.  As we later talked about time orientation, they said that to show up to a wedding early may mean that you would be alone – and that would be terrible!  People would think there is something wrong with you.  Better to call each other and show up as a group.


As I was talking with my friends the first (and most obvious) thought was that I should have done this years ago – and why hadn’t I?  Did I not see the need or was I fearing being told that I was the one who had to change?  It really is only a God-given desire to love and serve another that will prompt me to give up my individual ‘right’ to live the way I want to live.

They were all very interested to talk about orientations and noted that it wasn’t just African/N. American differences, but that many of them on staff came from different African cultures and had each had to learn to adjust to the local way of doing things.  Each had, at one time or another, been thought rude or thought others rude because of the differences.  It was helpful and fun not just talking about what we should and shouldn’t do, but to understand the whys–looking “below the cultural artifacts” as Livermore says.

I thought I should encourage this kind of conversation among new friends from other cultures so we don’t spend time confusing or hurting each other when we could be more fully enjoying our rich diversity.

14 Responses to Well, that was fun!

  1. Mark Naylor Mark Naylor says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thanks so much for this and especially the conclusion that this kind of conversation is important so that people will not just judge others through their own cultural grids, but be able to appreciate and adapt to other orientations.

    Your question about “fair play” and challenging the culture is important. I would suggest that as outsiders we are unable to really answer that question. Often the message we are trying to get across in this kind of challenge is not the message that people receive. This doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be done, just that it does have to be challenged in a way that is appreciated within the context. An extreme example was the time I found a group of young foreign women in Pakistan wearing shorts and surrounded by a group of Sindhis who were enjoying the sight. I talked to them and suggested that they might want to wear something different. They informed me that they were teaching Sindhis about the freedom of women to wear what they wanted. That wasn’t the message that came across….

    Don’t take that extreme example as a critique of what you did. It sounds like you were very sensitive in your explanations. I just thought it was a good example of the caution we need to have as outsiders when challenging insiders about the way they do things, which is why your question was a good one 🙂

    I found the story about the principal insisting on consensus to be very telling. It shows that any movement towards change needs to be done from top down, or at least with the cooperation of the top. It also shows that resistance is not just from the top, but from others used to one system and and unsure about the instability caused by change. Also, and maybe most important, any leader making change needs to do so with care and sensitivity and with input from others. It almost seemed like a controlling, top down insistence that people use consensus! Would you agree or am I reading too much into this?

    Great examples for the strong collectivism. Identity and safety is in the group. Understanding this dynamic and the HPD dynamic as well as seeing the seeds of change coming means that a person sensitive to both the current orientation and the pressures towards change could help a group navigate such changes in a positive way so that fears of chaos and loss are mitigated and helpful improvements are made. Do you see any signs of people aware of the complete dynamic and may be placed to help a group move positively towards change?

    Glad you had fun!

    • jwildsmith says:

      Thanks Mark,

      Ah yes, perception is everything. I’ve seen groups of female tourists wearing what they would at home, and wanted to say, “You do realise that the Kenyans think you are running around in your underwear.” Perhaps that would have convinced them to put some more clothes on?
      but wrt to selling our things, do you think that not doing things the way insiders do them is always seen as a challenge? I wasn’t intending to challenge the culture, but allowing the higher status people to buy everything before others had a chance, didn’t feel to me like loving and serving everyone. It would be sad if my intention to love and serve my friends by doing it the way I did may not have been perceived as love and service at all, but to be honest, I find it easier to live with my choice. As Ken says – by grace we go!!
      Wrt to challenging another’s values. I would agree that it is up to insiders to challenge and encourage change – and as you say, in HPD cultures, it may be more effective for the people at the top to model the change. In my conversations with my friends, they brought up the example of the former Vice Chancellor who could be seen chatting with the security guards at the gate or helping new students carry their suitcases to the dorms. He was modelling LPD all the time and the staff and faculty all loved him for it and still respected him greatly. So it can be done. My colleagues feel it’s very sad that the next man has ignored that example and insists on his rightful due and distance all the time.
      I understand the value –

      Regarding seeking consensus. It could have been that this older principal who had studied at Northwest for a bit, knew that the missionaries on his staff preferred to work with consensus, or perhaps he had a Christian maturity that valued individuals’ input and views. He always reserved the right to make the final decision -and that was based on what had been said and who had said it and what was going to be the most workable solution, but I don’t recall feeling that he was being manipulative. We’ve served under a couple of principals who were wise enough and secure enough to work with all us strong Type A missionaries who don’t always know when to shut up – willing to listen but at the same time (probably) knowing the context in which the decision was being made and would be implemented more completely than the missionaries. Real examples of God’s grace.

      • Mark Naylor Mark Naylor says:

        It is always great to have and experience “positive deviance” – that is, insiders who act counter culturally in a manner that other insiders find appealing. Often cultural shifts happen because of such catalysts who choose to make a difference such as your examples of the principal and Vice Chancellor.

        Your further explanation of the principal is helpful. From your description, I would suggest that he didn’t facilitate consensus so much as use his HPD position to create loyalty and unity. Because he was secure in his position and because he understood foreigners he wasn’t threatened. He realized that outsiders needed to provide input in order to belong but he “always reserved the right to make the final decision,” and was humble and wise enough to acknowledge good advice when he saw it.

        I would also suggest that the former Vice Chancellor was not necessarily modelling LPD as much as being secure in his HPD position and so felt no threat from others. He was then free to love and care and so not only had honor from his status, but also a high level of earned respect.

        As an example, there is currently a kerfuffle in Germany over a couple of Turkish soccer players who posed with Turkey’s president, Erdogan. Many Germans were offended because (in my analysis) as LPD people they considered earned respect to be far more important than honor from status. However, the players responded by saying that they wanted to show respect for the office of the president of their country. That is, in this case, the players thought that honor from status should trump earned respect. In a HPD context the truly great leader knows how to use the status in order to create earned respect.

        I would not say that doing things different from insiders is always seen as a challenge. If we are perceived as influential so that people would be tempted to emulate us in counter cultural ways, then that is a possibility. Fundamentalist Islamic groups target westerners partly because of this sense of challenge. Instead, I suggest that any time we express a value or behavior that is counter cultural, we also need to do our homework and discover what message is actually being read into our decision. This can range from an innocuous personal preference to strange western preference to challenge. We also need to consider what people’s emotional response will be. This can range from amusement to neutrality to hurt to a sense of disrespect. We also need to ask and test the story we are telling ourselves about why insiders are not acting in the way we prefer. Perhaps they are well aware of the option and see some downsides that we have missed.

        Again, please don’t read this as a comment on your decision to sell things the way you did. I am not in a position to do so and you are familiar with the context enough to be comfortable with your decision. I just thought it would be helpful to use the incident to point out a number of other cultural dimensions that would helpful for us all to reflect on.

        thanks for stimulating reflections!

        • jwildsmith says:

          Thanks for your insights. I think upon reflection that the Nigerian principal maintained a HPD position despite his willingness to listen to others, but if Livermore’s description of LPD is “Expects that all should have equal rights” then I would say that the former Scott principal was indeed acting within that context. The more examples I hear of his life lived among people here, the more I think he was indeed an exceptional Kenyan leader! I was sorry that he left as we were arriving and we were never able to serve together.
          I’m sorry, too, that I haven’t had a chance to look at the links you provided in someone else’s post about LPD/HPD but I will.

  2. mbuhler mbuhler says:

    Hi Janet: Glad that was fun. I echo Mark N’s comment about the value of dialogue about cultural values. Not to convince others of the superiority of our position but to help people understand and accept that there are other valid positions. I think that these sorts of discussions are most successful when there is a trusting relationship based on mutual respect. Then there is the chance to be able to say. I noticed this occured and I want to understand what was going on because it was different for me. Can you please help me understand? Coming from the posture of a learner shows respect and opens the door to dialogue. I know you know all this but I am processing and reminding myself of valuable principles for cross-cultural interactions.
    I recall having someone working in our home in Kijabe who was always causing drama and we were guessing and second guessing ourselves about the culturally appropriate ways to respond. Finally I took the step to make an appointment with Pastor Kingori and get his perspective. It was so helpful and things were resolved without negative repercussions.
    Bless you as you continue to transition and have all sorts of Anglo Canadian values decisions to navigate. I trust that you will be able to find a trusted insider to help you with this process. With your wealth of cross-cultural experiences you and Andy will add value to wherever the Lord plants you. 🙂

    • jwildsmith says:

      Thanks Mark,

      Interesting that you say, “these sorts of discussions are most successful when there is a trusting relationship based on mutual respect” because I said to the head librarian who was one of my ‘insiders’ that he should look for ways to have the kind of conversation we had just enjoyed with other new missionaries, because I had found it so helpful. But perhaps there needs to be more of a relationship built before someone new would be receptive?

      • Mark Naylor Mark Naylor says:

        Thanks Mark and Janet
        Good discussion about the importance of have a key insider as a cultural confidante. And that this requires a trusting relationship in order for there to be the openness and vulnerability that will allow for difficult things to be said and heard.

  3. KJolley KJolley says:

    Greetings Janet. I celebrate with you your new tools in the toolbox! I am glad that you saw this was fun and that you came to the realization that “I wish that I had done this years ago.” Never too late, and actually the fact that you have had the experience of not always working with this toolbox, makes you much more wiser and gifted as you move ahead. Experience (and particularly negative experience) is the best of teachers. I am speaking from my own experience. Oh, how I would have spent the first 20 years in Caracas so differently. “Too soon old and too late smart” is a local adage around where I live. But such, was the ways of God in me as I needed to learn and experience what His kingdom and grace is all about.

    Your post expresses a lot of insights and appreciations for discovering as you describe the “whys” and not just the “whats” of our differences. The best thing about these tools is that I find them useful in all of my relationships. Even my marriage is better because of them. The next step which is always a challenge, is to what extent am I able to adapt to the ways of the other, for the sake of identification and communication. One of my new tools is to “learn with others.” A good line is, “I would really like to understand what just happened and I need your help.” As you pointed out, we wouldn’t have survived at all if it were not for Jesus’ commands to love and to deny ourself. Lord willing these move beyond just duty, but actually delight in freedom for us. Now if I can only learn to practice fully what I preach. By grace we go.

    • twiley twiley says:

      Hi, Ken.
      You wrote: One of my new tools is to “learn with others.” A good line is, “I would really like to understand what just happened and I need your help.”
      I want to absorb and use that. It takes the perceived “fight” edge off a potentially loaded conversation and brings a person right to the point, but from a stance of humility. I’ve put that on a card on my message board in front of my computer.

    • jwildsmith says:

      Thanks for your response Ken. Yes, it does feel like I’m being given another tool to help me navigate life –
      Both you and Terry point to truth that God could have blessed us with a spiritual maturity that did not necessitate struggle, making mistakes and experiencing the regret that comes from misunderstanding or the hurt of being misunderstood. Trust God to be able to turn these struggles to experiences of great value in our ongoing sanctification.
      Learning with others implies a dialogue – not just understanding what has happened in a specific situation but how will we manage the differences so that, especially in Christian circles, we can grow together towards unity.

  4. twiley twiley says:

    Dear Janet,
    I can fully understand your chosen approach to selling your things (having just gone through the same very difficult process ourselves), and at the same time, I can fully appreciate the response of your local friends. You suddenly changed all the rules to the game and now they’re confused! So, people were having a hard time appreciating how to play the game. Your quandary question at the end, however, summarizes it so well. What would have been best? [No, I don’t have an answer to suggest =) ]

    Your illustration on the topic of gaining consensus was very interesting, particularly because of its sharp distinction from the illustration Mark Buhler gave regarding elders’ meetings in Kenya. [See his response to my post.] It’s like the Administrator knew what society required on the surface, but it seems to be clearly an abuse of the principle since his objective was not really consensus but rather capitulation of those from whom consensus was being solicited.

    I also found the matter of names and identity to be intriguing. In Pakistan, if I go to someone else’s house and a woman answers, my appropriate answer to “who’s there?” is, “Joshua’s father” (Joshua is my eldest son). And some women will NEVER say their husband’s name, not even when asked what it is among a group of women in a doctor’s office or hospital. The matter of names and identity is such a deep part of the culture. I can understand how that would rub you wrong. However, it doesn’t seem like bucking that part of the system will generate the intended effect. And while my comment will be moot in that you can’t do much about this now, I would wonder about having possibly taken a different approach that would honor your underlying concern about the identity, honor and respect of women, but which at the same time would honor their age-old traditions related to name-taking. The name-taking is a product of a mindset and would likely experience change in and of itself as the underlying views of women in that culture change. By addressing men’s views of women (esp. with the Christian leadership), one might hope to generate change (eventually!) in how women are perceived, treated and addressed.

    As for wishing you’d asked these questions earlier, I’ve thought the same many times. The consolation in such cases is, as they say in Sindhi, der thi, para khair thi – it happened late, but it happened well. I’m convinced there is a reason that God grows us throughout our entire lives. He could have made us mature instead of coming into the world as totally helpless and dependent babies, then struggling through all the difficult and often painful growing experiences to grow up. Why on earth does He do that? I’m convinced that all of our present learning and growing has a future purpose beyond the grave. Sorry, I can’t chapter and verse it, though.

    • Mark Naylor Mark Naylor says:

      Thanks for picking up on these key cultural issues, Terry.
      In particular the comments on the naming and identity. As westerners we see identity in individual people as they are in themselves (gifts, preferences, abilities, etc.), whereas in Pakistan and Kenya, a person’s identity and meaning are tied up in the web of relationships they have. To ignore that is to disrespect the individual by disconnecting them from that which gives them significance.

      I also enjoyed your last comment. It is a reason I don’t believe in reincarnation – how come I didn’t learn anything the last time? 🙂

    • jwildsmith says:

      Thanks Terry,
      I’ve never considered myself a feminist, so I was surprised at first how deeply it bothered me that women weren’t known by their own names. But I understand how deeply meaningful it is for them to be known by their children’s names. When I asked what a married woman who doesn’t have a baby feels about not being known as ‘Mama . . ‘ my informants said, “of course she feels incomplete.” and to me THAT didn’t seem very fair! (But then Andy just came in and reminded me that the world IS NOT FAIR because the Canada/Swiss hockey game is not available for streaming out here.) And these names are usually used in home or informal settings. When women introduce themselves in church or in a meeting they will use their personal names.

      It may be too late for me to ask you this but you said, “And some women will NEVER say their husband’s name” Why is that?

      • twiley twiley says:

        It is to create a distance of respect and honour from the wife to the husband (or rather, the husband over the wife). His honour is such that she should not be so forward as to use his name. Chew on that for a little while and you’ll find something that really sticks in your craw!

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