35. Board Dynamics and Cultural Diversity: Part I: “High Context”…”Low Context”

In Canada, particularly in urban settings, cultural diversity characterizes our society. Our churches are beginning to reflect this reality. As immigration patterns continue to bring hundreds of thousands of people to Canada from many different cultural groups, our multiculturalism will become more pronounced. Evangelical churches need to find ways to invite these new Canadians into their communities. Both Jesus and Paul emphasize hospitality as a Christian virtue and practice that demonstrates God’s love for every human being.

This cultural diversity is shaping the composition of church boards. Frequently church boards will have members from three or four different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. This diversity is good

and we celebrate it as one of the wonderful elements of God’s family. We want to accept one another as equals in Christ, understand one another and respect one another as board members. So far so good.

What we fail to recognize more often than not is that this cultural diversity also leads people to have very different views about group interaction, appropriate kinds of communication, honour and shame, the nature of decision-making, the relationship between younger and older members, etc. We are all embedded in cultural realities that shape how we understand such issues and behave in response to them. James Plueddemann (Leading Across Cultures, 2009) urges us to realize that “the more we interact with each other, the more we need to understand each other’s underlying cultural values” (73). So each person in a team ministry needs to learn the “language of respect” that others use.  A westerner may think he is being honest and direct in his discourse, “speaking the truth in love,” only to discover that he has treated with considerable disrespect someone in the group who operates within a different frame of reference.

Let’s consider an example. The congregation appoints to the board a respected Christian leader who has recently (last five years) emigrated from mainland China. He is 38 years old. For the first three board meetings, this new member contributes almost nothing to board discussions. He listens intently and seems attentive, but offers no comments. What is the chair to make of this behaviour? Is the person behaving in this way because he is shy or naturally reserved? Is this his first experience as a board member and his reticence results from uncertainty? Perhaps, but the other newly appointed, 45 year old board member who was born in Alberta, certainly is not shy about presenting his opinions.

As the chair begins to explore the dynamics of this situation he discovers that Asian cultures tend to express respect and values differently than Western cultures.  Chinese culture is characterized as a “High context” culture.  This means that a person will discern values and respect from the way people act, not from what they say. Much more weight is given to non-verbal aspects of communication, i.e. the setting of the room, facial expressions, body language. Verbal communication tends to more flowery in its expression. The majority of the information gets communicated through these non-verbal elements. Western culture in contrast tends to be a “Low context” culture. In other words almost all of the weight in communication is placed on the verbal communication, i.e. what is said explicitly. Plain, direct speech is the valued commodity. In high stress contexts people tend to revert to their cultural norm. We should not think that one way of communication is better or worse — they are just different.

The new board member’s “shyness” is occurring because he is trying to get his bearings in this very different cultural context.The room the board meets in is a basement room of the house in which the church offices are situated. Other board members dress very casually and there is plenty of informal joking and sharing. Interactions in discussions get very direct, often rather confrontational as serious questions are debated. The younger members do not seem to wait to get their direction from the older members. For someone used to the communication dynamics of a “High context” culture, this ethos creates significant problems. He struggles to know how to “read” what is happening and so he is reluctant to participate lest he misunderstand what is happening.

What can a board chair do in this situation to help the new board member feel at ease and discern how to participate well? Perhaps the most important response is to find a way to help, but do so privately. Do not try to address this in a board meeting with everyone present.  In fact, the chair should not do this personally. Rather try to find a “bridge person,” someone who has experience in both cultures. This person should find a way to connect with the new board member and express how much the chair respects and values this individual’s involvement in the board. However, the representative will also indicate that the chair is concerned that the new board member’s important perspectives and ideas may not be heard. The “bridge person” would explore gently whether everything is all right, whether a meeting with the board chair would be fruitful, etc.  In all of this the strong signal is that  you want him to serve well as a board member and this can only occur if he is engaged in the discussions. In many cultures indirect approaches show more respect and value than direct approaches.

The goal is not to induce the new board member to change. Rather the best outcome is that the both parties learn to respect and value the communication processes that each uses, rather than judging the other inappropriately. So a second strategy would be for the chair in some of his introductory comments at a board meeting to acknowledge the cultural diversity, explain its implications for mutual understanding, and offer suggestions that will help the whole board to interact more effectively. Mutual respect and a willingness to learn from one another is an essential foundation for Christian hospitality.

[I am indebted to Mark Naylor, coordinator of international leadership development at Northwest Baptist Seminary, for his assistance with this article. The final expression of the ideas is my own. Larry Perkins.]

This entry was posted in Board, Board Chair, Board Member and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.