Personalities, Profiles, Preferences, and Crossing Cultures

795619869_c1c80a9a37_zWhat personality types make for the best cross-cultural workers? I like to think that there’s room for all kinds, but it makes sense that certain types of people would find themselves drawn to or more suited for vocations that cross cultures.

When Peter Farley surveyed female missionaries from the UK, he found that, using the Myers-Briggs scale, there  are more “intuitive” (N) and less “sensing” (S) women among missionaries than in the general population. (The numbers are 42% Ns and 58% Ss among missionary women compared to 21% Ns and 79% Ss as a norm). The most common personality type is ISFJ, at 23%, but that is similar to the overall female population, while INFJs make up 12% of female missionaries, significantly more than the 2% norm.

Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, has a different scale for evaluating personality. It’s the “Culture Profile.” By answering the 24 questions of the assessment and choosing your country, you can see how you compare to your countrymen in eight areas:

  • low vs high context communication
  • direct vs indirect criticism
  • principles-first vs applications-first arguments
  • egalitarian vs hierarchical leading
  • consensual vs top-down decision making
  • task-based vs relationship-based trust
  • confrontation as a help vs hindrance
  • linear vs flexible time

You can take the assessment online at Harvard Business Review. Before you begin, I have a suggestion. Grab a pen and paper so you can jot down your answer to each question (you respond to each one on a scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”). This way you can see your evaluation alongside different norms by choosing a different country each time. Otherwise, when you retake the profile, your answers are reset, and it’s difficult to exactly duplicate your responses each time, especially since it’s easy to start overthinking your responses after seeing the outcomes.

When I took the test, I found that in several areas I don’t fit in with the American norm. One of these is the high context/low context scale. Here is Meyer’s description of “context”:

In low-context cultures (such as the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands), good communication is precise, simple, and explicit. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition and written confirmation are appreciated, for clarity’s sake. In high-context cultures (such as China, India, and France), communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Reading between the lines is expected. Less is put in writing, and more is left to interpretation.

So the US is a poster child when it comes to low-context cultures. But my answers to the profile put me closer to the high-context extreme, where China resides. Maybe that’s because my ten years living in Taiwan altered my preferences, or maybe I was originally drawn to the Chinese culture because it fit my personality. It’s probably a little bit of both.

So take the survey. It may tell you something about yourself you didn’t know. It may show you that you’re a prime example of your country’s cultural norm. It may help you see why you sometimes don’t “get” the people around you, and why they sometimes don’t get you. It may show you some changes you should make in behaviors or expectations. And it may show you a place far away where being yourself would be the perfect way to fit in.

(Peter C. Farley, “Psychological Type Preferences of Female Missionaries,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, November 2009; Erin Meyer, “What’s Your Cultural Profile?” Harvard Business Review)

[photo: “Me, Myself and . . . Dr,” by DraconianRain, used under a Creative Commons license]


Reading the Bible without Cultural Near-Sightedness

3782“Can you imagine a Jesus without all his teeth?” That’s one of the many questions that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien ask in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

In modern America, the authors point out, we tend to associate missing teeth with lack of intelligence. But what would your smile look like without the luxury of modern and available dentistry? Would you have a full mouth of straight pearly whites? Did Jesus have all his teeth intact? The authors write, “It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise.” But for much of the world, a lack of teeth would be irrelevant—if not expected—in a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.

Richards (a former missionary to Indonesia) and O’Brien’s goal in Misreading Scripture is to get us to rethink our assumptions about what we read in the Bible. They’re not saying that non-Westerners can understand the Bible better, just that we all come to the text with our own cultural baggage that we need to lay down. (They offer that someone else could easily write Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes.)

The authors admit that they’ve had to oversimplify the topic, as there is way too much to cover in one book. But, they write, their purpose is to “unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”

For instance, they open the book with the example of the hot, cold, and lukewarm waters of the church in Laodicea:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16 NIV)

Our assumptions lead us to think that hot means “on fire” with faith, while cold means that faith is absent. This reading says that God would rather us be non believing than to have a weak faith. But when O’Brien traveled to the site of Laodicea, he learned that nearby were the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold springs of Colossae. Laodicea didn’t have any springs, so aqueducts brought water in. Both kinds of water, hot and cold, would have been welcome and refreshing to the people of Laodicea, but by the time the water arrived, it was only lukewarm. New insights bring new perspectives.

The story of David and Bathsheba gives another opportunity for us to see an “Eastern” viewpoint. The authors’ thought-provoking analysis suggests that David’s actions were motivated more by honor and shame than by feelings of guilt. In fact, they show how not only the king’s decisions, but also those of Bathsheba and Uriah, exemplify a culture where individual convictions of right and wrong are trumped by the weight of societal expectations.

Other topics covered in Misreading Scripture are the cultural differences of Individualism and Collectivism, Time, Rules and Relationships, Virtue and Vice, and Finding the Center of God’s Will. In the chapter covering this last subject, Richards and O’Brien discuss the common Western practice of a reader applying scriptures to himself, while non-Western readers—as with the Jews of the Old Testament—are more likely to apply it to the entire group. This is compounded, as the authors point out earlier in their book, by the lack of a plural you in the English language.

While I taught the Bible in Asia, it was a constant challenge to set aside my American presuppositions and allow my non-American friends to understand the Bible on their own terms. Instead, I was tempted to share my personal and cultural footnotes before they could be convicted of a “misguided” interpretation. This was especially dangerous when I found myself, as the authors call it, “arguing [them] to a lower standard.”

As I read through Misreading Scriptures, I wasn’t always convinced of the authors’ conclusions, but I was consistently “unsettled” enough to rethink my assumptions. And when I question those things that I take for granted, it makes me a better teacher and student. When I acknowledge my cultural biases, I am then better able to understand what the Bible says and less hindered by what I’m sure it should be saying.

(E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP, 2012)