Knowledge CQ: Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences

From Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence
by David A. Livermore

Definition: Our level of knowledge and understanding about cross- cultural differences.

          The most important part of Knowledge CQ is gaining general information about how cultures vary.  Explicitly and implicitly, how does culture influence the way people view the world?  How does that relate to the specific culture we are about to visit?  How does it explain our own behavior?  What’s behind the common gestures used?  These are the types of questions a person with knowledge CQ asks and understands.

            A definition of culture is the collective fundamental beliefs people hold about how things should be and how one should behave.  It’s a way of looking at the values, attitudes and beliefs shared by a common group of people.  While such things as food, art and literature give us visible expressions of culture, one of the greatest challenges that comes with gaining understanding about culture is that cultural knowledge is largely invisible.  It’s looking beyond the driving habits, diet and architecture to see what lies beneath those things.

            Think of culture as the software that runs our minds.  It’s the mental programming that shapes our habits, beliefs. Decision making and the way we see the world.  Knowledge CQ is essential because it’s at the core of being able to serve with eyes wide open. The point is not to master our knowledge CQ  before we take off on our next trip.  Knowledge CQ continues to stretch and grow throughout our lifetime.

Understanding the Differences

Differences In Cultures

United States Culture

Central/South American Culture

Event Time versus Clock Time

Punctuality and efficiency rule time. The clock determines when things begin and end.  Respect the clock.

Events begin and end when all the participants feel the time is right rather than imposing a clock time. Spontaneity is a core value.

High Context versus Low Content

We are “low context.” Our connections with people are generally of short duration, meaning less is assumed. Instructions about things are written and displayed, including how to act.  It’s easier for people to enter into low context than high.

They are “high context.”  People generally have a lot of history with each other.  Therefore, everyone is an “insider” and knows how to behave. Written instructions and explicit directions are minimal because everyone knows what to do and think.

Individualism versus Collectivism

We are more concerned about the life of the individual.  Decisions are based on what the individual deems is best for his/her life.

People view themselves less autonomously and more as members of groups. They’re concerned about the effects of actions upon the group as a whole, and decisions are made by consensus rather than individualistically.

Power Distance (how “far apart” leaders and followers feel from each other)

Followers feel at ease socializing with their leaders and addressing them as peers. Students feel free to question pastors, teachers, parents and other authority figures.  Decisions are made by all working together.

Great deal of formal respect to leaders.  Titles and status are revered.  Leaders and followers are less likely to socialize together.  Subordinates are not expected to questions their superiors.

Uncertainty Avoidance (the extent to which a culture is at ease with the unknown)

We are less threatened by unknown situations and what lies ahead.  Open-ended instructions, varying ways of doing things and loose deadlines are typical.

People have been taught to have little tolerance for the unknown.  They focus on ways to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, and create structures to help ensure some measure of predictability.

Motivation for Missions

The trip is not a “rough, roach in the bed” kind of experience. We’ll be housed in nice clean rooms, eat familiar food and be able have some free time to shop.

Missionaries are not afraid to die for Jesus. They are not only willing to die for the Gospel, they are expecting it.

Urgency in Missions

We’ve got to do something.  The window of opportunity is NOW!  The time for change is ripe. We must seize the opportunity.

Act slowly and think through the implications on the churches after going home.

Common Ground in Missions

If there are any surprises on the mission, it’s finding out how similar everything is to everything back home.

Awareness that what is seen on the outside is not necessary reflective of the inside.  What’s inside may be totally different.

The Bible in Missions

We go to teach about the life of Christ and how he did ministry. Cultural differences don’t really matter.

It is vital to be sensitive to the local culture. It is important to recognize the relativity of cultural forms and language as we express who Jesus Christ is.


Money in Missions

We who were born in America are so blessed and our wealth and generosity brings with it subtle but important issues about power.

To be “poor” is not an issue of money and/or things.  It is a state of mind that is imposed on us by others who have money and things, which causes them to think they know what we need. We should have a say so as to reveal our true needs.

Simplicity in Missions

If we can find the common ground, everything will work very simply. We tend to believe that we know what’s normal and best based upon our “superior” cultural perspective.

One cannot look for generalization and common ground because most cross-cultural issues are far too complex to be simply placed in one simple category or another. We must move beyond surface-level observations to knowledge of the culture.


          As we can see, the issue is far more complex than we may have thought.  We need to develop a true yearning for knowledge CQ in order to make our missions work prosperous.  Failure to gain knowledge equates to failure in missions – failure to convey the love of Jesus Christ effectively to those whose culture is different than our own.

SALT, Inc. "To know the will of God, we need an open Bible and an open map." — William Carey