Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Good Neighboring and Leadership

Written by: on September 8, 2022

We all know the story of the religious legal expert wanting to test Jesus regarding the correct pathway to eternal life. It ends up that loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as oneself is what it all, in Jesus’ estimation, boils down to. But the legal expert wanted to press things further, to hear a more exact answer, asking Jesus to be more specific about who he should love as himself. And Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, turns the question around and puts the emphasis on the action of good neighboring, the one who is called to the act of good neighboring, not the one receiving the good neighboring (Luke 10:25-37).

As I read Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures,” I found myself drawn back to Jesus’ call to good neighboring. Meyer’s book can be classified as a sociological/anthropological history and a cultural guidebook. Her longitudinal research and writing are for the purpose of providing business leaders in particular, but anyone who lives in proximity to people different from themselves, with “…a systematic, step-by-step approach to understanding the most common business communication challenges that arise from cultural differences, and offer steps for dealing with them more effectively.”[1] She continues several pages later, “Cultural patterns of behavior and belief frequently impact our perceptions (what we see), cognitions (what we think), and actions (what we do). The goal of this book is to help you improve your ability to decode these three facets of culture and to enhance your effectiveness in dealing with them.”[2] In a world where we are more and more often interacting with people from cultures different from our own, the skills Meyer teaches are essential to the work of good neighboring, for how else can we discern if what we see, think, and do will actually be received as good neighboring.

Meyer has developed eight key scales that allow one to map one’s own cultural practices (and one’s own particular practices) alongside the cultural practices of one’s neighbor. These maps allow one to better determine what adjustments can be made to truly communicate and be a good neighbor, let alone be effective in one’s other roles. Each scale is detailed in a dedicated chapter. These eight chapters address the art of communicating across cultures, evaluating performance and in particular the giving of negative feedback, how persuasion is understood in different cultural contexts, how respect on the scale of hierarchy to egalitarian is practiced, how decisions are made (collaborative vs. directive), how trust is established and nourished, how productive disagreement is perceived, and how issues of time and scheduling are handled. In the epilogue Meyer demonstrates how to utilize these eight different maps as part of a holistic approach to working with others and discerning the impact of cultural versus personality differences.[3]

I found her examples both humorous and helpful. I frequently found myself say, “Yes, I recognize that!” For example, in her chapter on communication she discusses the distinction between high and low context cultures and the capacity of those from high context cultures to “reading the air” in a conversation or interaction.[4] The Middle East in general is a much higher context culture than the USA. Many times, I have had this experience of being in a room full of Middle East colleagues, with everyone engaged in conversation with others—multiple conversations happening at the same time. On one such occasion, I was needing a glass of water. I had barely realized that for myself, when a colleague clear across the room stood up, continued in conversation with the person he was talking to, and brought me a glass of water. He truly was “reading the air” of my non-verbals in a way I was not aware of. Understanding the spectrum of high to low context has been extremely helpful in my work of bridging between partners in the Middle East and partners in the USA. With USA teams I need to be much more explicit because, overall, this is the communication expectation. My Middle East partners “read the air” and I have learned to do the same, so we more easily track in the same direction and adjust as needed. But my Middle East partners know that Americans tend to be lower context, so they have adapted their communication style to account for this when in the presence of a USA group. It is truly fascinating to observe.

We have now, as a cohort, taken the “Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).” This Inventory will give us some language for understanding our starting points for working with cultural difference and the direction we want to move in order to work more effectively with difference. Meyer’s culture maps provide some of the tangible skills that one can integrate into a deliberate personal development plan to increase one’s effectiveness of working with cultural differences. Or, to say it another way, to lean more deeply into the art and practice of good neighboring. I will be integrating Meyer’s culture maps into the MVP I am developing this year, in concert with using the IDI. I am looking forward to how my MVP will emerge as I work with these two effective tools.

One dimension of Meyer’s work I would like to spend more time on is how her culture maps can be better utilized with the cultural complexity that makes up more and more of the USA. I found her reasoning of why the USA has developed into the most extreme example of a low context culture very interesting—because of the immigrant history of the USA, there have been fewer shared points of reference or what Meyer calls “implicit knowledge” between people groups. So, Americans have had to become very explicit in their communication for the sake of getting things accomplished.[5] I increasingly work with US-based colleagues who come from many different cultural backgrounds and often high-context backgrounds. Some of our organizational challenges are because of the spectrum of high to low context cultural communication assumptions on our team. It leads to me think that we have absorbed the generally low context of the USA to differing degrees, depending on how recently we have immigrated to the USA (never mind the other seven dimensions she discusses). I would love to hear Jonathan’s experience in the Korean American community on my wondering.

[1] Meyer, Erin. 2015. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done across Cultures. International edition, First edition. New York: Public Affairs, 6.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid., 252.

[4] Ibid., 33+

[5] Ibid., 34+

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

16 responses to “Good Neighboring and Leadership”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’d love to hear more about how you navigated the cultural map in your work outside of the US. What helped you best learn beyond culture to understand context and communication? What were the most difficult lessons to learn?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Andy. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. What helped me best learn beyond culture to understand context and communication? Observation/attention to non-verbals and listening/asking questions…these practices have been essential to my learning journey. I’ve also found that holding the posture of curiosity, humility, and being an active learner have been essential. One funny antidote…I was with a Lebanese colleague from the Protestant world in the ME (her area of expertise is the liturgical/ecclesiastical practices of the diverse ME Christian communities–along with their worldviews, theologies, histories, etc.). We were visiting with a Maronite hermit monk in his cave high in the Lebanese mountains. I was very curious about what his commitment to solitude had revealed to him about his life with God and so asked that question. My colleague just laughed as she interpreted my question to the monk. So…I asked her what she found humorous. She replied that even how I asked my question revealed my Protestant worldview on spirituality and that it was worlds apart from this monk’s worldview. That experience was another learning opportunity of how implicitly held my assumptions are. I realized, for me to be able to ask a question of this monk that truly engaged his spiritual worldview I needed to learn even more about Maronite theology and practice AND examine more deeply and consciously the shaping experiences my own tradition has had on me. I’m so thankful for my colleague who was willing to say something to help me learn!

      What were the most difficult lessons for me to learn? Navigating issues of gender in communication. What do I mean? As a white, American woman, I am shown more deference by professional men in the Middle East than my Arab women counterparts and than my American persons of color counterparts, but less deference than is shown to my white, American male counterparts. That has been painful to experience–especially the first half of the above. So it has raised for me issues of power and how I use my power to elevate others (or not) and the potential dynamics this could generate…when does it cause more harm to the person I think ought to be elevated when in their context they are not given the deference/respect due to them (in my opinion). So those are things I’ve had to grapple with in my professional life. In my personal life, this issue shows up with some of the repair people I’ve needed to have come to our home for various things. In Scott and my marriage, I’m more the one who works on repairs. But that is against gender roles in the ME. So the repair person is always looking to Scott for explanation of what needs attention. It’s made for some humorous exchanges. And, at other times some really frustrating exchanges. Of course, there have been times when I’ve experienced this same thing in the USA–both professionally and personally, so I’m not convinced this is a dynamic limited to the Middle East (ME). This all is an on-going learning process for me.

  2. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, I imagine this book could have been written by you 🙂

    I appreciate your adaptability to the culture you are working in. Clearly you have an intuitiveness that is a huge asset.

    How do you see yourself combining lessons of self-differentiation with balancing communicating specifics and ‘reading the air’?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Nicole. Thank you for your question…very insightful. How do I see myself combining lessons of self-differentiation with balancing communicating specifics and ‘reading the air’? This role I am in has pushed me to become more conscious about who I am and who I am not in terms of self-differentiation. Almost every interaction I have on either side of the ocean I’m confronted with my perspective/experience being different from the person or group I am speaking with. So, at this point in the journey, I feel a much deeper sense of peace showing up in my own skin and asking for help (which I often need in order to better navigate especially issues of conflict or potential conflict), and making the needed adjustments. I think it is because I’ve worked at being self-differentiated that I am better able to navigate shifting between low context and higher context communication. But, there is always more to learn…that is for sure!

  3. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Thank you so much for your insight. I look forward to discussing this more face to face. The USA’s low cultural context is fascinating to me as well. I taught an American Culture course in Poland. I sure learned a lot about myself. One element that particularly stood out was the impact of early immigration in creating a culture of progressiveness, invention, and efficiency.
    I am curious what you think about that and its influence on low context communication?
    I am also curious if you have found non-USA partners to be more likely to adapt to the low context communication? If so, why do you think that is the case?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hey Denise. Thank you for sharing some of your insights in response to my post…so helpful to hear. I’m also looking forward to talking further face-to-face about this and so many other things!

      I appreciate your sharing what stood out to you in the course you taught. You say: “One element that particularly stood out was the impact of early immigration in creating a culture of progressiveness, invention, and efficiency.” I agree that early immigration contributed to these significant values and practices in American culture. I think it is a big part of what continues to appeal to current day immigrants–the opportunity to be a part of this dynamic and bring their contributions to it. I think especially the value placed on efficiency has driven the development of a low-context culture. I think the emphasis on efficiency has also contributed to the high value placed on the practical. Practicality is also a high value in the cultures of the ME countries I’ve spent the most time in. But the driver for this is different. People have to innovate practical solutions in order to navigate so many of the dynamics that are beyond their control and still enjoy life.

      To your other question, I think at least one of the reasons that our higher-context partners in the ME adapt to low-context communication styles is because of their high value on relationship. This, of course, varies from person to person, but on a relative scale, this has been my experience.

      What are your thoughts on the questions you’ve raised?

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:


    I love the scripture you opened this post with. As I continued to read about your experience with needing a glass of water, I found myself thinking about all of the tables that Jesus found himself at. How did he “read the air” and respond? Could we as followers to some degree equate “reading the air” to being attentive to the Lord and/or Holy Spirit?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for this thought-provoking question. I think attending to the Holy Spirit’s activity and work in a relationship has some similarities to ‘reading the air.’ But what I would want to further explore is how our particular culture influences the way in which we listen to the Holy Spirit. Do we, who come from low-context cultures, ask of the Spirit more specifics, more tangible communication that our siblings in Christ who come from higher-context cultures? It would make for a very interesting conversation and time of learning. What are your thoughts on this?

  5. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, an insightful post, as always. With your experience in a Middle East culture and working with American colleagues, do you think crossing a cultural boundary (Lebanon) is more difficult or easier than working in a culture that contains diversity (America)? I know that Lebanon contains some diversity but I found it more monolithic than America in my short time there. Feel free to correct me on that if I’m mistaken.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy…thank you for your question and reflection on my post. Lebanon is, in some significant ways, more homogenous than the USA is at this point in our American history. I think the increasing heterogeneity in the USA is part of the reason for the increasing polarization we are seeing. There are those who are nostalgic in the USA for a homogeneity of culture that they thought existed (at a power level this homogeneity was true, but at an actual level there has always been a tremendous amount of heterogeneity in the USA). You ask which context is easier or more difficult when it comes to crossing cultural boundaries. From my experience, both have their challenges, but they are a bit different in nature. I think the challenge in Lebanon is in understanding and relating to what may appear to a USA citizen as small distinctions within the Lebanese cultural landscape, but which are quite significant to those who live in Lebanon. Lebanese experience their cultural context as quite diverse and they are very attune to those differences…some of it is tied to ethnic identity and relative power in the country; some of it is tied to history and politics; some of it is tied to religious identity. In the USA, so much of communication depends on one’s own ethnic identity and experience with power, and people have varying degrees of awareness about the influence these issues have on communication and relationship across cultural differences in the USA. It’s the varying degrees of awareness that I find most challenging in a USA context.

      What is your experience with the question you raise?

      • mm Roy Gruber says:

        Elmarie, my experience with the question I asked is limited in comparison with yours. My perspective in America is different than many as I grew up in a German-speaking home in the US to missionary parents. I remember being in a civic group meeting and hearing this refrain repeatedly each meeting: “Stand and pledge allegiance to the greatest country the world has ever seen!” I wonder why there’s a need to be the “best the world has ever seen” rather than simply proud to live where we do?? My only extended experience living outside of the US was three years spent living in Canada from age 16-19. Many of my own beliefs about America were challenged there. We talk about education, yet Canada scores consistently higher in standardized testing that the US. I believe there are Canadians who would respond the charge with the pledge of allegiance by saying: “You’re not even the best nation in North American right now, much less that the world has ever seen!” I believe America is a cultural enigma that requires us to process person-by-person, not as a whole. A question I had as I read Meyer’s book was if certain countries had a narrower or broader range on the scales. If that is the case, I would assume America’s “width” on the scale would be among the widest.

  6. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Elmarie, thank you for you post. I resonated with some your insights. If you were to add a ninth dimension to Meyer’s scales, what would it be that will help people to better work with people of different cultures?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Jonathan…thank you so very much for your reflection on my post. I’m looking forward to talking further about this to understand more of your insights!

      Great and thought-provoking question! I think I would add something about religious/spiritual influences on worldview–I think this influence is often very implicit and it shapes how we approach so much of life. To the communication section, I would add something on rhetorical style (or maybe that is part of persuasion as well).

      What would you add?

  7. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great blog. It is interesting to consider how it is that the US has become a low-context country while yet we are so diverse. Perhaps we are still undergoing an identity crisis, if you will, and trying to really understand who we are.

    I think that there is something to be said that these are broad strokes that miss a lot of the variances (I believe it was Michael who wrote about this). I would have to agree with this consideration. Perhaps as a whole, we are a low-context country, but based on your location, cultural background, etc., that can really vary widely. Just a thought.

  8. mm Henry Gwani says:

    A million thanks Elmarie for your excellent commentary on Biblical neighboring, analysis of Meyer’s work and example of reading the air in Lebanon. Given your Afrikaner background and extensive experience in Lebanon and the USA, when we meet in Cape Town I look forward to picking your brains a bit on your thoughts about how we can best contribute to mobilizing the South African church in reading the air about the neighboring needs of the various groups that make up this rainbow nation, including a growing population of immigrants from several African nations

  9. mm Mary Kamau says:

    Thank you Elmarie for the very elaborate blog about your interaction with middle Easterners and how you have adapted to their culture and how in turn, they have adapted too to your low-context culture. With the world evolving to become globalized and virtual, especially because of technological advancement, what are your thoughts about the possibility of one globalized culture?

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