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

Learning how to wai

Written by: on May 10, 2018

During our year of living in Asia, I boarded a Thai Airways flight from Manila to Bangkok. Prior to this trip, I had received a quick cultural lesson on peculiarities to Thai culture – don’t touch someone’s head, keep the soles of your feet facing the floor, never disrespect the king, and in lesson 101, how to greet one another. In that culture, one greets another with a wai: palms facing each other below the chin, higher if more respect is deserved, and bowing slightly. I walked down the passageway to the plane, and ahead I saw the Thai flight attendant waiting for me, her immaculate purple and gold silk outfit gloriously contrasting with my grubby and sweaty Western wear. She graciously wai’ed, palms together and bowing, welcoming me onboard. Self-conscious, I returned the sign of respect. Then, curiously she held out her right hand. I was flustered! What does this mean? What do I do? In that instant, my mind jumped to a quick conclusion: She had greeted me, and I responded in Thai fashion. Now she must be reciprocating by offering a greeting with a Western handshake. I reached out and vigorously clasped her limp palm. But she wasn’t squeezing back. I awkwardly released, catching a whiff of exotic frangipani, as she whispered, “Your boarding pass, sir.”

Cultural faux pas like this one are only the tip of the iceberg. David Livermore’s book, Leading with Cultural Intelligence, helpfully breaks down the intricacies of cultural interaction and assists those seeking to lead within our globalized context. He does this primarily through offering a tool he calls CQ: Cultural Intelligence. One’s cross-cultural drive, knowledge, strategy, and action combine to offer a numerical score which defines the level of cross-cultural sensitivity and adaptability in environments that require cultural awareness.

Livermore’s thesis is that in our global village, we must become aware and culturally adapt our own behavior to meaningfully communicate with individuals and organizations from other cultural contexts. Refusing to do so, or being blind to the opportunity, will severely reduce one’s capability in achieving one’s goals. And with globalization, growing one’s CQ quotient is necessary for any leader. He states, “…[A]lmost everyone can become more culturally intelligent by working with the four-step cycle. Cultural intelligence is uniquely situated for the barrage of cultural situations facing today’s leaders. It includes a set of competencies needed by leaders in every field… [L]eaders who commit to improving the ways they think, plan, and act through cross-cultural situations have an unusual edge for navigating the fascinating terrain of our curvy, multidimensional world.”[1]

One’s culture is a shared imagination that helps us to be knit together as a community. It informs us on ways we perceive beauty, our response to authority, the raising of one’s children, and the ways we worship our Creator. Shared culture leads to the idea of nationhood and allows us to form communities that adhere to a collective imagination. Thus, as Benedict Anderson proposes in his book, Imagined Communities, we come together only as we meaningfully link “fraternity, power, and time” in shared consciousness.[2] Livermore assists us in crossing those boundaries to relate to the other.

Livermore’s work also synthesizes nicely with the anthropological research of Sarah Pink. She offers that ethnography is “an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society that informs and is informed by sets of different disciplinary agendas and theoretical principles… a process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) that is based on ethnographers’ own experiences.”[3] Livermore takes these cultural cues, images, and experiences and encourages us to understand them not with our own cultural biases and interpretive grids, but through those of the other culture being considered. Therefore, this smiling man (see photo) could be communicating joy or embarrassment, depending on the cultural framework one uses to interpret his grin.

Skills learned in growing one’s CQ quotient can also be applied on one’s home turf, which must be acknowledged, is no longer a monoculture. Learning cultural interpretive skills is essential. New generations are reshaping Western culture, marginalizing a meaningful role for religion. Legal rulings are slowly eroding the ability of faith to have meaningful presence within the public square. In Canada, Christian charities and churches are being threatened with the loss of charitable status as the collective wisdom believes religiously-motivated entities do not offer a net benefit to society.

This week, as a representative of my clients, I attended the launch of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.[4] At the event, Dr. Ellen Roderick, Co-director of the Diocesan Centre for Marriage, Life and the Family at the Archdiocese of Montreal, spoke during a panel session, sharing a story that illustrates the cultural disconnect between generations and between those with traditional faith and current spiritualities.[5] She, with a small group of advocates from her city, arrived on Parliament Hill as a faithful presence against abortion. But the space for religiously-motivated activism is becoming increasingly narrow in Canada, as it is in other Western nations. Unbeknownst to them, they were crowded out, for every Wednesday during the summer space is granted to Yoga on the Hill, and over a thousand would gather to practice their downward dogs and shavasanas. While Roderick’s group were there to articulate, convince and reason with their minds, a thousand others arrived to embody faith, inner healing, and world peace.

As this new think tank launched – even the name “think tank” is cerebral! – I wondered if CQ skills were being appropriately applied here. This shift from mind to body means that in order to live out the faith passed on from previous generations, we must learn to enflesh the ways of Jesus in new ways. Culturally intelligent ways of embodying this are necessary. Interestingly, we must now look to the master of the incarnation for help in knowing how to best embody the beauty of Christian community for our reshaped cultures.



[1] David A. Livermore, Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success (New York: American Management Association, 2010), 110.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2016), 36.

[3] Sarah, Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 22.

[4] For more information, see https://www.cardus.ca/research/law/crfi/.

[5] Ellen Roderick, “Launch of Cardus Religious Freedom Institute” (panel discussion, Cardus Office, Ottawa, May 9, 2018).

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

16 responses to “Learning how to wai”

  1. M Webb says:

    Great introduction and welcome to “limp” wristed handshakes in certain cultures. In the West, especially in the pre-80’s era, a limp handshake was a sign of disrespect. In Africa, it is common for indigenous nationals to use their left hand to support their right hand during the greeting, which gives a higher status to the person they are shaking hands with. When I went out to the villages in Botswana and Zambia to meet with the Chief’s and Village Elders I had to be very careful not to be rude and accept their hospitality, even though in many cases it went against my Western politeness for women and children. For example, going into a room, it is customary to greet everyone with a verbal greeting, and courtesy handshake to everyone in the room before accepting a place to be seated. I tried once to give my seat to an elderly woman, but that was considered rude since I was their guest of honor and my Setswana advisor quickly corrected my behavior and helped me apologize for my cultural awkwardness.
    Cultural Intelligence is good, in the proper dose for leaders. Most CI proponents usually take it “too far” trying to go native and fit in too much. In my experience, in the many countries I have served and worked, there are just differences that make a difference. I value the differences and uniqueness that God gives each of us and try to use it to hopefully extend the love and image of Christ to others.
    P.S. How does Livermore and “learning Wai” add value to your Western Philanthropy clients and ministry?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Mike,

      Thanks for your comments. We could really have some fun talking about the various cultural misadventures we’ve all had.

      As a philanthropy “broker”, I often discover myself in a role of translating one to another. This involves helping charities speak the language that will meaningful engage with wealthy potential givers, and assisting givers in observing how they could be changed by meaningfully contributing not just funds but themselves in charitable work.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Phenomenal opening story! I was riveted.

    I am still trying to process your remark, “In Canada, Christian charities and churches are being threatened with the loss of charitable status as the collective wisdom believes religiously-motivated entities do not offer a net benefit to society.” Wow! Does Canada have the same history of the U.S. with most colleges, hospitals, and shelters being founded by the church?

    I am looking forward to your continued writings on philanthropy. Thank you for your good heart and quality of knowledge.

    • Hi Jay,

      Yes, in Canada we also have a similar legacy of Christian churches starting most universities, hospitals, and social service agencies. But in a postmodern landscape, there is little room for traditional values, and most people see little value in formal religion. It is partly our own fault for acting as private clubs that serve ourselves – I think there is a role for Christian-rooted agencies if they learn to serve without strings attached, and there are some notable exceptions, thankfully.

  3. Dan Kreiss says:


    Great connection to real life situations, particularly the changes Western culture is undergoing in regard to religious faith expression. I wonder how you might effectively utilize Livermore’s text in your own philanthropic work and what it might add to your ability to interact with others from other cultural perspectives.

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, I think you demonstrated a reality of mission work in your post…nothing prepares better than time and experience. I had read Greg’s post prior to yours, so your story of the “wai” greeting made me think…how much more prepared would you have been if you had lived there longer? Greg has lived in a China for many years, so no matter how long I studied in advance, I would still have a lot to learn upon my first visit to China. The implication I am trying to make is that human interaction is one of the best opportunities we have to grow, but only if we are willing to be attentive to what the other has to teach us in the process.

    So I am curious: I know that as an American, I have heard a number of Canadian jokes or impersonations in my life; how great of a difference do you think there actually is between our two cultures?

    • Hi Shawn,

      In my opinion there is a significant difference between US and Canadian culture. Some of us speak the same English as Americans, but inside there is a lot going on that makes us feel like outsiders as we see life in a different way. I mention some of it in my blog on Anderson from last semester:


      I request my American friends when they meet Canadians to learn to ask questions and not assume that even similarities mean the same thing on the northern side of the border.

  5. Jennifer Williamson says:

    THis: “This shift from mind to body means that in order to live out the faith passed on from previous generations, we must learn to enflesh the ways of Jesus in new ways. ” Yes! It’s like Jesus must be “re-incarnated” through His body in each generation.

  6. Greg says:

    I was rolling with your Thai airlines story. I have experienced all of that (except the handshake portion) many times. What a great story of how you really were trying to be culturally sensitive.
    Nice way to incorporate past books. Loved your ending and completely agree that we need to live out Jesus is new ways. Appreciate your perspectives on many issues.


    • When I was writing the story, I was thinking of how you would have dozens of similar anecdotes. I love crossing cultures, and one of the biggest ways to success is learning to laugh heartily at oneself and not take oneself too seriously. Because we all will be fools. 🙂

  7. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Mark,
    Great post! How do you apply CQ to your work with wealth management? It’s a power differential I would think for those who want to endow money, yet want to speak into where it is spent?

  8. Great first blog of the summer quarter Mark! Your story of the Thai flight attendant cracked me up…especially the way you rolled it out. What a great example of the value of CQ. Your ending line, “we must now look to the master of the incarnation for help in knowing how to best embody the beauty of Christian community for our reshaped cultures.” encapsulated CQ in such a profound way. I feel like Jesus leaving his heavenly culture and coming to our culture is such a powerful example for Christians and non-Christians alike of what it means to embody CQ.

    • Jake,

      I wish I could tell a joke in person as well as I can write it. 🙂 Somehow I just can’t ever remember the punchline.

      I agree with you that Jesus enfleshes the best model for us of CQ. We all do well to keep contemplating all He surrendered in His incarnation.

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