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

Navigating Asia Without a GPS

Written by: on September 20, 2018

       “For people to understand, you must speak their language.”  As obvious as this statement is it had me thinking about how we communicate with one another and the obstacles that impede us from saying and understanding what is clearly happening. The one area I found helpful in Judith Graser’s book, Conversational Intelligence, was her list of Blind Spots.

Blind Spots:

#1: An assumption that others see what we see, feel, and think as we do.

#2: Not realizing that fear, trust, and distrust changes how we interpret and talk about reality.

#3: An inability to stand in each other’s shoes when we are fearful or upset. 

#4: We think we remember what others say, when we actually remember what we think about what others say.

#5: The assumption that meaning resides in the speaker, when in fact it resides in the listener.

       In Asia, communication often brings misunderstanding and sometimes shame.  Recognizing those blind spots each of us have brings greater clarity of the baggage we bring from our own traditions as well as help us avoid those mistakes that lead to loss of relationship. My academic paper this semester will be on a Chinese understanding of honor and shame. So when we view this conversation through that lens, it allows us to consider some ways to avoid misinterpretations and confusion. As each of us get ready to step on a plane, I want to share some helpful hints of understanding communication in a Chinese culture.

       First, indirect communication often avoids any loss of “face”.  This is a way to reduce conflict and shame.  If someone is late rather than asking, “Why are you late?”, simply ask, “Are you okay?” When declining an invitation, instead of saying “no”, say something like, “oh thank you, but I have other plans already.” This is also true for business relationships. Taking time to drink tea is as important as talking over a contract.  Recognizing that relational development is more important than time, westerners can not rush conversations with those from an honor-shame culture.

       Second, we need find a way to restore a relationship with actions. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), the father says nothing when the son returns home. He restores the son through clothing and food. The father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.”  This proclaimed restoration far louder than any words ever could.

       In this culture when you offend someone, non-verbal ways to repair the relationship is usually the best way to go. For honor-shame cultures the problem is often loss of face, so reconciliation happens when face is restored. Hosting someone for a nice meal or publicly praising them can be seen as sincere honor and reconciliation. We might have this opportunity if we are taken out to eat and ask to give a toast. Also, when people wrong you, don’t demand a verbal eye-to-eye apology; allow for a indirect apology.

       Third, we should be humble and take on the attitude of a guest. I was in a store shopping with a group of foreigners who were looking to buy some souvenirs.  I remember the clerk was very impatient at the indecisiveness of my friends .  The store was very crowded.  Seeing we were making her angry, I leaned in and whispered in Chinese,  “These foreigners have never been to China before and they are so excited about being here.  Could you take some time to help them decide what special gift they could buy to represent their trip”.  Her attitude changed immediately as she saw herself as helping the foreigners buy something special that represented her country. Finding a way to not be the arrogant outsider goes a long way toward tolerance.

       Fourth, we ought to give and receive well. In a culture of Ying-Yang (Sunshine and Shadow) balance is very important.  Sometimes we feel uncomfortable receiving gifts or letting someone buy our meal but this is a sense of honor. If we do not receive hospitality we are saying that the host has nothing of value to give you. Giving appropriate gifts that show appreciation are important and communicate honor without saying a word. Gifts are the glue that bind relationships together. Whether we are visiting a home or place of business, some simple gift to show we value the place we are visiting is expected.

       Fifth, we need to remember that the words spoken do not always translate well. In Asian cultures personal questions like, “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” “How much did you pay for that?” do not have the same significance as they do in the west.  Age and wealth are important in this culture and so they are honoring you by giving you a moment to brag on yourself.  This might seem overly personal, but they really do not care what your answer is as much as they are wanting to give you honor.

In many Asian cultures the word, “fat” and the word “healthy” are seen as interchangeable.  So a statement like, “You are fat.”, is often meant as a compliment.  When you are in a store and they say, “We have fat sizes.”, try not to be offended. Most of the time they are just telling you that they have sizes that fit the western body frame.e you honor. 

       Being conversationally intelligent and culturally sensitive allow us to recognize our own shortcomings, especially when crossing cultural barriers. In sharing Christ, there are enough obstacles that prompt us to rely on the only one that can truly cross all road blocks. “As we proclaim a God who removes shame and restores honor, we must concretely embody that message in our own actions and lives. People will hardly hear from us what they do not see in us.” May we be, do, and say as Christ would.

1 http://honorshame.com/6-keys-for-relationships-in-honor-shame-cultures-free-resource/. Accessed September 20, 2018

2 Glaser, Judith E. Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Taylor and Francis. p. 63-65.Kindle Edition.

3 http://honorshame.com/6-keys-for-relationships-in-honor-shame-cultures-free-resource/ accessed September 20, 2018

4 http://honorshame.com/5-rude-actually-polite-things-honor-shame-cultures-say/accessed September 20, 2018

5 Georges, Jayson. Ministering in Honor-shame Cultures : Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2016.p.164

About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

6 responses to “Navigating Asia Without a GPS”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg,

    We are all going to need your help in Hong Kong! Your experience with similar cultures is going to be held in high regard. Please stop me from making a total fool of myself, as my conversational sensitively and cultural intelligence are lacking!

    See you soon my Nazarene Brother, close to your back yard!

    The examples you shared in your Blog are so helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great insight, Greg!

    Out of curiosity, what was your greatest struggle when moving to China? In what ways have you been shaped by conversations? You mention that, “Recognizing that relational development is more important than time, westerners cannot rush conversations with those from an honor-shame culture.” I find highly relational cultures difficult because I live in the northeast. New Jersey and New York are highly fast-paced and obsessed with efficiency. Sadly, this has spilled over into the church realm and caused relationships to be more practical and purpose-driven. We create high-level environments and fast-paced ministries, but we miss out on meaningfully connecting with one another.

    I also thought it was interesting how you touched on the idea of conversation being connected to action. You state, “Hosting someone for a nice meal or publicly praising them can be seen as sincere honor and reconciliation.” This expands on Glasser’s portrayal of conversation and presents cultural ways to express gratitude and trust.

  3. M Webb says:

    I appreciate your “blind spots” review. How true for me in many ministry and leadership blunders in the past. In most cases, if the others sense a genuine attempt to speak, share, serve, and help them they tend to quickly forgive and help awkward newcomer. Conversely, if they sense a false, untrusting, and Western arrogance; they know it and feel it immediately and walls to block service and help are erected.
    Thanks for the excellent review of avoiding the loss of face. I am dealing with that with a middle-eastern driver I just hired. Thankfully, I lived in Afghanistan and know the culture, so it helps me to understand the indirect way of training and supervising in this context.
    Greg, I like your post so much I am sharing with JoAnne to prep us both for HK. We have lived abroad and traveled to many cross-cultural locations, but this is a great primer before we arrive. Outstanding post and it bestows great honor upon you and your family.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  4. The next time someone calls me fat I am going to take it as a compliment :-). Great post as always and look forward to hanging out in HK!

  5. Dan Kreiss says:

    Great post on the Glaser text and the need to understand cultural connotations in communication. I appreciate how you presented several different lessons from your current context and how they need to be interpreted for effective communication cross-culturally. Living in a culture completely different from the one in which you were raised has clearly helped you develop both a cultural awareness and a high C-IQ. These will continue to serve you well going forward.

  6. Kyle Chalko says:

    This is very very helpful. I am glad I will be honored for my fat sizes in China. About time!

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