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

When Yes Means No

Written by: on January 31, 2019

Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map is like Ralphie’s secret decoder pin in The Christmas Story because when you know how to decode multicultural messages you can learn how to live and lead better in cross-cultural contexts. I hope to leverage Meyer’s cultural how-to-field-guide and see if I can adapt some of her ideas and apply them to my thesis topic of spiritual warfare. This post will survey time, truth, and travel in the context of improving global ministry leadership practices.

We are all chasing time it seems and I knew I would like Meyer’s book after scanning Chapter 8- How Late is Late?[1] I was raised in a linear time-based home environment and you can imagine the internal stress I experienced on my first cross-cultural mission trip into sub-Saharan Africa. I found out what my indigenous workers thought about time when I accidently scheduled an all-hands meeting during what they called their “morning-tea time,” because no one showed up! With a little help from my Care Ministry manager and lots of practice I adapted and reset my internal clock, or at least my Western assumptions and expectations about people and time. In Botswana, when someone really meant they were coming at a certain time they would say something like, “I am coming now, now.”[2] If they say “I am coming just now” that could mean anytime in the next few hours, but if they say “now, now” they mean they are coming directly from where they are to where you are. Yes, they really think and talk like that while taking a very flexible approach to time. When I went to church in Botswana the worship music would start on time. However, over the next hour congregants would leisurely arrive into the ongoing church service until sermon was over and the last song was sung. We noticed that most of the social interactions at church in Botswana began after the preaching was over and then the fellowship began.

Truth to a Westerner is not the same as truth to many other cultures. Being dishonest is associated with loosing or maintaining face, but more complex. The Chinese call is “mianzi” and it is a Confucian concept of avoiding public shame by saving face.[3] Meyer’s admits that saving face is more important than stating the truth and I have encountered this in marketplace business dealings last year when working on a large aviation build job in the Middle East. It was amazing how much un-truth we encountered with major international contractors who would “tell you what you want to hear” to save face, but they were not able to deliver on any of their timelines or due dates. It required many more meetings, face-to-face negotiations, and line-by-line logistical and blueprint reviews. I discovered that you cannot challenge them or accuse them of lying because that is just the way they do business. In other words, they expect the Westerner to just know they will say yes and promise results and it is “our” job to ensure they do their job. So instead of asking if they can meet a certain deadline, it was more effective to conduct regular progress updates and personally inspect the work being done to ensure accountability. These are examples of what Meyer’s calls Task-based versus Relationship-based relativity.[4]

Traveling many times to and from my marketplace ministries in South America, Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East has taught me valuable lessons on how to adapt and function in various cross-cultural contexts. Simple gestures, handshakes, head nods, and verbal greetings go a long way to being tolerated and sometimes accepted in multicultural settings. The hardest part for me to overcome was viewing other cultures through my own Western bias and set of cultural assumptions. Like Meyer’s says, using the wrong lens can lead to misjudging the culture and promote ineffective relationships and failure to meet your objectives when traveling and doing business and mission in cross-cultural environments.[5]  For example, asking something of someone three times is the normal way to communicate in high-context cultures like Japan, India, China, and Afghanistan. When we lived in Afghanistan we would ask our “chowkidar” (watchman) if they wanted to share some leftover food from our meal. It is culturally assumed that he will say “no” to the first two invitations to share food. However, if he really wants the food and you ask the third time, then the transfer can appropriately occur, and honor and courtesy has been maintained. It is just not proper to ask once nor accept on the first ask in many cultures.

I like the culture map scales, provided by Meyer, for more than 20 countries along a range that allows me to predict cultural preferences depending on the country I am going to visit.[6] Penny notes that wearing a suit in certain countries are like “social indicators can either garner respect or erode influence.”[7] While serving in Botswana I always had to wear a suit coat when meeting in remote “bush” areas when meeting tribal chiefs and elders. Even though they lived in mud huts with thatched roofs, the chiefs and elders always wore a suit coat to formal meetings. As an outside guest it was expected of me to wear a suit coat also to preserve the shared power position with their leaders in front of the tribe at large. I expect much of this tradition comes from their Colonial backgrounds.

In a Crush interview on Meyer I found some insights into my contractor truthfulness challenges when dealing with the aviation build job referenced above. Meyer says, “Yes can mean everything from what we consider to be ‘yes,’ to I’m listening to you (it’s not yet happening).”[8] When taken in that context, I can see how some cultures can look you right in the eye and say “yes” in their culture but mean “no” in my culture. I also discovered that Turkish workers are more relationship-based than my US task-based profile on Meyer’s trust scale.[9]

In summary, this is a great marketplace ministry tool. While I think Livermore’s Leading with Cultural Intelligence is more useful to the ministry leader[10] I give Meyer’s a thumbs up as a good resource guide to help interpret and decode how different cultures influence “day-to-day collaboration.”[11] I compared how Meyer’s work influences time, truth, and travel and believe that there is much in her book that can help the LGP global leader. I believe I can use some of her eight cultural scale behaviors to decrease pushback and improve communication on the topic of spiritual warfare.

Stand firm,

M. Webb

[1] Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016) 219.
[2] Ibid., 224.
[3] Ibid., 198.
[4] Ibid., 20.
[5] Ibid., 12.
[6] “Erin Meyer: The Culture Map.” Kirkus Reviews, 2014, Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2014.
[7] Karen Penney. “The Culture Map: Erin Meyer.” Director 69, no. 4 (2015): 20.
[8] Peter Crush. “We Think the French Are Lazy, but They Work Harder than Brits.” People Management, 2014, 31.
[9] Meyer, Culture Map, 171.
[10] David Livermore. Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success. (New York: AMACOM, 2009) 92.
[11] Erin Meyer. “Navigating the Cultural Minefield.” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 5 (2014): 119-23.


About the Author


6 responses to “When Yes Means No”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    I love this awareness you have regarding time and your experience in Botswana was delightful to read. I am writing from outside Nairobi and enjoying Africa time (perhaps more “kairos” than “chronos” oriented) on the red earth. I wonder if we are at our weakest and most vulnerable to spiritual attack when we are rushed and lacking of rest and sleep and reflection. This is an important subject!

  2. Jay Forseth says:


    I cannot imagine asking someone if they want to eat THREE times. Then I remembered Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. For the first time, I wondered if that Scripture had more of a cultural context than I thought!

    I cannot imagine how many cultural mishaps you have witnessed in your international marketplace ministries. Are we truly “ugly Americans?” Or just plain stupid Americans?

    I found this information about your church missions program on your church web site:


    I read with interest the six missionaries your church supports, and I hope they supported you and your wife on the mission field…

  3. Great introduction, Mike!

    A Christmas Story is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can picture the scene and apply it right away to Meyer’s text. It’s interesting how each culture has their own decoder pin, so to speak. They interpret the situation and then explain their findings with the audience. However, even though we all seek to interpret our findings, we soon realize that our decoders differ from one another – we see that our perception is colored by our culture and presented distinctly through our customs.

    Your thesis is based so much on understanding truth and discerning evil. How do you balance cultural relevancy without entering into theological relativity? I’m sure you’ve become much more globalized and aware than the average pastor because of your travels. How can we encourage pastors to see cultures as engaging people, instead of mission-oriented projects?

  4. Hello Mike,

    I loved learning about the cultural sensitivity you had to cultivate through your travels and time living abroad. It’s amazing that something as simple as wearing a suit jacket will change how one is treated and the leadership one can therefore exercise in a different culture. It often doesn’t take much effort on our part to adjust, it’s just being attentive to these cultural cues.

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    I bet you have learned plenty through you time abroad. I noticed on Meyer’s website you can order a breakdown of any countries culture in relation to another. Might come in handy. I really appreciate your insight through this program.


  6. Jean Ollis says:

    As always, your perspective is wise and relevant. Thank you for sharing so many examples (and I found them fascinating). While I haven’t interfaced much with individuals from the Middle East, I’m definitely familiar with the Asian culture. My experiences pertained to trying to “parent” Asian teens who lived in our home two different years (one from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan). While I’m comfortable being a straight forward, assertive communicator parent they were not. “Is your homework done” “YES” (it was not)… “Did you talk to your teacher about the project?” Yes – had not. I could go on and on. I learned the hard way that my parenting style was not going to work for these brilliant young ladies and when I figured out how to be assertive without confrontation, we improved. The school, however, never caught on so it was a long two years! Have you tried to educate certain cultures on spiritual warfare in a way that shut people down to hearing it? If so, what changes have you made to your approach?

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