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Mentoring Across Individualist and Collectivist Cultures

Mentoring Across Individualist and Collectivist Cultures November 24, 2020

Mentoring is a major aspect of ministry and missionary labor. In Christian parlance, people often refer to mentoring as “discipling” someone. For those who work cross-culturally, the fact that mentoring is a part of one’s ministry is so obvious and needed that we might tend to overlook certain complicating factors involved with mentoring across cultures.

Good mentoring is a deeply personal, relational intensive practice. At least, it can be or should be in the context of the church. A mentor and protégé is a distinct type of relationship. Numerous unwritten rules guide each person through the mentoring process. These “rules” or principles, however, are not static across cultures. In fact, they can differ so drastically that we might bring irreparable harm to our relationships if we assume more than we ought.

Therefore, this post considers what mentoring looks like in individualist and collectivist cultures. To do so, I will draw from Sunny Hong’s excellent 2012 article, “Cross-Cultural Mentoring: A Brief Comparison of Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures,” found in William Carey International Development Journal, a journal that does not get the attention it deserves.

Assumptions We Make About Mentoring

A few basic assumptions set the trajectory for how we pursue mentoring relationships. For example, Hong notes two ways in which we often conceive of a person’s identity.

Whereas “In an individualistic culture an independent person with clear boundaries is praised as a responsible person[,…] collectivistic culture sees personhood in a dyadic relationship, which means a person exists and has meaning only in relation to the other person” (4).

How we see ourselves, others, and where we draw our identity boundaries will determine what we judge to be acceptable in mentor-protégé relationships. Such perceptions dictate who has what responsibilities and rights. In Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, for example, I tell the story of two Americans, James and Sunny, who

…were fortunate to find someone to care for their one-year-old daughter, Grace. After moving to China, they needed to learn Mandarin. Their helper (“Ayi”) watched Grace while the couple attended class at a university. Grace and Ayi bonded immediately. Ayi treated the little girl like her own child. A year later, James and Sunny found Ayi and Grace at their normal meeting spot after class. Unfortunately, they didn’t recognize their child. Feeling Grace’s hairstyle did not fit the weather, Ayi had chopped off the girl’s long golden hair.

Being Americans, James and Sunny were aghast at Ayi’s audacity. In America, not even grandparents typically assume the right to cut a child’s hair to such an extreme. (pp 37-38)

Ayi saw herself not as an “outsider” but as a family insider who had the moral obligation and right to do whatever she thought best on behalf of Grace.

In cross-cultural mentoring relationships, similar miscommunications can undermine close relationships. A Western mentor, growing up in an individualist culture, might be too hands-off such that the person from a collectivist culture feels uncared for. Likewise, a Westerner serving in South Asia may feel a local mentor, an Indian pastor with a collectivist mindset, is being pushy or intrusive because his friend asks probing questions or gives certain advice unsolicited.

Collaboration or Command? Compartmentalized or Comprehensive?

Hong also underscores a subtle but important difference in how mentor relationships are perceived in individualist versus collectivist contexts. For individualists, a mentor and protégé have a collaborative relationship in which they pursue defined goals within a specific sphere of life.

By contrast, people from collectivist cultures are likely to expect far more from a mentor, who offers wisdom and care over a broader range of matters, both professionally and personally. Their concern is more comprehensive. Hierarchy is a mark of an ordered society, so collectivist mentors and proteges expect the latter to be more directive in their leadership.

As one would expect, the comprehensive nature of their relationship has strengths and weaknesses. In collectivist cultures, mentoring relationships are susceptible to various miscommunications and abuses. On the other hand, mentorees (protégés) from individualist cultures are prone to underestimate their needs and ignore the wisdom offered to them.

(My goal here is not to advocate for a collectivist over an individualist view of mentoring. I simply want to spur us to consider the implications for our ministry.)

A “Both – And” Relationship

For successful mentoring, we do well to draw from the best of both cultural perspectives. In each case, the mentor and protégé find opportunity and danger. Hong says,

Where those involved in mentoring relationships are from the same or a similar culture there are fewer misunderstandings and differing expectations due to corresponding perspectives, assumptions, concepts, and worldviews. In a mentoring relationship, similarity and shared experiences provide an easier interpersonal relationship between a mentor and a protégé and it is therefore usually easier to have a mentoring relationship with someone from the same or similar culture. But to have successful cross-cultural mentoring relationship, cultural differences behind mentoring issues need to be understood.

For those who are in cross-cultural mentoring relationships, the process of communicating differences in culture and expectations is an ongoing one.

After reading Hong’s article, reflect on times when you have enjoyed (or perhaps suffered through) such relationships. What went well and why? What cultural misexpectations undermined its fruitfulness?


Photo Credit: Creative Commons License

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