Assimilation Or Transformation?

What can F1’s recent drama teach the Church today

“Competent facework, which lessens the potential for specific actions to be regarded as face-threatening, encompasses a wide variety of communication behaviors. These behaviors may include apologies, excessive politeness, the narration of justifications or excuses, displays of deference and submission, the use of intermediaries or other avoidance strategies, claims of common ground or the intention to act cooperatively, or the use of implication or indirect speech.“ (Lustig and Koester 2013:239)

As a Chinese Canadian, the concept of facework is conditioned into me since childhood. While the phrase: giving face, is not something we often hear in N.American conversations, it is used commonly in the Asian culture through daily interactions. While competent facework is usually easier to exercise within one’s culture, it is much more difficult to navigate in a cross-cultural context.

A recent and on-going drama in the sport of F1 highlighted this specific issue. In 2015, the McLaren F1 team left their longtime engine supplier, Mercedes, for Honda. This was not the first time McLaren had partnered with Honda as they had similar partnership back in the late 80s to early 90s. Many in the sport had viewed this partnership as a renaissance of the dominant and exciting era similar to the time of Ayrton Senna. However such expectation was quickly drown out as Honda failed to keep up with the competitions race after race. Two years had passed and while McLaren had been somewhat patient and mindful of their partner’s “face”, they eventually succumb to their frustration in a recent interview. McLaren’s race director Eric Boullier say “They[Honda] only need one thing, which is to understand and integrate the F1 racing culture,” or as the more provocative headline from wrote, “McLaren accuse Honda of lacking F1 cultural assimilation…again.”(1)

The phrase “cultural assimilation” stood out for me as it’s often used in a negative connotation, but here Boullier and the F1 media is suggesting assimilation into the dominant culture of the sport is a requirement if they were to succeed. While he explained much of the cultural difference is organizationally based: a manufacturer culture vs. a competitive sporting culture, one can certainly see a deeper issue as a result of their ethnic differences. While McLaren has pointed fingers at their partner on multiple occasions, Honda has been quite willing to absorb the criticism and had even restructured their F1 program in a recent announcement. However, this acceptance does not necessarily mean compliance or the acceptance of all the blame. Honda’s willingness to give face to McLaren is purely for the maintenance of the whole partnership. This reflects the collectivism of the Asian culture as they express only the bare minimum of the problem while communicating a generalised solution. A happy face for the collective partnership(2) is Honda’s priority while their European counterpart is happy to express their innocence as to the failure of their team.

Stepping back from this example, a question one may ask is whether there are a place and time for cultural assimilation. F1 being a highly compressed and pressurised environment requires every participants and product to be at its absolute best. Errors and ‘average’ performance not only causes public shame(3) but it can end in catastrophic failure at 200mph. In such an environment is there space and time for intercultural awareness? Is it possible that competitive sports cultures, whether it is participants or fans, are breeding a domineering ideology that can resurface in other areas of public life? Can it happen in our churches and leaderships?

While decision-making process is much slower in a church environment, conflicts from cultural and generational differences are much more pronounced. As leaders from different cultures attempt to create progress toward a predefined vision and mission, it is inevitable that they will challenge each other’s cultural tendency. The Asian North American (ANA) church is a prime example of such challenges with its segregated congregations and leaders. The process of decision making can often become a tug-of-war between cultures rather than the actual issue at hand. We see the differences in how each culture views hierarchy and equality, direct and indirect communications, to pragmatism and logic. When mixed into a bag, the frustration of an ANA church can be quite similar to that of McLaren and Honda.

“If only they operate like us…”

Similarly, those attuned to the western culture, who are more direct and pragmatic, may inadvertently seek to assimilate the others for the sake of efficiency and success. While on the other side of the fence, leaders of Asian congregations may stray toward traditionalism, killing any desire for change while smiling like nothing is wrong. In reflection, it is sobering that none of the above are the primary goals of the church, it is not efficiency or man-made success, nor is it for the flourishing of an ethnic culture. None of the above is bad, but they are certainly not the main thing. The church is not dependent nor is it an example of human ingenuity; it is an example of the grace and mercy, as well as the power of an almighty and loving God in all His mystery, to keep His church efficacious through out the past two millenniums. It is also not for the pride of our own culture, but instead, it is the submission of our culture and traditions under our new identity in Christ and His kingdom. This submission and humility are far from the assimilation our culture produce, but it’s transformative.

In the world of competitive sport and business like an F1 team, mutual submission and cultural awareness are neither desired nor sought after. It is an excess and inefficient. But the church, who arguably have a more critical goal and compressed time than a motorsport team, is here today to attest to the counter-cultural authority of our Lord Jesus Christ who leads His church far beyond the limits of human capacity and performance.

  1. Negative Camber, “McLaren accuse Honda of lacking F1 cultural assimilation…again.”, Online:
  2. Myron W. Lustig and Jolene Koester, Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2013), 238.
  3. The Italians and their media are known to be hugely critical and passionate of their national representative: Ferrari.