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Crossing Cultures and Building Bridges with the MBTI®

Published in Typeface, the Journal of the British Association of Psychological Type, in 2003


In the winter 2002 edition of Typeface, Jennifer Ginger wrote about her experiences of using the MBTI® in multicultural settings.1 She suggested that there are at least two possible approaches: using the formal structured assessment on a one-to-one basis, but with an awareness of language differences and cultural filters; or an informal, more generic application of the MBTI® concepts to multicultural groups without using the instrument itself, in order to avoid highlighting differences when the aim is to build bonds. Similarly, Tim and Anne Marsden have experienced the benefits of using the concepts without the indicator in multicultural groups.2

I would like to take this discussion a little further. Firstly, I think that highlighting differences is not necessarily a bad thing - being able to articulate and discuss crosscultural differences in behaviour can break down barriers and open the way for building bridges. For example, while living in Egypt I worked with a group of Americans and Egyptians at Cairo American College to identify and deal with some of the cross cultural issues which were impacting upon their effectiveness. This open discussion of the behaviours that each culture found difficult about the other, enabled the participants to change some of these behaviours to accommodate different cultural norms. The importance of relationships in Egyptian culture was reflected in their politeness and courtesy. The Egyptian staff found the Americans rude and abrupt –taking a little time to say “good morning” was appreciated. Similarly, different cultural attitudes to time led to misunderstandings. The Americans often felt frustrated by what they perceived as slow response times and a lack of a sense of urgency.
Greater understanding of different cultural attitudes to time helped the Americans to appreciate that this behaviour was not wilful laziness but something more deeply rooted and with positive effects too.

Secondly, one of the benefits of using the MBTI® with multicultural groups is that it can help to build bonds between people as individuals and avoid stereotypes. Knowledge of type enables them to see that many of the similarities and differences between people are not due to culture but are at a deeper level of individual functioning. In my own experience of using the MBTI® with people from other cultures (eg Egyptian, Malaysian, Dutch, Peruvian, French, German, American, British), I have not found that preferences vary in line with culture, (although these were small samples). While responses to specific questions may be based on culture, I am not convinced that the results as a whole are influenced more by culture than by innate preference. There is enough variety in the indicators for the culturally specific ones to be outweighed by others.

Thirdly, I think that there is a danger in confusing culture and type. Culture is a socially learned group concept consisting of values and assumptions, which are expressed in behaviour, language and artefacts. Psychological type is an innate individual concept to do with internal mental processes. It may be expressed in behaviour just as culture may be expressed in behaviour, but the theory suggests that it is not learnt from others in the way that culture is. The confusion arises because both culture and type can be indicated by behaviour.

Ideally, we need different versions of the Indicator for different cultures. Failing this, when using the MBTI® with other cultures, more time spent on finding the best fit can help to prevent cultural influences from masking individual preferences.

This leaves me with a couple of questions:

(1) Has anyone worked on identifying the questions in the MBTI® which are most
problematic for particular cultures? (The only one I know of is the pairing of
foundation and spire).

(2) Has anyone come up with examples of behaviour that relate to the expression
of particular preferences within other cultures? If you have any ideas on these,
please get in touch with me or with Typeface, so that we can share best

1 Ginger J. MBTI® in multicultural environments. TypeFace, 13(4), 22-23.
2 Marsden T, Marsden A. Myers Briggs® in Africa. TypeFace, 14(2), 13-14.