Seek an Understandingof Culture and How It Works
familiarize participants with the basic concepts that underlie intercultural
competence: concepts of culture; dimensions of interculturality (knowledge,
skills, and attitudes); and different indices for understanding culture
- To develop
the communication skills needed to function in different kinds of cultures
- Define culture and identify ways
in which culture influences communication.
- Understand how cultures differ
beneath the surface and how cultures respond differently to similar situations.
a framework of ideas that can be applied to understanding the major concepts of
This module introduces participants to basic categories used to
facilitate intercultural understanding and communication.
and Intercultural Competence
What Is Culture?
is no agreed upon definition of culture. But we quickly see cultural
differences. A working definition would suggest that culture has three distinct
1. Cultures have ideas and ways of expressing them.
Cultures have beliefs
about God, themselves, and others. Cultures carry values that shape their ways of
living and interacting with others. Cultures have a language that conveys their ideas,
feelings, and ways of living.
2. Cultures have behaviors. Cultures have rules
about what is proper and improper behavior. Roles—for example, within the
family—have distinctive features. They have ways of celebrating and extending
3. Cultures have
material dimensions. Cultures have material, outward signs that
express and reflect their ideas and beliefs. Cultures have their special foods
(what is eaten every day and what is eaten on special occasions). Among other
things, they also have unique modes of dressing and furnishing their homes.
Culture has been likened to an iceberg. Just as an iceberg has
parts above the waterline, a larger, invisible part remains underwater. Culture,
too, has some aspects that are observable and others that can only be
suspected, imagined, or intuited. Also like an iceberg, that part of culture
that is visible (observable) is only a small part of a much larger whole.
Source: Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook.
Some descriptions of culture:
The word "culture" comes from
the Latin verb colere, which means to cultivate
from the ground. Eventually, the expression, cultura animi, the culture of souls, came
to designate the personal formative process of the individual. When the process
of personal formation is understood in intellectual terms, a "cultural person"
is someone who simply knows a lot. However, personal formation is a process
with intellectual, affective, ethical, and practical components. It touches on
everything that is characteristically human. Culture is what shapes the human
being as specifically human.
—The Hispanic Presence in the New Evangelization in the United States
Culture primarily expresses
how people live and perceive the world, one another, and God. Culture is the
set of values by which a people judge, accept, and live what is considered
important within the community.
Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry
Culture is the particular way
in which a human group interprets life and relates with nature, God, the world,
and other peoples. Culture is not accidental, but an integral part of human
life. Culture is lived and expressed through traditions, language,
relationships, food and music, and religious expressions. It embraces the
totality of life of the group and the life of each individual who belongs to
it; therefore, all human beings relate and respond to God and express this
faith from and within their culture.
of Inculturation of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, USCCB, 1994
The word "culture" in its
general sense indicates all those factors by which man refines and unfolds his
manifold spiritual and bodily qualities. It means his effort to bring the world
itself under his control by his knowledge and his labor. It includes the fact
that by improving customs and institutions he renders social life more human
both within the family and the civic community. Finally, it is a feature of
culture that throughout the course of time man expresses, communicates, and
conserves in his works great spiritual experiences and desires, so that these
may be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family.
et Spes, no. 53, "The Proper Development of
Ways People Talk About
There are three major ways people talk
about culture. They are often referred to as classical, modern, and postmodern.
- Classical. Culture in this
sense means the highest artistic products of a people: its poetry, its
literature, its music, and its artwork. In this sense, some people are
"cultured," and others are not. So, if you go to the opera on Saturday night,
some people would say you have culture. If you go bowling, some people may
think you lack culture. Culture has a normative sense here.
- Modern. Culture in this sense means the unity of language, custom, and
territory. Thus, if a people share a common language, have similar customs and
material objects, and live within a defined territory, they represent a
culture. In this sense, everyone has a culture—you are Mexican, Filipino,
African American, etc. Cultures can be seen in smaller units as well: different
regions of Mexico, the Philippines, etc. This is the understanding of culture
that shapes most of our talk about multicultural or intercultural realities.
- Postmodern. Especially in urban settings where
cultures (in the modern sense just discussed) rub up against one another,
people may be speaking their traditional language as well as another language. They
may adapt customs of their neighbors. And they don't have their own defined
territory. The place in which they find themselves is really a forum where
things are borrowed and crafted together to create a way of life. This is what
is known as postmodern culture. It is especially prevalent among second- and
third-generation immigrants and youth.
In Church documents, both classical and modern senses of culture
are used. The late Pope John Paul II, in his visits to many countries, would
give two speeches on culture. The first would be to the "culture-makers":
artists, journalists, and intellectuals. This is an example of the classical
understanding of culture. Then he would give a speech to a beleaguered minority
group, urging them to hold on to their culture. This is an example of the
modern sense of culture.
What Is Intercultural
Intercultural competence is the capacity to communicate, relate,
and work across cultural boundaries. It involves developing capacity in three
Knowledge involves the following:
- Knowledge of more than one
perspective on things
- Knowledge of different interpretations
of the same cultural reality
- Knowledge of general dynamics of
of more than one's first language
Skills entail the following:
- Ability to empathize
- Ability to tolerate ambiguity
to adapt communication and behavior
Attitudes include the following:
- Openness to others and other
- Wanting to learn and engage other
- Understanding intercultural
interaction as a way of life, not a problem to be solved
These areas of knowledge, skills, and attitudes function in two
different ways, depending on whether you are part of the prevailing culture or
come from another culture:
1. If you are a member of the
prevailing culture, you can get along to a great degree with very little
knowledge of other cultures, because members of the prevailing culture expect
those of other cultures to learn to operate in the prevailing culture. For
prevailing-culture people to gain intercultural competence, they may have to
learn to think in cultural categories before they can begin to exercise greater
competency in moving across cultures.
you are a member of a culture other than the prevailing one, you have already
learned a considerable amount about intercultural communication because you
have had to in order to survive in the prevailing culture. You probably already
have a grasp of cultural categories at least implicitly—that is, you know how
to work with them even if you do not have a name for them. You may have
developed what African American philosopher W.E.B. DuBois called a "double
consciousness" (from the chapter "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" in his book The Souls of Black
Folk), meaning you
can think in your own distinctive cultural way, and you have found a way to
negotiate through a prevailing culture that looks down on you as inferior. You also
may carry wounds of being discriminated against, excluded, and treated as less
than you really are.
People in ministry need to be able to understand both of these
of Interacting with Other Cultures
of intercultural communication suggest that there are some basic parameters or
coordinates along which important dimensions of cultural ideas and behaviors
can be plotted. We are going to consider five such parameters here. Each of
these parameters, presented as "a
versus b," should be read like
a spectrum. No culture is exclusively one or the other, though every culture
will tend to be closer to one end of the spectrum than the other.
The information presented here is adapted especially from the work
of Geert Hofstede, a sociologist who studied these dynamics in more than fifty
countries around the world, as reported in his book Culture's Consequences (2001).
Parameter 1: Collectivism
is the most fundamental and important parameter for understanding cultures. It
has to do with how we think about groups as a whole and individuals within
groups—and whether the group or the individual has priority in our thinking,
our values, and our behavior.
predominantly collectivist culture, maintaining the group has priority over the
individual's hopes and desires. The individual is defined by his or her
position in the group: as older or younger, as male or female, as married or
unmarried. The group or the elders may make major life decisions, such as about
a professional occupation or about a marriage partner, for individuals within
the group. Family is understood as the extended family. Maintaining the honor
or the "face" of the group is of paramount importance. Loyalty to the group is
the highest value. Maintaining harmony within the group is a major concern.
predominantly individualist culture, the individual has priority over the
group. The individual is ultimately responsible for his or her life decisions.
The group is, when all is said and done, the sum of the individuals who make up
the group. Family is generally understood as the immediate or nuclear family. Loyalty
to the larger group is contingent on the group's performance and support of the
individual's life. Individuals are expected to be independent and creative, and
they are encouraged to seek self-fulfillment. How the individual stands out
from the group is an important measure of this.
is strongest in Western societies, and it is predominant in about one-third of
the world's cultures. Collectivism is more common in East and South Asian
societies (especially where Confucian values shape the society) as well as in
Latin American and African societies. Collectivism predominates in about
two-thirds of the world's cultures. Collectivism is often stronger in rural settings
than in urban areas because modernization usually promotes more individualist
values. The prevailing culture in the United States is markedly individualist.
Catholic teaching has leaned more toward the collectivist
understanding. For example, most would agree that in Catholic social teaching,
the basic unit of society is the family, not the individual. At the same time,
the dignity of each human person is also a hallmark of Catholic teaching and
Parameter 2: Hierarchy versus
parameter charts how power and status are distributed in a group: whether it is
highly stratified or whether loci of power are diffuse and unclear. In the
literature, this is sometimes called "high power distance versus low power
is unevenly distributed, and inequality is presumed. The more power one has, so
also the higher status. Authority is inherited. Sanctions and rewards are based
on one's social position. Everyone in the society knows his or her place in the
hierarchy. Communication between those who are lower on the power scale and
those who are higher is often indirect in nature or carried out by mediators. Because
so much communication is indirect, such situations are often termed "high
power in the group is diffuse and sometimes hard to locate. Locating power is
often difficult because of the ideal of equality, but there are often unspoken
rules that govern things. Authority is earned. Sanctions and rewards are based
on one's performance. People can gain or lose status. Status is often seen as
something earned rather than as something ascribed because of one's position. Communication
is more direct in this situation. Because communication is more direct, these
are often called "low context cultures."
societies usually exhibit some measure of hierarchy; sometimes they exhibit a considerable
level of hierarchy. Because communication up the hierarchical scale is
indirect, there are many implicit rules to learn for those coming from other
cultures. One of the most difficult for outsiders is learning to read when "yes"
means "yes" and when "yes" means "no": one does not dishonor one's superiors by
saying "no" to them. Egalitarian societies are never completely egalitarian,
but they like to present themselves as such. This can make them hard to read
The Catholic Church has strong hierarchical patterns, which often
lead to clashes in individualist, more egalitarian societies. Thus,
prevailing-culture Americans tend to understand the Church as "People of God"
in a much more egalitarian form than it has been understood elsewhere.
Catholics coming from more hierarchical societies will often be puzzled by the
polarities in the Catholic Church in the United States, where people from a
highly individualist setting challenge rules about hierarchical structures and decision
making in the Church.
Parameter 3: Low Tolerance
of Ambiguity versus High Tolerance of Ambiguity
parameter charts the relative importance of rules and degree of causality (what
needs to be explained and what does not need to be explained) in a society. In
other words, how much ambiguity or uncertainty is allowed in a society? In
intercultural communication, some call this parameter "uncertainty avoidance."
cultures with a low tolerance of ambiguity, every event (especially unfortunate
ones) needs an explanation. For example, if a young person dies in an accident,
God is punishing someone. Rules for behavior are explicit and leave little room
for interpretation or for exceptions. People in such cultures work hard to
avoid any uncertainty in their worldview.
are fewer explicit rules, and those rules can be interpreted in a generous way.
A cause does not need to be assigned to every single thing that happens. People
in such cultures live with a good deal of ambiguity.
communities and small-scale cultures tend to be low-tolerance ones. Catholics,
especially in majority-Catholic countries, typically were low-tolerance, but
that sometimes changes in urban populations. Urbanized populations, which must
deal with a great deal of pluralism, tend to be more highly tolerant of
ambiguity. Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about the "dictatorship of relativism"
are targeted at high-tolerance societies (Joseph Ratzinger, Homily, April 18,
2005). Part of the polarization experienced in the Catholic Church in the United
States is between attitudes of low-tolerance and high-tolerance.
Parameter 4: A Masculine versus
a Feminine Understanding of Gender Roles
Hofstede and other researchers talk about "masculinity" versus "femininity" in
cultures. By this, they mean how relatively clear and distinct gender roles are
intended to be.
roles are distinct and clearly allocated. Men are in charge in the public
sphere, make decisions, and protect women. They are expected to be achievers
and providers for their families. Women are kept in the private or home sphere,
where they care for the children and the elderly. In these cultures, women are expected
to be nurturing.
roles are not clearly defined and tend to overlap. Women and men have an equal
role in the public sphere, and they often share responsibility for the care of
the household and the children. Decisions are made mutually.
modernity and postmodernity emphasize a more "feminine" approach to gender
roles, especially in urban settings. This often clashes with more "masculine"
differentiations in rural settings and more "traditional" cultures. Catholic Church
documents at the level of the Vatican affirm the equal dignity of women and
men, but they tend toward a "masculine" reading of gender roles. The very use
of the term "gender" is considered in some circles as a "radical feminist"
approach. How to read gender roles is a matter of great contention in Church
Parameter 5: Lived-Experience
versus Abstract Time Orientation
is a complex area, covering the meaning of time in different communities, how
it affects interaction, and what values are privileged in differing
understandings of time.
Short-Term Approaches to Time
this approach, time is subjugated to the needs of the community and fostering
relationships in the community. Emphasis is on the past and present. Upholding
traditions and fulfilling social obligations have priority over thinking about
Thus, a meeting never begins in such cultures until everyone has
arrived and each person has had the chance to greet everyone else and inquire
about their families. These past relationships determine the present. Long-term
planning is not a priority. In these cultures, one typically thinks about the
short term and places an emphasis on maintaining human relationships.
Abstract and Long-Term
Approaches to Time
is a value in itself ("time is money"), and social interactions are to be
ordered to its requirements and demands. Meetings focus on the tasks to be
accomplished more than the enhancement of human relationships. While emphasis
is on the present, such cultures especially concentrate on the future. Abstract
ideas and long-term goals are valued, and their achievement is calculated and
calibrated into units of time. Human relationships support these possibilities
but are secondary.
Thus, meetings begin and end within a certain time segment, and
what needs to be done is tailored to fit within that segment. Emphasis is on
the achievement of objectives.