Module 2

Seek an Understanding of Culture and How It Works


  • To 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.
  • Create a framework of ideas that can be applied to understanding the major concepts of intercultural communication.

This module introduces participants to basic categories used to facilitate intercultural understanding and communication.

Culture and Intercultural Competence

What Is Culture?

There is no agreed upon definition of culture. But we quickly see cultural differences. A working definition would suggest that culture has three distinct dimensions:

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 hospitality.

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.

—National 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.

—Principles 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.

—Gaudium et Spes, no. 53, "The Proper Development of Culture"

Ways People Talk About Culture

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 Competence?

Intercultural competence is the capacity to communicate, relate, and work across cultural boundaries. It involves developing capacity in three areas: knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

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 intercultural communication
  • Knowledge of more than one's first language

Skills entail the following:

  • Ability to empathize
  • Ability to tolerate ambiguity
  • Ability to adapt communication and behavior

Attitudes include the following:

  • Openness to others and other cultures
  • Wanting to learn and engage other cultures
  • Understanding intercultural interaction as a way of life, not a problem to be solved
  • Mindfulness

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.

2.  If 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 intercultural reactions.

Parameters of Interacting with Other Cultures

Students 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 versus Individualism

This 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.


In a 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.


In a 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.

Further Reflections

Individualism 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 thought.

Parameter 2: Hierarchy versus Equality

This 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 distance."


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 context cultures."


The 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."

Further Reflections

Collectivist 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 for outsiders.

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

This 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."

Low Tolerance

In 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.

High Tolerance

There 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.

Further Reflections

Rural 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

Geert 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.

"Masculine" Cultures

Gender 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.

"Feminine" Cultures

Gender 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.

Further Reflections

Western 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 settings.

Parameter 5: Lived-Experience versus Abstract Time Orientation

This 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.

Lived-Experience and Short-Term Approaches to Time

In 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 the future.

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

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.