Module 3

Develop Intercultural Communication Skills in Pastoral Settings


  • To introduce participants to how groups from collectivist and individualist perspectives see themselves and how they view groups constituted differently from themselves
  • To indicate how these different perceptions affect meetings where groups from different perspectives need to interact
  • To outline some of the cultural features that play into intergroup conflict and how these features might be addressed


  • Develop practical knowledge about intercultural communications in pastoral settings.
  • Increase awareness of how to communicate effectively with persons and groups in cultures other than one's own.
  • Use modes of communication that are proper to the culture being addressed.
  • Lead, discuss, and make decisions using culturally appropriate processes with intercultural groups.
  • Apply basic skills in conflict resolution.

This module takes the material that has been learned in the previous modules and applies it to determine how to work with groups of differing cultures in ministry situations. The module begins by considering how groups look at themselves, and it then examines how groups interact, meet, and make decisions.

The second half of the module introduces participants to the intricacies of dealing with conflict in settings where the differences fall along cultural lines.

How groups see themselves and how they interact with other groups has two particularly important dimensions: (1) whether one's group is more collectivist or individualist in nature and (2) what happens when a predominantly collectivist group and a predominantly individualist group have to interact with one another.

The Face of Groups



Face is the public image of a group, or how a group wants others—individuals or groups—to see it. This involves two projects: (1) presenting our face in the way we want others to perceive and interact with us and (2) doing what we need to do within our own group to support that face.



Recall that collectivist cultures often have a stronger sense of hierarchy or high-power distance. Communication is often more indirect ("high context"). Authority and status tend to be inherited. Sanctions and rewards are based on one's social position in the group.

Individualist cultures, on the other hand, are typically more egalitarian and low-power distance. Communication tends to be more direct ("low context"). Authority is to be earned rather than inherited. Sanctions and rewards are based on individual performance rather than social position.

Whether a culture is more collectivist or individualist affects how it regards and maintains its face. In other words, a collectivist or individualist orientation influences how a culture behaves to present itself to others and how it maintains itself.

The Content of Face

Stella Ting-Toomey, one of the foremost researchers in this field, has analyzed how face works in "The Matrix of Face: An Updated Face-Negotiation Theory." According to Ting-Toomey, there are three predominant values that shape the face of a group and are particularly important:

  • Autonomy. My group is self-sufficient and does not need to be tutored or guided by other groups. We do not want to be treated as dependent children.
  • Morality. My group is likeable, reliable, approachable, and deserves to be included in activities and events. We live by certain values that are good and important.
  • Competence. My group has resources, achievements, and prized values. These need to be acknowledged and respected by other groups.

In an individualist culture, these three contents of face apply especially to individuals. In a more collectivist culture, they stand out in a particular way for the entire group.

Communication Styles Based on Face Management

As has already been noted, collectivism and hierarchy often correlate in cultures. With that correlation comes a "high context" way of living. In face management, that translates into more indirect modes of verbal communication and a greater use of body language to express feelings and ideas.

In more individualist cultures, because of the likelihood of emphasizing equality and favoring a "low context" way of living, more direct communication tends to prevail, and body language does not play a significant role.

For example, people coming from individualist cultures often have difficulty understanding when "yes" means "yes" and when "yes" means "no" in collectivist cultures. In collectivist cultures, to say "no" to someone of superior rank—especially in face-to-face situations—dishonors them. Thus, people from individualist cultures need to learn the more subtle cues that indicate whether "yes" means "yes" or whether "yes" means "no."

The use of silence is another form of communication that typically means something different in individualist and collectivist cultures. In individualist cultures, silence is the absence of communication or, alternatively, implicit agreement with what is being said ("silence means consent"). In collectivist cultures, silence can be a powerful mode of communication. It can mean agreement, but it also can mean profound disagreement. (See the discussion of avoidance below.) People in collectivist cultures who have been oppressed by individualist cultures will sometimes test the sincerity of their individualist counterparts. For example, in Native American cultures historically oppressed by Europeans, Native Americans tend to notice how well Europeans are able to remain silent without interrupting Native Americans who are speaking.

Body language is also an important form of communication. In individualist cultures, children being scolded are typically expected to maintain eye contact with their elders as a way of showing respect and sincerity. In many collectivist cultures, however, the exact opposite is expected: the child being scolded is expected to look down and avoid eye contact with their elders.

Another cultural variable is how close or how far away one stands from the person one is speaking with. Proximity can mean either intimacy or seriousness of intention. Distance can mean either respect or disinterest.

The same differentials hold for body contact and modes of greeting. Rules may be different for men and for women within a culture, and how one greets a person of the opposite sex differs among cultures.

Finally, expressions of emotion vary from culture to culture. Giggling may be a sign of agreement or solidarity (especially around something that is perceived as humorous) in individualist cultures, but it is frequently a sign of nervousness in collectivist cultures. Likewise, practices such as weeping in public may have different meanings across cultures.

Conducting Meetings with Differing Cultures

Meetings are part of parish and school life. What some people are not aware of is how much culture can shape meeting and decision-making styles. What follows here contrasts styles of individualist/equality/low context/long-term time orientation with styles of collectivist/hierarchy/high context/short-term time orientation. These are, of course, exaggerations or ideal types. However, by using them to create a rather stark contrast, one can get a better feel for the distinctive styles that affect meetings and decision making.

Individualist Styles of Meeting and Decision Making

Individualist cultures that work out of a sense of equality and concern for the long term are typically more task-oriented when it comes to meetings. Meetings are called for a purpose, and a clear agenda is established ahead of time. Meetings begin and end at prescribed times. If the work of the meeting is finished early, so much the better; people have the advantage of getting away sooner than had been expected.

There are clear rules for how to proceed in a meeting. (People often follow Robert's Rules of Order.) It is the task of the person moderating the meeting to keep participants on task and following the rules. To allow more people to speak, sometimes a stipulated time length for any remarks is established at the outset of the meeting.

Everyone is encouraged to speak to the issue within the timeframe allotted. There may be a procedure for determining when there has been enough debate. Ultimately, a vote is taken, with the majority (or other plurality) determining the outcome.

Collectivist Styles of Meeting and Decision Making

Collectivist cultures that work out of hierarchy and demonstrate greater concern for the short term tend to prize the maintenance of good relationships among the participants over the completion of the task. Settling a task too quickly can damage relationships for future meetings. While a time for beginning and ending the meeting may be established ahead of time, the meeting cannot start until everyone has had a chance to greet everyone else and inquire about their families, their health, and the like. When a sense of harmony is in place, the meeting can get under way. Meetings are preferably not ended until harmony is again re-established. This may require some eating and drinking together.

The use of Robert's Rules of Order is considered a rather rude way of conducting business because they do not adequately honor a group's face. Rather, when an item of business is introduced, the elders of the respective groups must each first address the issue before it can be opened up for debate. This somewhat formal way of addressing the issue establishes the face of the group in terms of autonomy, morality, and competence. Moreover, setting time limits on elders' speaking damages face. The task of the moderator of the meeting is to assure that the face of the various groups is honored before proceeding with debate.

In debate, individuals will speak, but rarely will a member of a group (especially if young) contradict directly anything the elder has said. If a contrary point is to be made, it must be done in a way that reinforces what the elder has said even as a slightly different point is made. Elders must be given a chance to respond and affirm what a member has said so as to show that what appears to be a contrary idea really is not so. In some instances, younger members of the group are expected not to speak at all.

If the moderator wants individuals to ask questions, it is best done by letting the groups gather to discuss the matter among themselves and then letting each group appoint a spokesperson who will present the questions to the larger group. Individuals often will not feel free to speak independently of the group.

When it comes to making a decision, groups will gather with their elders to determine how they will vote. Then the voting can take place. Often, the most important aspect of the decision is that the group is united in presenting its vote.

Respectful Communication and Mutual Invitation

To facilitate sharing and discussion in a diverse group, Eric Law introduced guidelines for respectful communication as well as a mutual invitation process model in the early 1990s in The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community.The processes he outlines promote true dialogue when diverse groups encounter one another around a meeting or discussion table. The concept of invitation empowers a person because it is a way of giving power away. Accepting an invitation is a way to claim power. In this way, invitation becomes a spiritual discipline for intercultural relationships.

Leadership and Response to Complex Issues

Beyond procedures, how groups believe leadership should be exercised and the ways in which groups think complex questions should be addressed also may fall along these individualist and collectivist lines.

In individualist settings, leadership is often seen as enabling individuals to bring their talents to bear on issues the community is facing. People will be respected as good leaders if they can demonstrate competence (by citing their training and education) and show their skills in bringing people together to carry out necessary tasks.

In facing complex issues, a good leader is someone who can break down an issue into discrete tasks and develop a timetable for meeting them. Skills in planning and setting goals and objectives are especially prized.

In collectivist cultures, leaders may be chosen based on their rank and status within the community. In such cultures, leadership is more about trustworthiness than specific skills. People will be respected as good leaders if they come from a family that has shown a capacity to keep a community together and promote harmonious relationships. In facing complex tasks, the leader who brings the community along and keeps the community together is more important than a detailed plan. Plans may be articulated, but their purpose is often more to impress outsiders with the competence of the group than to provide a detailed guide of how to get to the desired end.


Clearly, both meeting and leadership styles have advantages. If one starts from a task orientation, as individualist cultures often do, satisfaction arises from getting the task accomplished. If one begins with a relationship orientation, as collectivist cultures often do, satisfaction arises from maintaining good relationships with everyone.

Both styles also have disadvantages. A task-oriented approach can trample on the feelings of some of the participants. A relationship-oriented approach can go on and on and never complete what needs to be done.

Dealing with Conflicts in the Community

Conflicts are a natural part of human interaction. Conflict is not always an entirely negative experience; sometimes very constructive things can come from resolving a conflict. The following information shows how culture influences the way we deal with conflict. Again, the individualist-collectivist typology will be used.

The perspectives of self and other are important in examining conflicts: What do I see myself trying to do in the conflict? What do I see the other as trying to do? It is also helpful here to refer back to the discussion of face from the previous session. Individualist cultures are concerned principally about individual face over the face of the group. Collectivist cultures are more concerned with the face of the group than individual face.

Individualist Approaches to Conflict

Following the previous discussion about meetings, individualist approaches will often frame conflict in terms of the issues at stake, although relationships may be heavily involved. The concern in conflict is to resolve the issue. The mode of communication is typically a direct one rather than an indirect one. Individualist approaches may rely on a strategy of dominating the other in order to win. In some circumstances, these approaches will adopt a policy of compromise, with the intention of later returning to the conflict when conditions are more favorable for winning.

Collectivist Approaches to Conflict

Collectivist approaches may frame the conflict in terms of issues, but relationships—especially regarding group face—are always key in the strategies involved. The concern in the conflict is to maintain good group face. Because hierarchical patterns of organization are in place, the preferred mode of communication is indirect rather than direct. There is a tendency to choose strategies of avoidance rather than risk loss of face. If avoidance is not possible, obliging the other party will be an alternative. The conflict is then not resolved but allowed to continue, albeit implicitly and indirectly, so that it makes resolved relationships difficult to achieve. By refusing to re-engage the conflict, a dispute may go on into the next generation.

According to Ting-Toomey and her colleagues, a range of behaviors (verbal or nonverbal) are employed in conflict situations to defuse, aggravate, repair damaged image, restore face loss, or heal broken relationships. These behaviors are referred to as facework. A dominating facework can include defensive and aggressive behaviors like yelling, credentialing, and a competitive one-up/one-down strategy that push for a group's own position or objective above and beyond the other group's position or interest. Avoiding facework emphasizes the preservation of relationship and harmony, and it uses the following strategies: making excuses, not directly confronting conflict, avoiding contact with the other group, obliging or giving in to the other group, pretending to gloss over the conflict, and seeking the help of an intermediary or third party. Integrating facework addresses both the issue resolution and the preservation of relationship and harmony. Some strategies that promote mutual face-saving are remaining calm, mindful listening, apologizing, compromising, intentional reframing, practicing collaborative dialogue, and problem solving.


Bringing a community together where individualist and collectivist approaches are in play at the same time can be difficult. Because conflict can involve both issues and relationships, there is a likelihood that strategies will veer back and forth between these two foci.

In addition, contextual issues can be at stake as well. Sometimes in immigrant and minority communities, church settings may be the only places where a group's autonomy and competence face has a chance of being respected. What is happening to the immigrant or minority group outside the church circle in everyday life will constantly invade disputes within the church. This is most evident where two groups are struggling for control in the same parish—be it over Mass schedules, use of space, or whose saints and Madonnas will be honored. Hence, keeping external context, issues, and relationships in mind is an important component of successful conflict resolution.


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Gudykunst, William B. (Ed.). Theorizing about Intercultural Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.

Law, Eric H. F. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community.St. Louis, MO:Chalice Press, 1993.

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