Teaching Our Faith — Multicultural communication

This set of teaching editorials focuses on the importance of our understanding of cultural diversity as we seek to carry out the church’s mission of evangelization.

Eva Gonzalez
Eva Gonzalez

As human beings we need one another. Created by God, we are able to enter into communion with others, which is a wonderful reflection of the Holy Trinity in our midst. In belonging to a community, we see that we are a diverse family. Each unique individual is a member of the Body of Christ, which shows the universality of the church.

In communicating, we find that there are times when it is difficult to comprehend those who do not belong to our culture. When we talk about communication, language is often the first concern and certainly language plays an important role. But there are other factors to be considered, such as body language and how people from various cultures respond in certain situations.

How can we communicate appropriately with those around us and make them feel that they are part of the community? A helpful key to effective communication can be found in the book, “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers” (BICM), published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This book explains the differences between members of collectivist and individualist cultures and their varied approach to communication.

In a “predominantly collectivist culture, maintaining the group has priority over the individual’s hopes and desires (10).” Thus the individual is defined by his or her position in the group, family is understood as the extended family, and the culture has a strong sense of hierarchy. Communication styles are less direct, and body language may have different meanings than would be expected by individualist cultures. These types of culture are found in East and South Asian, Latin-American and African societies.

By contrast in the predominantly individualist culture found in the United States “the individual has priority over the group (10).” In this culture, family is generally understood as the immediate or nuclear family, and individuals are expected to be independent. Communication is very direct and communication in groups typically has a task orientation.

So let’s say that you belong to the individualist culture, and you have been invited to a meeting with people of the collectivist culture. Collectivists will greet everyone upon arrival and ask about each other’s families, and the meeting might start some time after the planned time. Perhaps, not all the points of the agenda (if there was one) may be covered. After a while, it is time to end the meeting, but those in attendance continue talking. As a member of the individualist culture, you excuse yourself and leave feeling frustrated because things didn’t go the way you were expecting from your cultural perspective. The agenda was not fulfilled, and the “tasks” you anticipated weren’t completed.

In another scenario, a person from a collectivist culture invited to a predominantly individualist group meeting could feel a similar sense of frustration and confusion. The collectivist may not share his or her opinion unless asked, especially without support from others of hisor her culture. Silence does not always mean consent and can actually signal significant disagreement. Hierarchy is important, and elders or those in authority would not be challenged. Tasks are subordinate to relationships.

Perhaps you have experienced what seemed to be a failure in communication because of cultural differences. “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers” provides “Respectful Communication Guidelines” (18) for bridging the communication divide that can result from differing styles of communication:

  • R: take responsibility for what you say and feel, and speak with words others can hear and understand.
  • E: use empathetic listening, not just words but also feelings being expressed, non-verbal language including silence.
  • S: be sensitive to differences in communication styles.
  • P: ponder on what you hear and hear before you speak.
  • E: examine your own assumptions and perceptions.
  • C: keep confidentiality
  • T: trust the process because we are not here to debate who is right or wrong but to experience true dialogue.

One insight that is helpful: Good communication involves more listening than speaking. In his book “The Wolf Shall Dwell with The Lamb,” Eric Law states that “if the church is to move toward Pentecost in the midst of a multicultural society, it must work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to make the miracle of the tongue and the miracle of the ear happen according to the perception and reality of the power dynamics among different cultural groups in the community (49).” With our growing diversity, we have the opportunity to learn from each other, finding new ways to communicate as the Body of Christ.


Eva Gonzalez is the Director of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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