Intercultural Community living: Graces and challenges
We are living in a global village where, unlike other times, people of various cultures, live in close contact with one another and share the richness of each culture. On the other hand, fears and anxieties about the people from other cultures and ethnic groups who live in close proximity create situations of conflict and war that take the toll of many lives each day.
Religious congregations are also seriously affected by the changes in the world and more and more religious communities are becoming intercultural in its make up. International congregations were blessed to be multicultural when the evangelizing work of European missionaries found response in attracting native vocations from the other continents. We,Claretians, too were on the vanguard of evangelization among the people of various cultures. Initially the founder’s cultural milieu had a dominating influence on the congregation in terms of language, spiritual traditions and customs. With Vatican II, the different cultures began to be affirmed and the congregation took pride in being multicultural. The present global context and the vocational dearth in the traditional cradles of missionary vocations have given rise to an ever increasing number of intercultural communities where missionaries from different cultures share life and mission together. In this paper we shall see normal dynamics of intercultural encounters and the blessings that the intercultural communities bring into the communities and their mission.
Encountering other cultures: initial struggles
When a missionary or a student is assigned to another cultural context for missionary service or study, he has to undergo certain necessary process of transition in himself. His missionary zeal and vocational convictions alone will not suffice, though they are very important in living his mission meaningfully. There are cases of excellent young missionaries who were eager to go on a universal mission, but had to return disillusioned after a short time. There is an inevitable process of death and birth as one is called to leave one’s own familiar milieu and move into a new land for missioning. When this process is owned up and accompanied, intercultural encounters and intercultural community living become a joyful journey into the mystery of God’s abundant love for humanity. When a person steps in to a new culture for a longer stay, he goes through a “culture shock” which involves the agony and ecstasy of dying to the old and being born into a new.
The immediate effect of the exposure to a new culture, especially when it is the first time, is termed as “cultural shock”. Cultural shock refers to the anxiety and feelings felt when people begin to live in a different and unknown or foreign cultural and social environment. The usual feelings are of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty and confusion. These feelings arise out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture and knowing what is appropriate and what is not. One may experience a dislike or even disgust (moral or aesthetical) with certain aspects of the new culture.
Stages of cultural shock
We can observe certain stages in this process of intercultural encounter, though not everyone passes through these phases.
- Honeymoon phase- Curiosity and wonder may be the predominant feelings. Differences are seen in a romantic light as wonderful and new. The individual may love new foods, people’s habits, dress, buildings, facilities etc. He may compare everything in terms of what he familiar with and assess the value of things in terms of the currency of his country. One will have many culture “surprises” to share with family and friends.
- Negotiation phase- As the phase of curiosity and newness wanes and things become more familiar (usually after a few weeks), the difference between the old and the new become apparent. What is familiar and habitual does not fit in, and the new is not yet integrated. He begins to feel anxiety and loneliness. He may feel nostalgia for his own native food, his friends and family. He may begin to feel the pace of life too fast or slow, people’s habits annoying, disgusting or irritating. Community members are perceived more in terms of the stereotypes of their culture and nationality. He may relieve anxiety by seeking to be closer to those who have affinity to his native culture (between Asians, Africans, Latinos etc.). He may frantically try to connect with friends via internet, frequent phone calls or become moody, sad and withdrawn. Mild symptoms of depression is not uncommon. There can be strong desire to return to his native land at the earliest.
- Adjustment phase– With time, usually 6-12 months, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. He learns what is appropriate and expected way of behavior in most situations in the new environment and the host culture is no longer all that new. Things become more “normal”. One feels at home in the community and perceive community members in terms of their individual characteristics.
Different people adjust differently in the new culture. Some find it almost impossible to accept and assimilate the foreign culture. They isolate themselves from the host culture which is negatively perceived and create a ghetto in which one finds some comfort (always listening to native music, watching native videos and maintaining close contact only with people of same culture). These rejecters find difficult when they get back to home culture after return.
Some people integrate fully and take on all the aspects of the new culture and easily enter into the new missionary ethos. They may adopt the customs and even costume of the new culture.
Some integrate those aspects of the host culture which they see as positive, while keeping some of their own creating their unique blend.
4.Reverse culture shock. (re-entry shock). Returning to one’s home culture after getting accustomed to a new one may produce the same effects of a culture shock. It can be surprising and more difficult to deal with. What was once familiar is seen in a new and broader horizon. Unfamiliarity with the cultural changes happened in the meantime could be surprising. Seeing the changed social conditions and many Unfamiliar faces, one may feel oneself a stranger in one’s home culture.
Symptoms of culture shock
Culture shock is not a dramatic event which makes itself evident to the one who is going through it. It comes on gradually and leaves the same way. Some symptoms could be as follows:
– heightened homesickness, Preoccupation with returning home
– Unwarranted criticism and devaluation of the culture and people
– Irritability, mood swings, isolation, prolonged silence
– Constant complaints about the climate
– Continual offering of excuses for staying indoors, isolation from others in the community, excessive drinking
– Concern and constant complaints about food and water
– Resistance to learn the language
– Too frequent contact with past friends and family over phone or internet.
– Excessive use of internet.
Apart from culture shock there can be milder forms of reactions which one can have in a foreign culture.
Culture “irritation”: This manifests itself in terms of “item irritation” and is linked to a few behaviours observed in the host culture to which the person reacts strongly. These may include spitting, hygene, public displays of affection/drunkenness, verbal abuse etc., or overt behaviours to which the individual has a strong negative response. In an intercultural community this can be felt towards certain behavours of the intercultural brothers.
Culture “fatigue” This is a common feeling of mental and physical exhaustion due to “stimulus overload”. One has to accommodate and assimilate a lot of new things in a short time and this leads to fatigue. A clear example is “language fatigue” experienced by a person who has to learn and use a second language constantly. He may become physically and psychologically drained by speaking, listening, and finding meaning in the new language being learnt.
Dealing with culture shock
– Self-awareness: Acceptance of the natural stages of inserting oneself into a new unfamiliar environment and integrating the new culture into one’s life.
– Cultural awareness: Familiarizing the new environment by learning about the history and culture of the people.
– Vocational awareness: Tapping on religious convictions such as the fraternity of all peoples, Charismatic family (Cmf) as one’s own family, Conscious affirmation of one’s calling and the willingness to endure to the very end.
– Missionary zeal: Love for the people and the mission. Acceptance of the host culture and its people as one’s own.
– Cultivation of cultural intelligence and competence: communication skills, relational skills, language.
Intercultural community: Blessings
One of the comments that I have often heard from people who live in intercultural communities is that they have grown a lot in spite of moments of difficulties and misunderstandings. The communities where differences are perceived positively, there are many blessings:
- Witness of God as the father of us all
The Christian conviction about God as the Father of all is affirmed through the living testimony of people of different cultures forming a family.
- Intercultural Community a model of communal harmony
An intercultural community is a prophetic sign of harmony and communion in the context of a world wounded by ethnic conflicts, and communal wars.
- Learn broader perspectives about reality
The presence of members from various cultures contribute to personal growth by challenging the limited world vision of a single culture and opens up to broader perspectives in one’s life
- Better Self- knowledge and personal growth.
Contact with people of others cultures sheds light on one’s own unquestioned beliefs and prejudices and enhances greater self-awareness. People who have been in another culture with a positive outlook seem to achieve greater personal growth and refinement as humans.
- Cultural confrontation and mutual learning.
Exposure to other cultures lead to healthy confrontation among cultures that sheds light on each culture’s limitations and idiosyncrasies mutually benefit from the best of one another.
- Apostolic effectiveness
An intercultural community has richer resources and more paradigms to address various pastoral needs. It is all the more relevant for a multicultural society.
Intercultural community: Challenges
In the communities where differences are perceived as a threat, there are various defensive dynamics that drain its vitality and enthusiasm for mission
- Prejudices and stereotypes
Preconceived ideas and evaluations regarding a group (country, ethnic or national, region etc.) that affect the perception of a person from that group. We tend to categorize people into gender, age, and ethnic groups. Once categorized, a person is assumed to have the category’s attributes. (eg. “Indians are …..; Nigerians are …..”)
- Cultural domination
In an intercultural group the predominant group (persons from economically/numerically/socially favorable groups) tend to consider themselves superior and impose their group norms as normative for everyone.
One who suffers from low self-esteem may easily perceive discrimination and ill-treatment from others even when there are no objective evidences for it. He may tend to play the “victim” role in relation to those perceived as belonging to a “superior” culture. One may even provoke in others what he expects of others or read such behaviours in neutral situations.
- Cultural shield
In intercultural communities members may defend their self interests using cultural differences as a shield. The rationalization of the deviant behavior is either by defending oneself in the name of culture (“in our culture we are doing like this”) or attacking the other for his difference of culture (“you Spanish fool, you donot understand us”)
- Minority discount
In an intercultural context, a member from a minority group tend to enjoy privileges and attention which the majority group may not be granted. Some mistakes done by the minority member may be easily absolved by the authorities. Eg. Superiors tend to allow some margin for minority member in the approval for professions than for the members of majority group.
- Majority cultural insensitivity
The predominant group in an intercultural community tend to indulge in conversations in vernacular language and practice their customs without any sensitivity to others. This can affect the fraternal climate of the community.
The above mentioned immature tendencies can snowball into group tensions. Generally inter group tensions in religious communities do not explode into group fight and violence. People may resort to withdrawal into oneself, departure from community, or passive aggression.
Dealing with the challenges of intercultural communities
The above immature forms of community relationships prevent growth, and drain our creative energy. Paradoxically, struggles of the community are also moments or grace that provides opportunities of growth and improved relationships. Avoiding difficulties and refusing to address issues may give a temporary sense of well- being, but in the long run it will only promote individualism and “groupism” among the missionaries . Here are some principles to promote group cohesion in intercultural communities:
- Priority of vocational values over cultural values: Our community Is formed by our charism and mission that unites us into a family. The members are not representatives to any cultural group or a country. Hence vocational values should guide the course of the community.
- Clarity between cultural relativism and moral relativism. Cultural relativism is a positive attitude that respects and appreciates each culture and its differences. Moral relativism is not an acceptable attitude. Objective moral principles are applicable to cultural norms and practices. (eg. Human sacrifice is wrong and unacceptable even though it had religious sanction in some cultures). Vocational values and our constitutional norms have priority over particular customs of individual members of the community. Gospel values are non negotiable in a confrontation with cultural values.
- Model of Incarnation. Our presence in culture is because we are sent there to proclaim the Good News to the people there. In an intercultural claretian community, customs, language and practices of the host culture should have priority over that of the culture of individual members.
- Cultural enrichment: Creating opportunities for knowing and appreciating the culture of the members is important in an intercultural community. Cultural feasts and presentations are helpful for getting to know the others in perspective. Often ignorance of the other breeds misunderstanding and communication failures.
- Problem management. When relational problems arise between two persons, it is to be handled as personal issues rather than as cultural issues. Generalization of the mistake of a person as that of those who belong to his culture is to miss the individual nature and responsibility of the event.
- Conflict management. Conflicts and tensions are natural for any group. In a formation community they offer opportunities to learn about conflicts and healthy ways of dealing with them. In an intercultural community conflicts may assume cultural nuances and can create added complications. Healthy ways of managing community conflicts address the core issues of differences and refuse to be communalized .
We are at an opportune time to create a congregational culture which goes beyond merely tolerating cultural differences of our brothers, but rather tapping them to celebrate our charism and mission at the service of life. It is a noble task of all especially those who constitute intercultural communities at the moment.
-Mathew Vattamattam cmf
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