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Understanding Cultural Differences

When Capuchin Father David Songy arrived in Papua New Guinea as a missionary in 1987, he encountered not just one new culture but hundreds of them.

“Every time you have a new language there, you have a new culture,” said Fr. Songy, a psychologist and the new president of Saint Luke Institute. “There are more than 800 languages there. It’s very diverse.”

Fr. Songy’s missionary experience sparked his interest in cross-cultural psychology. His varied assignments throughout his priestly ministry – from islands in Oceania to classrooms in Italy to seminaries in Colorado – have confirmed for him the essential unity among peoples.

“People have a particular nature created in the image of God that really does cross cultures,” he said. “We’re all sinful but we’re all capable of redemption.”

Human beings and their cultures are not homogenous, however.

“The basic needs of people are consistent across cultures, but the difference is how they’re expressed,” Fr. Songy said. “How do I come to understand how they express themselves in another person?”

His work conducting vocational assessments of international candidates was directed toward answering that question. He learned that the way cultures interpret reality can vary, as when he encountered a candidate who, when asked to draw a person, drew the body, arms and legs as a series of rectangles. It gave him pause, until he saw another candidate from the same region do the same thing.

Cultural differences must be acknowledged and addressed in order for ministry to be successful.

One key distinction among cultures, Fr. Songy observed, is the way relationships work – is the culture patriarchal or matriarchal, how are elders treated, what is the strength of family ties?

Differing approaches to communication can also be stumbling blocks.

Westerners tend to be more comfortable discussing difficult subjects and do not often have the same sense of reserve or deference as those from other countries.

“Many cultures have a much greater need for politeness than typical American or European cultures,” he said.

Ministry to diverse communities involves attention to these cultural differences. A special challenge can be parishes that are home to many different ethnic communities.

“What happens over time usually depends on where the demographics go,” Fr. Songy said.

It is important for pastors to promote unity among their parishioners, but also to do so without glossing over or minimizing the differences that make each community unique.

“Americans have a need for everyone to do everything together,” Fr. Songy said. “I’d rather approach this from a more basically Christian perspective: We’re in the same communion of saints, each with particular gifts.”