Cultural Clashes During Meetings and What to Do about Them

Are you part of a shared (multicultural) parish?  Over the past several months, several posts have explored the modules of Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM), a resource from the USCCB.  As I noted in my last post, we all have our own cultural icebergs.  When parishes and ministries become more culturally diverse, we need intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes to work together successfully.  Module 3 of BICM explores how different cultures communicate, conduct meetings and handle conflict.

What’s the difference?

I quickly learned the differences in meeting styles when I was living in Ecuador.  I was part of the young adult group at the local parish.  I was raised in the prevailing culture in the U.S. where meetings start at the agreed upon time and if you come in late you creep in, make a hand gesture to apologize and quietly try to figure out where the group is on the agenda.  In Ecuador, the meetings did not start until a good portion of the group was there.  Then, every single time a new person arrived, everyone would stop talking, the person would make their way around the entire room, greeting everyone individually (with a kiss on the cheek) and the meeting would continue.  This happened over and over as people continued to trickle in.  After what we learned in Module 2 of BICM we can name the dynamics at work here—a collective culture following explicit rules for social interactions, valuing relationships and harmony.   Although this dynamic is less pronounced with Hispanics living in the U.S., it is still very much present.

If you attend intercultural meetings, you may have run into the same issues that have challenged me when leading our Hispanic Committee meetings at the parish where I have served for many years. As Module 3 of the BICM resource explains, meetings in an individualistic culture tend to be more focused on accomplishing tasks, moving through an agenda and making decisions, often with a vote.  On the other hand, meetings of a collective culture prefer to focus on building or maintaining relationships and working together.   It is important to have a sense of harmony before the meeting begins and not end until it is re-established.  At times I can feel myself very frustrated at the slow pace of our meetings and not getting through the agenda.  But I can also recognize that once the entire group has processed the issue together, everyone has had a chance to talk, and a collective decision is made, then look out!  There is no stopping our Hispanic leaders once they’ve decided on a project.  Everyone comes together, lends a hand, and things that I would have stressed out about how to plan for weeks are done within hours.

How can we come together?

If you have a group of leaders from different cultures that want to have effective meetings, consider taking some time to talk through the five parameters of culture from Module 2.  Many of us don’t realize how much our upbringing shapes the way we do things.  Sometimes we assume everyone else’s iceberg looks like ours underneath.  Just sharing a little about the invisible parts of our icebergs can go a long way to creating understanding and cooperation between people of different cultures.

If your goal is to make a meeting of European Americans more open to a collective culture, here are some ideas:  1) Consider having a social time before the usual meeting time to share some food and talk about each other’s families in order to create a sense of community.  2) During the meeting, when an important discussion point is brought up, invite the elder from the collective culture to address the issue first.  3) Remember, those from a collective culture may need someone else to invite them to give their opinion.  4) Consider the power dynamics in the group and remember that it would be considered disrespectful for many cultures to directly contradict what an elder has said, so pay attention to clues in the conversation that may be more indirect ways of communicating.

A little bit of background work and mindfulness during a meeting can go a long way to successfully working together across cultural differences!

Patti Gutiérrez, Diocese of Owensboro

Patti Gutiérrez has led ministry at the diocesan and parish levels in the Diocese of Owensboro for 13 years. This post is adapted from her blog where she shares resources and practical advice for other intercultural.

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