By David Lewellen
Cultural competence is basically impossible, but cultural humility can be entertaining and enlightening.
At last weekend’s NACC retreat, Executive Director Erica Cohen Moore and board member Antonina Olszewski presented a lively workshop on intercultural communication styles. The dominant white American style, called “low-context,” could be described as individual, linear, and outcome-oriented. “High-context” cultures are communal, circular, and relation-oriented. Time is measured precisely in the former, vaguely in the latter. And, the presenters emphasized, neither one is wrong or right – but chaplains need to be aware of which one they’re in at any given moment.
Antonina, the vice president of spiritual care for Ascension’s Wisconsin region, said that she is Latina and Irish by background (or “Catholic and more Catholic”), and both cultures are flexible about time. When she worked in Austria, five minutes early to a meeting was considered late, and if she followed her cultural norm of arriving at a party two hours after the stated time, she would find it was already breaking up.
She added that her cultural background is to tell stories, and she made her points with many. Healthcare workers in her northern Wisconsin hospitals deal with many Native American patients, for whom not making eye contact is a sign of respect. But that can lead to frustration when white doctors or nurses try to give instructions. “If doctors turn their body away slightly, or tell the family that they’re going to look down at their notes, you’d be amazed at how much everyone’s body language changes,” she said.
Another common cultural misunderstanding is the norm that Black families grieve loudly, which sometimes makes white staffers feel uncomfortable or threatened. It’s important to train staffs as a whole to recognize that unconscious bias, Antonina said – but chaplains are already trained in de-escalation, and it can be their role to step in. One easy solution, she said, is to offer the family a conference room to grieve in.
Erica asked participants to come to the front of the room and sort themselves into lower- or higher-context cultures. But, the leaders pointed out, most people will act differently in different situations.
“There’s no way to do it all,” Erica said – no one can learn every nuance for the hundreds of cultures present in the United States. That is why the phrase “cultural humility” has replaced “cultural competency.” And if you don’t understand something, Antonina advised, “ask questions graciously.”