by Msgr. Robert L. Stern
Forty years ago, Francis Cardinal Spellman, then Archbishop of New York, responded to the great influx of Puerto Ricans into his diocese. He made a radical decision to send half of his newly ordained priests to Puerto Rico for the summer, to prepare them better for ministry at home.
They studied conversational Spanish all day for eight weeks. Weekends, they were sent to help out in parishes and practice what they had learned.
The most important lessons they learned were about the nature of culture and cultural differences.
Every culture has it own customs, rules, and sense of what is right and wrong. The challenge for these young priests was not only to speak the Spanish language, but also to be sensitive to the cultural differences between Americans and Puerto Ricans.
They had to learn how to communicate, in the fullest sense of the word, across the barrier of cultural difference. Only to speak the language was not enough.
For example, heres a typical scene in a city like New York:
The teacher, Mrs. Jones, may be reprimanding little Juan. Did you do it?, she says. Look me in the eye and tell me the truth. Juan hangs his head and looks at the ground. Aha, thinks Mrs. Jones, hes guilty for sure.
Not at all! For Juan, to look a superior in the eyes is disrespectful. Proper behavior for him is to look down to the ground out of respect for the teacher.
You may speak the persons language very well, but if you dont know the nuances of his or her culture, you may well misunderstand what is being said or done.
Perhaps inadequate intercultural communication has a lot to do with the stymied peace process in the Holy band.
For example, when speaking with a Palestinian Arab it is important to show respect as he understands it. In the Arab culture, a polite person speaks with elaborate courtesy and indirection. Although there is a word for no in Arabic, no is usually communicated by how weakly one says yes.
Ordinary greetings are very expressive. An Arab man normally greets another Arab man by embracing him and kissing him on both cheeks. A recent photo of Yasser Arafat embracing a Hamas leader doesnt mean friendship or endorsement of his position. Its mere politeness it doesnt mean anything more than a handshake does for many people in the West.
Israeli Jews are usually far more informal than Arabs. Those who come from Europe and North America are used to speaking very bluntly and openly. To speak strongly and sometimes aggressively is normal for them for one speaker to interrupt another is not considered bad form or necessarily impolite.
Often what is esteemed in one culture e.g., blunt speech is offensive in another.
In Israel and Palestine, there are many people who are bilingual, speaking both Hebrew and Arabic. Unfortunately, they may be using the right words, but really not communicating at all.
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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA