Culturally, Lakalai differ very little from speakers of related branches of Nakanai to the east and from other residents of the West Nakanai Census Division, some of whom (the Bebeli or Banaule) speak a very different language. Prior to World War I, when New Britain was still part of German New Guinea, labor recruiters began to visit the Lakalai region, occasionally "blackbirding," kidnapping men to work on plantations as far away as Samoa. Many young men voluntarily went to work on plantations on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, where European settlements date to the nineteenth century, and returned home with steel tools and other European goods. As the region east of Lakalai became pacified, Tolai traders from the Gazelle Peninsula began visiting Lakalai. Ties with the Tolai, whose language was used by the Methodist mission, are still strong, and initially they helped lay the groundwork for the acceptance of foreign missionaries.
Nevertheless, major social change did not occur until the imposition of Australian rule and the arrival of Christian missionaries (Methodist and Roman Catholic) in the 1920s. Warfare was suppressed and traditional political organization partially replaced by a system of government-appointed Officials. In 1968, local government councils were instituted. The desire for foreign goods such as steel tools, and later the need to pay taxes, led almost all unmarried men to engage in wage labor outside Lakalai. With the establishment of government schools to replace or supplement mission schools, education improved greatly after 1968. By the 1970s, several men had gained degrees at the national universities, but today school fees are an increasing burden for parents. Lakalai is now linked by road to the provincial capital at Kimbe, and the greatly increased contact with outsiders has considerably altered village life. All Lakalai are Christians, the majority Roman Catholic, though many traditional beliefs remain. An antigovernment cargo cult that began in 1941 flourished for decades but was quiescent by the 1980s. Cash earned from markets and cash crops is supplemented by money sent by children working elsewhere, repaying sums spent educating them.