Moving Beyond Cultural Competency

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Cultural competence became a buzzword for trying to address equity issues in the 90s and early 2000s, whether they were looking to improve team dynamics among employees, or training staff how to serve diverse clients. In some fields, particularly in healthcare and law enforcement, this is still a standard approach to topics on "diversity and inclusion."

Cultural competence is the ability of individuals to respond with awareness and respect to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors.

In theory, this sounds wonderful. People should be taught to value the worth of individuals and communities and recognize and celebrate their differences. However, there is an inherent assumption within cultural competency that people and cultures can be boiled down into a memorizable list of values, beliefs, and behaviors. This is problematic, since:

1. Culture is not static. It is constantly evolving just like us.

2. People do not fit in such simple boxes. We have multiple, intersectional aspects of our identity.

3. There are way too many cultural cues to identify and memorize. It would be an overwhelming and impossible task to ask any one individual to know everything about how to approach another specific individual based on their preferred cultural norms.

And then, of course, there's the lingering question of how to assess this as a competency. Even assuming cultural competency were possible, how would you know you are doing it right or improving?

During the decade I spent working with and in refugee and immigrant communities, I was frequently asked for "cheat sheets" by well-meaning providers looking for answers in how to approach unfamiliar communities. They wanted simple, bulleted lists that would outline what they needed to know about specific groups so as not to offend them. I had to patiently and candidly reply that there was no such thing; that no list would ever be complete and that even with some kind of resource like it, it wouldn't work the way they hoped.

Certainly, some degree of anecdotes can be helpful to start dialogue with people about how often we misunderstand one another. For example, I had some success working with police officers and teachers when explaining that in many Somali communities, particularly when being disciplined or scolded, it is customary to lower your eyes to indicate respect and to intentionally not meet the"person of authority's" eyes. This came as a shock to those providers who believed looking away indicated lying or disrespect.

The challenge is that this information is limited in application. Some Somali people might not react that way, people from other communities might. It's not a prescription for a person's behavior or motivation. All it can do is open our minds to the possibility that we might be misreading a situation.

What we need is to fundamentally change how we approach others and the assumptions we make about how to engage with one another.

Moving beyond cultural competence requires cultivating self-awareness of our own biases, assumptions, and beliefs, and staying open-minded and curious about the behaviors of others. This is MUCH harder. It involves retraining our hard-wired brains to pause before making assumptions, and to develop communication skills that invite learning.

Instead of memorizing which cultures remove their shoes at the door of their homes, just remember that some people have customs when entering their home and ask. Ask people what pronouns they prefer, or how they identify. While it may seem cumbersome or socially uncomfortable for you at first, this model of staying open, curious, and engaged with what others are telling you about themselves is the best way to truly avoid offense. It is also important to create an environment in which people feel comfortable and safe approaching you to let you know that something you did offended them. Finding out mistakes and asking for alternatives is the best way to get better!

Where is your learning "edge?" Think about all the many aspects of identities and culture that we want to be conscious and respectful of, and note where your own personal struggles lie.

As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.

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Integrative Inquiry Consulting

Based in Maine, Integrative Inquiry provides HR Management consulting services, from training delivery and design to strategic planning. 


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