Being culturally competent means having the skillset necessary to communicate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds effectively.
It entails combining knowledge, attitudes, and skills so that you can appreciate cultural attitudes, norms, expectations, and needs. This will allow you to operate proficiently within multiethnic communities.
An example of cultural competence is a doctor who has received training in working with patients from diverse cultural backgrounds.
This doctor would not only have a deep understanding of the medical issues unique to their patients’ culture but also be able to communicate effectively, listen actively, and demonstrate sensitivity towards their patients’ beliefs and values.
In total, a culturally competent practitioner can bridge cultural gaps and reduce misunderstandings between cultures by being aware of, and sensitive to, cultural differences.
Definition of Cultural Competence
Cultural competence refers to the ability to understand and respect the beliefs, customs, norms, and values of people from various backgrounds (Balcazar et al., 2009).
This enables individuals to respect and appreciate the diversity of human experiences and work towards creating inclusive environments that support the needs of diverse populations.
According to Curtis and colleagues (2019),
“Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enable that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations” (p. 3).
We can divide cultural competence into three components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. They are outlined below:
- The cognitive component of cultural competence involves developing knowledge about different cultures’ worldviews, belief systems, history, traditions, practices, and language (Levy, 2019). This includes understanding how culture influences behavior, attitudes towards health care services, education, work, politics, perceptions of time and space, communications or relationships, etc.
- The affective component involves developing empathy for individuals from different cultures by recognizing and respecting their perspectives without imposing our own beliefs (Frawley et al., 2020). This includes having an open mind towards diversity to learn more about others’ perspectives at not only a surface level but also a deeper level.
- The behavioral component involves adapting one’s communication style based on the specific context of interaction, showing interest in what others have to say, being aware of power dynamics between different groups, and so on (Frawley et al., 2020). This includes respecting boundaries within which individuals feel comfortable expressing themselves easily.
Examples of Cultural Competence
- Understanding different communication styles: Cultural competence involves acknowledging and appreciating differences in communication styles across cultures. For example, direct communication is highly valued in low context cultures (namely, the West), whereas indirect communication is preferred in high context cultures (namely, most Asian cultures).
- Embracing diversity: A person who is culturally competent will respect and celebrate diversity and appreciate the richness of different backgrounds and experiences. Rather than seeing diversity as a problem, they will see it as a strength, which will help them to avoid stereotyping or generalizing about other cultures.
- Showing respect for other belief systems: Cultural competence means respecting others’ religious beliefs and spiritual practices, even if they differ from your own. This requires respect for pluralism and the maturity to see past differences in opinions.
- Learning about other languages: To be culturally competent, a person might go about learning about other languages, including their communication styles and styles of expression. Simply demonstrating interest in another person’s language can help bridge divides and demonstrate mutual respect.
- Identifying unconscious biases: Unconscious biases, by definition, are outside of our awareness. But we can work on identifying them through self-reflection. By constantly scanning for these biases, we can decrease our prejudices and discriminatory practices.
- Fostering cross-cultural relationships: Culturally competent individuals seek relationships with people from diverse backgrounds to build understanding and empathy for different cultures. This can broaden horizons and give you the cultural skills to engage across cultural divides.
- Appreciating different eating habits: For instance, culture significantly impacts food preferences, so understanding a person’s dietary requirements based on their cultural background can help provide relevant food options when hosting events or meals together, or coming up with a meal plan for a patient in hospital.
- Understanding social norms from different cultures: These could include understanding and respecting dress codes, ideas related to time management, gender roles, or personal space boundaries. While we don’t have to adopt the norms of other cultures, knowing about them can help us to engage more respectfully with people of diverse cultural backgrounds.
- Humbly listening to different perspectives: Being culturally competent requires that we be open-minded to learning about alternate perspectives and practices. Once we are aware of them, we can humbly learn from them so we can be of better service to our diverse clientele.
- Restructured services based on culture: Offering services that cater specifically to a particular population group is a great example of practicing cultural competence, particularly in diverse societies where members require customized products & services to meet their unique needs.
Components of Cultural Competence
Cultural competence consists of four components: being aware of one’s own cultural worldview, having a positive attitude towards cultural differences, possessing knowledge about various cultural practices and worldviews, and having cross-cultural skills.
Let’s have a closer look:
1. Awareness of One’s Cultural Worldview
This is the first component of cultural competence and involves individuals being conscious and reflective about their cultural values, beliefs, and biases (Balcazar et al., 2009).
In addition, it requires understanding how their upbringing, experiences, and socialization have impacted their perspectives.
Awareness of one’s cultural worldview allows individuals to recognize that other cultures may have different values and beliefs, thereby creating an opportunity for greater understanding and empathy toward others.
2. Attitude Towards Cultural Differences
The second component involves being aware that numerous diverse cultures have different beliefs, social norms, and practices (Balcazar et al., 2009).
Cultural competence fosters attitudes that acknowledge the value of these differences as opportunities to learn from one another.
A positive attitude towards diversity allows culturally competent individuals to embrace different customs while respecting others’ lifestyles and traditions.
3. Knowledge of Different Cultural Practices and Worldviews
The third component involves acquiring knowledge about various cultures’ habits, traditions & ways of life by conducting research or interacting closely with people from those backgrounds (Balcazar et al., 2009).
This includes learning about key aspects such as language, religion, customs & values that differ amongst various communities.
Equipped with this knowledge, individuals possess a broader view helping them communicate more effectively across diverse groups.
4. Cross-Cultural Skills
The fourth component involves applying all three facets to interact effectively across cultures – at work or in daily interactions fostering increased understanding.
This means possessing cross-cultural communication skills that enable clear and effective communication when working with colleagues worldwide or when traveling for leisure or business needs (Balcazar et al., 2009).
Culturally competent individuals possess the ability to interpret body language cues, tone, and empathize through active listening.
These skills give them a valuable advantage in diverse environments, setting them apart and making them desirable candidates for job opportunities that require these abilities.
Importance of Cultural Competence
Cultural competence is increasingly important as our societies are increasingly multicultural and multiethnic. It is integral to ensuring we achieve positive outcomes in workplaces and are of service to members of our communities (Puckett, 2020).
Here are some reasons why cultural competence is essential:
- Improves our communication: Culturally competent individuals are able to communicate more effectively across cultural divides because they have both the requisite skills – knowing to listen and learn from cultural communities – but also the knowledge of cultural diversity from their vast cultural experiences. As a result, they can facilitate open communication that leads to better results.
- Increases diversity awareness: Cultural competency facilitates open-mindedness towards others’ traditions and lifestyles, allowing people from different cultures and ethnicities to exchange ideas about their cultural groups and share ideas, helping to find areas of overlap where collaboration can occur.
- Reduces conflicts: Misunderstandings between individuals from different cultures & backgrounds are quite common. Such misunderstandings can trigger conflicts. Culturally competent individuals avoid inadvertently disrespecting others’ beliefs. This doesn’t mean you have to embrace another’s values as your own, but approach people nonjudgmentally with a desire to be of service to them rather than trying to change them.
- Fosters inclusion and diversity: Creating a work environment that fosters inclusion and diversity can mean there are more voices at the decision-making table who can ensure that products and services better serve diverse communities. Leveraging varied views, skill sets, experiences, and expertise leads to better outcomes.
- Improves relationships: Culturally competent individuals are more able to connect with people from diverse backgrounds. As a result, they are creating positive connections, leading to long-lasting personal or business relationships built on mutual trust.
- Educates future generations: As society diversifies its demographics, next-generation students will need learning environments created around cultural proficiency across all areas promoting acceptance, tolerance & respect, amplifying comprehensive awareness of the value of embracing different cultures.
Tips for Improving Cultural Competence
Improving cultural competence requires a conscious effort. This means it’s an ongoing process that will lead to continual learning over time. It requires a constant open mind when interacting with people from diverse backgrounds with the hope to learn from them constantly.
Some ways in which you can improve your cultural competency as a practitioner include:
- Accepting cultural differences: We can start by accepting that we live in a diverse society and that cultural difference is acceptable within that society.
- Respecting cultures: We can also work on demonstrating respect for other cultures, acknowledging that there is a lot to learn from people of all cultural backgrounds, a every culture has a rich history and tradition bult up from knowledge passed down through generations.
- Open-mindedness: Being open-minded facilitates improved communication with people from diverse backgrounds, increasing cultural competence and empathy.
- Curiosity: A person who is curious about other cultures rather than closed-off to them will learn a lot. Instead of balking at another culture’s practices, or expressing ethnocentric views, we can instead remark about how it’s interesting. This doesn’t mean we have to take on their values, but by being curious about them, we can learn from and about them.
- Active listening: Active listening refers to the practice of being attentive to what someone is saying, and can include using facial expression (including nodding and furrowing a brow) to demonstrate understanding, or asking follow-up questions to gain more clarification. This can help us to more fully understand the views of people of different backgrounds to ourselves.
- Learning different languages: Language is vital to better understanding other cultures apart from English, which acts as a global lingua franca for business. Thus, learning multiple foreign languages can significantly assist in becoming proficient at cross-cultural communication, resulting in improved employability and allowing individuals successful global networking over time.
- Attend cultural events and festivals: These events bring together individuals whose lifestyles and traditions may differ from one’s own, creating a platform for dialogue and a chance to experience various customs. Engaging in such activities aids personal development and nurtures progressive perspectives, fostering unity among different groups. Moreover, it facilitates both personal and professional growth simultaneously.
Cultural competence is a crucial skill in today’s diverse and fast-paced world.
As communities grow increasingly multicultural, the ability to interact effectively with diverse cultures is essential to build relationships and succeed personally and professionally.
Culturally competent individuals possess many skills, including active listening, open-mindedness, empathy, language proficiency & non-verbal communication awareness.
These skills enable individuals to celebrate diversity while avoiding unintentional prejudice or stereotyping, leading to appreciating people’s similarities despite differing backgrounds.
Improving cultural competence requires actively engaging in opportunities for cross-cultural interaction while retaining curiosity around differences and remaining open to alternate perspectives aligned around respect, understanding, and acceptance.
Cultivating cultural competence is a continuous process that requires conscious effort and dedication by individuals seeking personal growth as part of being global citizens marked by inclusivity.
Balcazar, F. E., Suarez-Balcazar, Y., & Taylor-Ritzler, T. (2009). Cultural competence: Development of a conceptual framework. Disability and Rehabilitation, 31(14), 1153–1160. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638280902773752
Curtis, E., Jones, R., Tipene-Leach, D., Walker, C., Loring, B., Paine, S.-J., & Reid, P. (2019). Why cultural safety rather than cultural competency is required to achieve health equity: A literature review and recommended definition. International Journal for Equity in Health, 18(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-019-1082-3
Frawley, J., Nguyen, T., & Sarian, E. (2020). Transforming lives and systems: Cultural competence and the higher education interface. Springer.
Levy, B. S. (2019). Social injustice and public health. Oxford University Press.
Puckett, T. (2020). The importance of developing cultural competence. Innovations in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, 7–22. https://doi.org/10.1108/s2055-364120200000028004