How to Develop Cultural Competence and Why It’s Important: 4 Steps to Building Cultural Competence

Relationships with your friends, your family, your work colleagues, and your community play a big part in what makes you human. Often, it’s these connections that bring us joy and fulfillment in our life. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, the people we interact with in some of these areas are more and more likely to be from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. Forming strong relationships with people who are very different from you can take practice, but it’s practice worth doing. That’s where cultural competency comes into play.

Cultural Competence

Why You Should Care About Cultural Competence

Cultural competency means the ability to understand and interact with people respectfully from different cultures than us. It’s a skill that’s becoming increasingly essential to have as populations diversify around the world and we’re exposed to more people who aren’t very similar to us. Many employers, in fact, are calling this a key skill to have in the 21st century.

Being culturally competent can help you be aware of your own biases and avoid misunderstandings or hurt feelings with the people you work with or interact with personally. After all, something that’s a sign of good will in one culture could be considered rude in another. With understanding of both cultures, you’ll be able to navigate these situations without causing harm or feeling insulted.

Remember that we all have biases due to our cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Being culturally competent means being aware of our biases and how they play a role in our daily interactions. It means doing the work to reduce them as much as possible. Studies show that bias not only hurts the recipient, but also the person who holds the bias: interacting with someone you hold a bias against causes an increase in stress hormones throughout your body. It’s in your best interest to acknowledge and reduce your biases as much as possible through learning cultural competency.

4 Steps to Becoming Culturally Competent

Becoming culturally competent requires you to better understand your own culture and be willing and open to learning about others. Let’s walk through four steps that will help you build cultural competence:

1. Learn About Your Culture and Biases

Many of the biases we hold are unconscious, meaning we’re not aware we have them. But that’s not an excuse to be biased; instead, it’s an opportunity to try to identify the biases we have and make an effort to minimize them if we can. Start by learning about your own culture. Examine the way your culture operates: is it more individualistic or collectivist? Is openness the norm or privacy? And what are your beliefs and values? Are these rooted in the culture you’re part of? Etcetera.

Completing this type of self-assessment helps you learn how big of a role your culture plays in shaping your opinions and prejudices. It also helps you recognize that the people who are very different from you also have their own biases that are shaped by their culture, and that in itself makes you similar. Once you’re able to recognize what your biases are, you can approach interactions with others with more open mindedness and quickly realize when these biases are affecting your judgment of a person.

2. Actively Listen

Active listening is a useful tool for practicing cultural competency. Seek out conversations with people who come from very different backgrounds than you in your community or work life. When you do speak with them, try to keep an open mind by approaching the conversation without judgment and with a positive attitude. Ask questions and listen carefully to their answers without interruption and without making attempts to persuade them toward your point of view. It may help to consider not so much the content of what they’re saying, but rather the intent behind it.

3. Show Interest Through Participation

The best way to learn more about another culture is by actively participating in it. Try a foreign recipe, attend a cultural festival, or take part in a friend’s family tradition if invited. Remember not to overstep here: you don’t want to appropriate a culture, but rather show appreciation for it. Here’s a helpful article explaining the distinction between these two concepts. When in doubt, ask for permission to participate in elements of another culture and make sure you’re using these elements the way that culture intends.

4. Seek Out Cultural Knowledge

In the information age that we’re in, it’s fairly easy for most people to access information about other cultures. Take time to learn about other cultures’ practices and values. It would be impossible to learn about all cultures of course, so just focus on those that you interact with in your personal or work life. Read academic articles or journals about that culture and watch videos posted by people from that culture.

If you have a new neighbor who recently immigrated from another country, for instance, do a little research on cultural norms in that country. This will help you better understand any future interactions with them if they operate outside of what you find typical for your community.

Finally, consider attending diversity training. If you don’t have any in-person options, look into virtual training; there are likely inexpensive or even free programs available for you to take part in.

If we all practiced cultural competence, imagine how much more welcoming our communities would be. This skill should be considered essential for all of us to learn as the world grows increasingly diverse, and we continue to be exposed to a greater variety of people. Cultural competence is a must-have for 2021 and beyond.

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