Cultural Competence Starts with Cultural Humility

One of my favorite quotes by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is from a speech he made at Cornell College in 1962.  He so eloquently stated: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

It is with that sense of curiosity and desire to both learn and connect with others that travel has become one of my lifelong passions.  Whether domestic or abroad, I am intentional about combining exploration with learning about other cultures, local histories, and socio-economic drivers, as well as various perspectives on leadership, politics, and human rights.

reflections on Costa RicaRecently, I took a 2-week trip to Central America, visiting El Salvador and Costa Rica.  My personal reflection on the experience reminds me of discussion points I shared earlier this month in a workshop for the 30 fellows of the 2023 Payne International Development Fellowship.  These points I shared are not just true for me but can be used by anyone seeking to expand their cultural competence.

Cultural Competence Starts with Cultural Humility  

Expanding your personal cultural competence or intelligence will increase your ability to adapt to new cultural settings and thrive in culturally diverse situations.  Before we can expand our understanding of other cultures, we must first eliminate biases that establish your native cultural customs and social institutions as “normal” or “right” and others as “exotic”, “strange”, or any other labels that categorize them outside of your defined norm.

As you explore your own cultural competence, ask yourself a few guiding questions to promote greater self-awareness of your perspectives:

  • What level of personal fulfillment, enjoyment, or benefit do I gain from experiencing cultures dissimilar to my own?
  • Am I confident and comfortable interacting in multicultural situations? If not, what specifically makes me uncomfortable, and how can I mitigate those feelings?
  • Have I done my homework? Prior to interacting with or traveling to locations with cultural customs and social institutions dissimilar to my own, do I take the time to research systems intrinsic to the location I’m visiting? These may include systems related to economic, legal, social interaction, religious beliefs, personal space, and verbal and non-verbal communication.

The Right Mindset

After answering those questions, a few prompts are always helpful to put me in the right state of mind for increasing my personal cultural competence.

  1. Make my mind a clean slate. Maintain an open mind about what I will experience, see, and feel.  Be prepared to be surprised and challenge my past “reality”.
  2. Be curious and interested in learning about other cultures. This requires that I do not try to reshape others’ cultures to fit my need for convenience.
  3. Understand my own cultural history. A strong understanding of how I came to be where I am (geographically, politically, economically, religiously, etc.) provides insight to shared and unshared beliefs and values that I may otherwise disregard or discount.
  4. Challenge stereotypes:  develop an awareness of my own biases towards other cultures and traditions. Try to understand each person based on their own contributions instead of judging him/her from a biased cultural point of view.

My Cultural Competence Journey

In summary, my own journey to cultural competence has required a development of self-awareness and awareness of self in relation to others (always bringing me back to Emotional Intelligence).   My increased cultural competence has had a direct positive impact on my working behaviors, particularly with people with differing backgrounds, and solidified my belief that “Culture Add” is a far greater organizational asset than “Culture Fit”.

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