I’ve always been fascinated with people and cultures. To be honest, it's likely why I became a social worker. I'm especially interested in human behavior as it relates to culture. What makes people of other cultures think or act differently than I do? Why do they hold specific beliefs? What makes their culture unique?
Developing cultural sensitivity was a key part of my social work training and education. I can tell you from personal experience that being aware of and sensitive to other cultures has significantly impacted many areas of my life, not just my social work practice. My travel experiences, in particular, have been enriched by my understanding of cultural differences. The goal of this post is to share with you a few ways that you can improve your cultural sensitivity. But first, let's define the term.
PsychologyDictionary.org defines cultural sensitivity as "consciousness and understanding of the morals, standards, and principles of a specific culture, society, ethnic group or race, joined by a motivation to acclimate one's actions with such." Being culturally sensitive takes practice, but the skills can be learned.
Becoming more aware of and sensitive to cultures, including your own, is an important skill to learn, especially for travelers. The good news is you don't have to go to social work school to learn to be more culturally sensitive. As a traveler, you are exposed to cultures in a very real and raw way. You may not always feel comfortable with what you see or experience in a foreign country. You may find that the cultural norms in a foreign country may be very different than what you are used to seeing and doing. Lack of cultural sensitivity can also make you, the traveler, vulnerable.
A great place to start improving your cultural sensitivity is by developing a better understanding of your own culture, in particular your culture's constructs. Cultural constructs are a society's values and beliefs about how people should think or act based on their gender, race, ethnicity or religion. These beliefs are typically shared and regarded as true by the people of that culture. Understanding your own culture's views is a critical part of being more culturally sensitive.
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As you can tell, your view of other cultures can be heavily influenced by many things: your society, your peers, your family and your own beliefs. Your personal experiences and your society's cultural constructs help to create your unique world view. Think of your world view as a filter or lens through which you see the world. This filter helps you interpret information exchanged when interacting with other cultures. When your filter is clouded with preconceived judgments or criticisms about another person's culture there is potential for trouble.
Misunderstandings or poor insight with regard to culture can lead to trouble in cultural interactions. For example, prejudices can lead to snap judgments about a particular culture, race, gender or religion. People are sometimes falsely labeled others as dangerous, threatening, uneducated, or arrogant simply because they belong to a particular group or culture. We, too, can be falsely labeled by locals when traveling. Understanding the role that prejudice and stereotypes can play is another important part of developing cultural sensitivity.
So, by now I hope you are asking yourself "how can we learn to be more culturally sensitive?" I'm glad you asked! I've a handy list of tips that I believe can help anyone begin to broaden their understanding of other cultures without even leaving home!
So, how can we improve our cultural sensitivity?
The truth of the matter is, no matter where you live, you are exposed to other cultures. We now live in a global society. Want proof? Turn on your TV or log into the Internet. You can easily find videos, websites or programming created by or for people who are different than you. Exposing yourself to cultures is easy. It requires only that you are mindful about and paying attention to your surroundings. Look around for unfamiliar sights, listen to the languages around you, or follow your nose toward that unusual smell.
Being curious doesn’t mean you have to sell everything and become a backpacker. You can start small by trying a foreign food you’ve never had at a local restaurant. Movies are another great way to explore culture in a safe and controlled setting. A truly great foreign film can open your eyes to the social constructs of another country or ethnic group. I’ve learned a lot about the impact of culture on relationships and human behavior simply by watching foreign films and documentaries. Here are a few of my recommendations:
I learned a lot about culture while pursuing my social work degree simply by reading. Reading about other cultures and religions helped to broaden my own world view long before I traveled abroad. Learning about the cultural practices and beliefs of other cultures has directly impacted my work and my travel. That knowledge has helped me connect with other people, sometimes without even using words.
Understanding, for example, the importance of eye contact, touch and hand gestures can make or break an early relationship with someone. We show respect by observing the cultural practices of others, so knowing what not to do is crucial. There are many ways to show respect when exploring other cultures. Learning more about the cultural norms, hand gestures, tipping practices, and rules of personal contact can help you be a better traveler.
Now, I don’t expect all of you to rush out and enroll in a social work class! There are plenty of books and websites worth reading that can improve your cultural sensitivity. Culturosity is a great example of one of those resources.
To wonder is a marvelous thing. To be curious about something can inspire creativity, pleasure and growth. I foster my curiosity by traveling and by working with diverse populations. I always find myself asking others about their own views of culture or about their own cultural practices. Asking simple questions in a respectful way helps encourage discussion. You never know what you might learn just by asking a simple question. Asking respectful questions can also help foster a meaningful connection between you and that person. One way I like to do this is to ask “can you help me understand why (insert cultural practice here) is important to you or your culture?” By asking in a non-threatening manner you create an opportunity for that person to share something personal and meaningful with you.
Of course, traveling and experiencing another culture first hand is ideal. But, let’s face it, many people don’t have the money to travel internationally on a regular basis. Look for cultural experiences around you: restaurants, cultural centers, religious sites, festivals, etc. Explore your city or local region’s neighborhoods. Maybe there are pockets of culture you’re not even aware of yet. Ask questions next time you go to your favorite ethnic food restaurant. “Is this how this dish is traditionally served in your country,” may be a great way to show the restauranteur or server that you are interested in an authentic experience. Who knows, maybe there’s a secret menu!
Knowing more about your own culture and how it differs from those around you is the most important part of developing cultural sensitivity. You can’t expect to truly understand someone else until you know yourself. Being aware of your own personal preferences, habits and biases can help you prepare for exploring other cultures.
The concepts you create about other people, whether they be individuals or groups, can also be very influential. We've all made assumptions about someone based solely on their ethnicity, culture, language, style of dress, or mannerisms. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to how you feel and what you think next time you are in a crowded space, say the subway in NYC for example. No matter how hard you try or how culturally-sensitive you are, we all have preconceived ideas about others. What we learn from and how we act upon those ideas is the difference between someone who culturally sensitive and someone who is not.
Just like cultural-sensitivity, self-awareness takes practice. A great place to start your practice is to answer a simple question: what makes you and your culture unique?
I’m particularly fascinated with how others perceive my own culture. What do others believe about Louisiana and the people from there? Does everyone from Louisiana know how to cook? Do they all speak Cajun French? Do they all eat alligator and go to Mardi Gras?
Just for fun I though I'd spend some time exploring my interpretation of my own culture. I encourage you to do the same!
What makes my culture unique?
- Louisianans and Louisiana culture are both famous for being fun-loving. We love to laugh, joke and have fun. Humor is very important, even at our own expense. And having a good time usually means parties, parades and festivals.
- Most of us are very family-oriented. Most people live and die within a few miles of their entire family. Family is paramount and comes first.
- Most Louisianans are very protective and loving people. Threaten someone we care about and you've got a problem.
- We appreciate delicate, intricate flavors and understand that patience is needed to make a pot of something good happen.
- We tend to be resilient people as evidenced by our ability to withstand poverty and adversity, as well as bad weather from time to time.
- We are tenacious, sometimes to a fault. We cling to history and don’t often embrace change.
- We are flavorful and colorful people. We are passionate and usually do things whole-heartedly, especially when it comes to food.
- We value authenticity in our friends, our food and our music.
I’d love to hear from you about your own culture? What were your answers to this question? How do you practice cultural sensitivity? Has cultural understanding (or lack thereof) ever impacted your travels? How do you prepare for your travels to other countries?
Share your thoughts below and get the discussion going!
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