Cultural Awareness & Sensitivity

Every person has a culture – the many customs and beliefs that shape our perspectives and create a lens through which we see others. We are our own experts in the cultural experiences that influence our lives. Yet, when we try to communicate with people from other cultures, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are doing so in an effective and appropriate manner. It is impossible to become an expert in every culture. Even so, we can become more culturally aware, understand our own cultural influences, and respect and value the differences of other individuals and groups.

Think beyond race and ethnicity. Opportunities to expand our cultural understanding exist everywhere, especially when we consider culture beyond its association with ethnicity. Culture is central to our identity and, as such, may be seen or unseen by others. Culture is shaped by personal experiences that may include: ethnic and racial identity; religion; age; educational level; body size; heritage and family tradition; physical and cognitive abilities; sexual orientation; gender identity; and geographic and socioeconomic experiences.

Think outside your own box. We are influenced by our own values, beliefs, biases and life experiences. We need to carefully consider how our perspectives affect our understanding of other cultures and avoid making assumptions about others based on our own experiences. Becoming culturally aware starts with recognizing the limitations of our own cultural knowledge.

Experience culture. Consider experiential ways that you can learn about other cultures and endeavor to participate in activities that may not be familiar to you. When possible, take part in social, community and educational activities like viewing films, reading books, or attending festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, art exhibits, workshops and lectures.

Use language that evokes images of people actively engaged in life when working with people with disabilities. Avoid phrases that suggest helplessness or tragedy. For example, say “Bob uses a wheelchair” instead of “Bob is in a wheelchair.”

Listen carefully. Hearing is not necessarily listening. Our own perceptions, biases and expectations sometimes make it difficult to really listen to and comprehend both overt and covert messages. Be mindful to focus on and identify the information being conveyed.

Learn by asking. People feel respected when others are genuinely interested in learning about their views and perspectives. Consider incorporating questions into conversations that demonstrate your desire to learn more about others’ cultural experiences. Use simple or open-ended questions that encourage dialogue, such as: “What do you think?” “How can I be of assistance to you?” “What information is important for me to know about you and your culture?” “If I was a member of your community, how would I most likely react to/cope with this situation?”

Avoid insensitive comments. In group contexts, individuals sometimes make insensitive and hurtful comments about others (e.g., jokes, slurs, etc.). Do not reinforce this behavior. If you are comfortable doing so, make known your discomfort with what has been said and ask that no more insensitive comments be made.

Tune in to non-verbal behaviors. Sometimes, behaviors can provide more details about how someone is reacting to a situation than what they may be comfortable saying. It is important to recognize welcoming behaviors as well as those that may be defensive so that you can adjust your approach accordingly. Similarly, be aware of your own body language. Does standing while others are sitting demonstrate authority, or aggressiveness?

Expand your comfort zone. It is likely that there will be individuals or cultural groups with whom you do not have experience working. Acknowledge this challenge and make an effort to learn as much as possible about the individual or group so that you can build your confidence and bolster your outreach. Ask questions to make it clear that you want to learn more and to ensure that you’re delivering information in a way that is useful.

Make local connections. What community-based organizations and venues are respected and trusted by those with whom you work Organizations like social clubs, advocacy groups, religious institutions, civic groups, unions, colleges and universities can help you deliver your messages in a forum that is relevant to your audience. In some cases, you may want to partner with leaders from these organizations to help you communicate even more effectively.

Honor flexibility in people’s self-identification. We may make assumptions about people’s cultural identity while they may have an entirely different perception of themselves. Listen for information about self-perception. For example, do they consider themselves as having a spouse or a life partner? People may identify with a particular aspect of their diversity at different times.