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What Is Cultural Competence? And Why Is It Important?

Relationships are a powerful part of who we are.

They can help make us feel like we belong, like we have something to contribute to this world.

They can strengthen us. They give us reason to affect change and, more importantly, to be changed.

But it’s often difficult to connect with people when we don’t understand their background.

How do we learn to interact respectfully and knowledgeably with all the people in our lives who exist outside our inner circle—people whose culture and worldview is so far removed from our own? How do we use our differences to strengthen our bond as humans?

To love anyway we must become culturally competent.

What Is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is the ability to understand and interact effectively with people from other cultures.

To have multicultural competence, you need:

  • A basic understanding of your own culture. (It’s difficult to understand another’s culture if you aren’t familiar with your own.)
  • A willingness to learn about the cultural practices and worldview of others.
  • A positive attitude toward cultural differences and a readiness to accept and respect those differences.

Why Is Cultural Competence Important?

People with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds, refugees, migrants, and immigrants are all around us. That’s the nature of the increasingly diverse and beautiful world in which we live.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2020 alone, international migration will add one person to the U.S. population every 34 seconds. Our world is growing, and with it, our opportunity to build valuable, diverse relationships.

Cultural competence is important because without it, our opportunity to build those relationships is impossible. Instead, we’ll co-exist with people we don’t understand, thereby creating a higher risk for misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and bias—things that can all be avoided.

Cultural Competence Examples

Cultural competence is necessary in every aspect of life—personal or professional. Here are a few examples that demonstrate its importance:

Cultural Competency in Medicine

Cultural competency is incredibly important in the field of medicine. Nurses, in particular, serve as patient advocates—so a lack of understanding, whether it be a cultural or a language barrier, can significantly impact their ability to effectively care for a patient.

An article in Critical Care Nurse shared the story of a Vietnamese mother who gave birth in a U.S. hospital. Her newborn was very ill and needed extended care. Before she was discharged, she helped feed and change her baby, but made no attempt to bond. Once she went home, neither she nor her husband visited their baby.

The medical team was, unsurprisingly, troubled by this behavior, so they sought the advice of a nurse familiar with Vietnamese culture…

Then they understood.

The parents believed that spirits—including evil spirits—are attracted to infants, and their absence kept that attention away from their baby.

What appeared to be the absence of care for their child was, in fact, a difficult act of love.

Cultural Competence in Personal Relationships

A teenage boy named Kenneth once came to visit the United States from Pohnpei, a 128-square-mile island located in the South Pacific.

When he boarded the plane that June afternoon in 1986, it was the first time in his life he’d ever been away from home, or been in an airplane.

Kenneth and his parents made the long journey to Washington, D.C. You can imagine the culture shock he experienced.

Kenneth barely spoke for days. He’d gone from being surrounded by ocean to being surrounded by a sea of traffic, noise, strange food, and a language he didn’t fully understand.

A group of teenage boys befriended Kenneth. They asked him about his country and the customs on his island, where he went to school, and the foods he ate.

Before long, Kenneth began to come alive.

His new friends learned that Kenneth was particularly talented at making beautiful baskets. One of the boys’ parents soon found supplies, and Kenneth taught his new friends how to make their own baskets.

Kenneth’s visit only lasted a few weeks, but he’s still in touch with the friends he made during that memorable first trip to the United States more than 30 years ago.

When we make a special effort to understand the people we meet, our lives and our relationships are richer for it.

How to Be Culturally Competent

The best way to grow in cultural competence is to immerse yourself in learning about other cultures.

Cultural competence isn’t necessarily a skill that can be mastered, because there are always new people to meet. And they bring new cultures, family histories, and worldviews to the table.

Our goal shouldn’t be mastery—it can simply be having a heart that’s willing to share our own culture and learn about the culture of others.

Here are a few ideas that will help improve your cultural competence:

1. Pay attention.

In today’s technology-driven world, it’s easy to overlook pretty much everyone and everything around us. If you want to build relationships with the people around you, disconnect and make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Act like you care, and when you begin to ask questions, people will believe you actually do.

2. Listen.

How often do we engage in conversation with someone with whom we have nothing in common, or someone with whom we disagree on a big topic? Do we ever think to set aside our own discomfort and try to just listen? One of the best ways to become culturally competent is to ask questions, and then listen carefully with interest, without any attempt to interrupt or persuade. Instead of asking what someone believes about a certain topic, ask them why they believe what they do. This is an opportunity to learn more about their beliefs, experiences, and perspective.

3. Use your imagination.

It’s impossible to fully understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone whose life experience is polar opposite of your own, but it’s valuable to try. Imagine life the way you’ve heard them describe it, and it’ll go a long way in helping you understand other cultures and worldviews.

4. Show interest.

Whether it’s dinner, a cooking or language lesson, or a special festival that celebrates their culture, go and learn. Invite them to do the same in your world. You’ll both be better for having learned something new, and you’ll have fun doing it.

If you’re the kind of curious person who loves to learn, developing cultural competence may already come easy for you.

Life is richer when we engage with the people around us, inviting them into our world and learning all we can about theirs. And listening to one another, seeking to truly hear them and understand their perspectives, is a crucial step toward peace.