Are you culturally competent? Chances are that you have never asked that question. But cultural competency is a crucial skill. It enables you to work well with people whose backgrounds differ from yours. It can make or break you on your job. And it’s not just for the workplace. If you’re a foster parent, for example, it can make a big difference in your home life.
The first step is to understand a simple fact about yourself and others. Everyone, you included, is shaped by culture. Culture consists of the customs, attitudes and beliefs of a group. Nations have cultures. So do families, social classes, religions, ethnic groups and workplaces. You can be the product of several cultures.
Look, listen and read
The next step is to study the subject. Learn about the cultures of those around you. Find out how their cultures differ from yours. In some areas, such as dress and manners, you can learn a lot just by watching and listening. You should also do some reading. The Peace Corps’ online guide Culture Matters (see “Resources” below) is a good place to start.
Some cultural differences are out in the open. You may know already that not everyone in the world shakes hands as a greeting. Quite a few bow or kiss. You may have a very informal culture at work. It may be that everyone, including the boss, is on a first-name basis. That can be hard for someone who is used to a more formal work setting. The way we communicate can also be very different. You may believe in saying exactly what you think. Elsewhere, it may be seen as offensive to give a blunt “no” in answer to a request.
And remember: Looks can deceive. Race and ethnicity are only part of one’s unique cultural story. Don’t assume that someone must think a certain way because of her appearance. That’s stereotyping, and it can lead you to serious mistakes.
How to communicate
How do you get beyond appearances? The answer is to communicate. Talk with people about your differences—without trying to prove whose way is better. Done right, this type of communication brings people together. It unites them toward common goals. It helps them fit into a new culture—at a workplace, say—without going on their own.
Take the case of someone from a highly formal culture entering a casual American workplace. That newcomer will have to bend a bit to work well with the group. But he should not be made to feel that his way of doing things is inferior. In another context or another country, it might be the better choice.
Simma Leiberman is a management consultant based in Berkeley, Calif. She suggests talking in terms of innovation or other common goals. “Let people know that they’re not wrong, but that we’ve found that the best way we get work done is to use first names,” Lieberman says. She adds, "If someone is reluctant to offer up ideas or question the boss, give them a safe space…make the ‘question the boss’ policy an order from the boss.”
Culture counts at home, too
When it comes to culture, work and home life are not as different as you might think. Age, gender and education all shape your beliefs and your behavior. Each generation has a culture of its own. And in foster families, the differences can extend to race and economic class as well. Here it’s important to build unity but realize that you can’t treat every child the same.
Lieberman tells of a white couple who were foster parents of an African-American boy. When the boy told them he was being teased at school, they first said, “Everybody’s the same; don’t worry about it.” That might have been enough for them if they had been in the child’s shoes. But it wasn’t enough for this child. “The kid needed to know the parents were there for him,” Lieberman said. So they dealt with the problem and complained to the school.
Getting beyond differences
Cultural competency starts with understanding how people are different. But it doesn’t end there. In fact, its real goal is to get beyond differences. You can find ways to unite people from many cultures around common goals. We all come from different places, but we’re all in this together.