Cultural Competence

Sociolinguists study the relationship between language and social and cultural factors. One of the concepts they study is cultural competence, the ability to communicate with those from other cultures effectively. Understanding the elements of and barriers to cultural competence can help people understand how to enhance their communication skills.

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Table of contents

    Cultural Competence Definition

    Cultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people from different cultures. Cultural competence is essential because it helps people better understand and communicate with others from diverse backgrounds. It also makes cross-cultural communication more respectful and genuine.

    Cultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people from different cultures.

    Cultural competence involves being conscious of several varying elements of culture, including worldviews, beliefs, and traditional practices. In sociolinguistics, scholars are particularly interested in how the meaning of language changes based on cultural context and how cultural competence can improve spoken and written communication.

    Cultural Competence, Globe, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cultural competence requires acknowledging cultural differences from around the world.

    Cultural Competence in Sociolinguistics

    The relevance of cultural competence in sociolinguistics has its roots in theories from the 1960s. In 1965, the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote about linguistic competence, the idealized understanding of a language's rules. Linguistic competence allows people to communicate with one another. The sociolinguist Dell Hymes built on this idea by coining the phrase communicative competence. According to Hymes, effective communication requires people to use language in its proper context. Cultural competence is directly related to the idea of communicative competence because the meaning and structure of language are often partially dependent on one's cultural context. 1, 2

    For example, reflect on your cultural background. Do people from your culture use any words, phrases, or slang that people from other cultures might not understand the meaning of? This is because the word has a unique meaning in the context of your culture. A person who demonstrates cultural competence would understand and respect how that word operates in your culture.

    Cultural Competence, Flags, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Cultural competence requires understanding how the meanings of words change based on cultural context.

    Elements of Cultural Competence

    Based on the work of Cross et al. (1989), the National Center for Cultural Competence has outlined five main elements or principles of cultural competence.3

    Five Principles of Cultural Competence

    The five principles of cultural competence are as follows:

    1. Value diversity

    Valuing diversity means respecting and appreciating the existence of cultural diversity. Different cultures have different worldviews, practices, and means of conveying their values. Welcoming this diversity in communication can enrich relationships and lead to the development of new ideas and connections.

    A teacher invites each student to share a presentation about cultural traditions in their household. By giving the students the chance to speak about their culture and educate their peers about cultural differences, this teacher shows that he values diversity.

    2. Possess the capacity for conducting cultural self-assessment

    Reflecting on one's own sense of culture can lead to an awareness of cultural differences that minimize barriers in cross-cultural communication. For instance, Cross et al. provide the example of the word "family." In some cultures, the word family refers just to one's nuclear family. In other cultures, the word "family" refers to extended family. If someone was implementing a policy with the word family, they should reflect on the cultural meaning it holds for them and the meaning it might hold for their intended audience. If there are differences in meaning, then the writer might be compelled to specify what type of family they are referring to.

    A teacher is writing suggestions for parents on how they can support the development of their children's literacy skills. The teacher wants to say that students should read English books to their children. She reflects on this suggestion and realizes that many of her students come from households where English is not spoken. So, instead, she writes that parents should read what they can to their children and encourage them to read English books when possible.

    Cultural Competence, Mirror, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Cultural competence requires self-assessment and reflection.

    3. Be conscious of the dynamics of cultural difference

    It is important to understand that cultural differences inevitably lead to judgment and miscommunication. When people from different cultural backgrounds communicate, they often bring internalized biases, stereotypes, and prejudges that complicate communication.

    Being conscious of these tensions, called the "dynamics of difference," is an important part of being culturally competent. Awareness of these dynamics can help people address miscommunication and misjudgment while critically assessing the potential for bias in the outcomes of cross-cultural communication.

    A mother tells a teacher that he cannot expect her son to do a homework assignment because it is a cultural holiday for their family. This request frustrates the teacher. He is unfamiliar with the holiday, and permitting this request will disrupt his grading schedule. Despite this, he accommodates the request because he understands the dynamics of cultural differences.

    4. Institutionalize cultural knowledge

    The fourth principle of cultural competence refers to cultural awareness at an institutional level. Social systems like health care and education systems need cultural knowledge in their service delivery frameworks. In an institutional hierarchy, people at all levels must be trained in cross-cultural supervision and develop an understanding of the cultural values and practices of the cultures they work in and with.

    A school mandates cross-culture competence training for all employees. It also requires the use of a curriculum that recognizes diversity.

    5. Adapt to cultural diversity

    Adapting to cultural diversity requires a flexible, inclusive approach to the varying needs of people from various cultures. For instance, a company using positive representations of minority cultural groups would adapt to cultural diversity in their community.

    A school has historically been home to students with the same cultural background. This year, however, they have many new refugee students with varying cultural backgrounds. The administration decides to expand its curriculum to feature materials from authors of different cultural backgrounds. It also hosts an annual global fair in which students, teachers, and parents can share information about their cultural heritage.

    Cultural Competence vs. Cultural Sensitivity

    While you might hear cultural competence and cultural sensitivity used synonymously, there are key distinctions between the terms.

    Cultural Sensitivity

    Cultural sensitivity is one part of cultural competence. To have cultural sensitivity, people must develop cultural awareness, which is learning that cultural differences exist. Once people are aware of the differences, they must work on developing cultural sensitivity, which is the willingness to understand and respect cultural differences. Cultural sensitivity involves the following:

    • Demonstrating respect for cultural difference

    • Being open to communication in the face of cultural differences

    • Avoiding passing judgments or assigning values to cultural differences

    Cultural Competence

    Cultural competence operationalizes cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity. In other words, cultural competence is the ability to apply notions like cultural awareness and sensitivity in practice. One might be aware and respectful of cultural differences but not actually understand how to apply this perspective when interacting with people with cultural differences.

    Cultural Competence Examples

    Consider the aforementioned difference amount the meaning of the term "family." Imagine two colleagues are writing a family visitation policy for a hospital. The first defines the term family as a nuclear family. His colleague tells him that just using the word family is unclear. In her culture, the term refers to more than the nuclear family. The first person possesses cultural awareness and demonstrates cultural sensitivity when learning about the cultural differences, but then tells their colleague that defining family as extended family is wrong and that they need to understand the term differently.

    This person is not demonstrating cultural competence because he is not valuing or adapting to diversity. Instead, to be culturally competent, he should acknowledge that the meaning conveyed by the word family can vary across cultural contexts. He should then explain his intended meaning of family in the policy to make the language accessible to people from all cultural backgrounds.

    Cultural Competence, Family, StudySmarterFig. 4. - Different cultures assign different meanings to the term "family."

    Cultural competence involves respecting cultural practices and beliefs about communication as well. For example, the Tsimané people in Bolivia are known for not speaking directly to their babies. They do this to prevent becoming attached in the face of high infant mortality rates. This practice is different than many Western parenting practices, like in America, where talking directly to babies and making eye contact with them is considered critical. An American doctor interacting with a Tsimané mother might judge how the mother communicates with her baby because it is not the norm in her culture. The doctor would demonstrate cultural competence by reflecting on that bias and explaining to the mother how to care for the child without labeling the Tsimané method of communication with children as wrong.

    Barriers to Cultural Competence

    Several barriers can make it challenging to develop cultural competence. Acknowledging these barriers is the first step in overcoming them.

    Lack of Education

    It is difficult for people to be culturally aware without proper training. People can address this barrier by educating themselves about the cultural differences around them. Institutions and workplaces can also help address this issue by mandating training in cross-cultural communication.

    Prejudice

    People often have internalized judgments about other cultures. This prejudice can prevent them from being culturally sensitive, which in turn prevents them from being culturally competent. People can address this by critically reflecting on their internalized biases and recognizing how they might impact their ability to demonstrate respect and openness to others.

    Ethnocentrism

    Those who subscribe to ethnocentrism often feel that those from other cultures are inferior and use that belief to justify discrimination. This is particularly concerning when people in positions of power, like politicians or policymakers, subscribe to ethnocentrism. To combat ethnocentrism, people should educate themselves about other cultures and reflect on the roots of their worldview. Mandating cultural competence training for people in powerful positions can also help ensure ethnocentrism does not lead to systemic discrimination.

    Ethnocentrism is a prejudice in which one believes their cultural worldview and practices are superior to others.

    Language

    Sometimes language barriers get in the way of culturally competent communication. When people do not speak their common language at the same level, some terms can get lost in translation and prevent one or both parties from effectively interacting. People can address this by studying the common language, but also by being patient with the other and being willing to explain concepts slowly and in different terms.

    Cultural Competence - Key takeaways

    • Cultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people of different cultures.
    • Cultural competence is important because it helps people better understand and communicate with others from different cultural backgrounds.
    • The five principles of cultural competence are valuing diversity, possessing the capacity for conducting cultural self-assessment, being conscious of the dynamics of cultural differences, institutionalizing cultural knowledge, and adapting to cultural diversity.
    • One can improve cultural competence by self-assessing their cultural values, learning about the cultures they interact with, and being open and tolerant with others when learning about their culture.
    • Barriers to cultural competence include lack of education, prejudice, and different language levels.

    1 Noam Chomsky. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. 1965.

    2 Dell Hymes "On Communicative Competence" in J.B Pride and J. Holmes (Eds.) Sociolinguistics. 1972.

    3 "Foundations." National Center for Cultural Competence.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Competence

    What is cultural competence?

    Cultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people of different cultures.

    What are the five principles of cultural competence?

    The five principles of cultural competence are valuing diversity, possessing the capacity for conducting cultural self-assessment, being conscious of the dynamics of cultural differences, institutionalizing cultural knowledge, and adapting to cultural diversity. 

    What does cross-cultural competence mean?

    Cross-cultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds.

    Why is cultural competence important?

    Cultural competence is important because it helps people better understand and communicate with others from different cultural backgrounds. 

    How to improve cultural competence?

    One can improve cultural competence by self-assessing their cultural values, learning about the cultures they interact with, and being open and tolerant with others when learning about their culture.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What theorist developed the idea of communicative competence?

    True or False? Cultural competence is the same thing as cultural sensitivity. 

    _ is required for _ which is required for _. 

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