Two hikers on a trail in the mountains.

A Journey Toward Cultural Competency

Cultural competency is of special interest to international social workers. It refers to the ability to effectively work with people from other cultures, either clients or colleagues, through acceptance, adaptation, and integration.



I try to regularly reflect on my practice so that I can learn from my experiences. Lately I’ve been considering my own cultural competence. How am I doing? How can I tell how I’m doing?

I’m currently volunteering in Asia, and I’ve found the reflection process to be difficult.

Let’s take the simple question of “how can I tell how I’m doing?” I know that I’m in a deeply hierarchical culture which impacts how people relate to one another. I must ask: Is the feedback I’m receiving related to my work, or is it related to culturally prescribed ways of interacting? For example, when someone tells me that the training I gave was helpful, is that because it was helpful or because there’s a cultural value around being deferential to those “above” you?

The above question is related to the skill of cultural competency. I can acquire knowledge about the culture and learn the behaviors and style of communication that is appropriate.

For me the more challenging aspect is the way of being aspect of cultural competency.

We usually associate the concept of “competence” with positive feeling states such as calmness, confidence, ease, and effortlessness. In my experience, the feelings that arise during this learning process are vulnerability, disorientation, discomfort, confusion, and surprise. The challenge for me has been to remain curious and open even when experiencing emotional states that push me to withdraw.

I attribute this reaction to a few things.

First, I felt very competent when working in the US. The work was rewarding, and I felt effective. In another cultural context, though, some of the skills I’d used in the past are either ineffective or counterproductive. For example, directly addressing conflict could be perceived as “shaming” regardless of how gently you approach the interaction.

Second, it’s very easy to make incorrect assumptions. In an effort to assess, plan, and “get to work” you move ahead not realizing that you’re operating within your own biases. A process that appears ineffective might actually be working, but in a way that you don’t see or understand. For example, when I started working in Bhutan, I was alarmed to find that the outpatient clinic did not keep client records. Later I learned that, in Bhutan, patients keep their own medical records. They carry a notebook to each appointment in which their providers write notes.

Third, knowing what to attribute to culture is sometimes unclear. Culture is a multi-layered and dynamic range of attitudes, customs, and beliefs. Not only is there considerable variation within a culture, but also each person (or group of people) has his own unique characteristics. It takes time to know what can be attributed to culture versus the characteristics of one person, family, or office. This can be especially true for social workers who may develop a distorted understanding of the culture. For example, someone working in a domestic violence program could come to inaccurate conclusions about family life.

Despite all this, I find this learning process to be exciting and ultimately rewarding. Working in another culture provides insight into your own culture by way of contrast. What you assume to be universal is not. One by one, your own culturally bound ways of interpreting become apparent. You begin to define where your culture ends and where you begin. And you have choices—choices to experience life in new ways, to accept and to change.


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