Intercultural Sensitivity Part 1: Ethnocentrism

Difficulties with self-assessment can be a barrier to improving cultural competency and can contribute to feeling overwhelmed. It’s helpful to use a framework to understand where you are and where you need to go in this learning process. The model that resonates most strongly with me is Dr. Milton J. Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

The model is comprised of 6 stages. Today we’ll talk about the first three—the ethnocentric stages. Ethonocentric means using one’s own cultural frame to understand other people and experiences.

The first stage is denial.

I’m not sure I like this word; it has strong negative connotations. Let’s assume that it’s not denial—it’s just ignorance. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. Anyone who’s been paying attention to their own process of cultural learning knows this to be true.

Becoming culturally competent sometimes feels like getting blindsided again and again. You do your best and your efforts blow up in your face. It turns out your approach was firmly grounded in your own cultural background. You didn’t know.

Some people stay in the denial stage, making the choice to avoid this experience by isolating and separating. Moving through this stage means giving up some power and authority. It means saying “I don’t know,” and responding to discomfort with acceptance.



There is a moment when a cultural difference sneaks up and pushes you. This is when you have the choice. When you feel the push, do you become more rigid or doing you move with it? Do you say, “oh, how interesting,” and then start listening? Or do you begin the long explanation of how your way is right and better?

The second stage is defense and is fueled by “us or them” thinking. This can manifest as denigrating other cultures and feeling that your culture is superior. The opposite can also happen. People feel as though the new culture is superior, and they switch sides.

You might see this urge to convert with social worker and travelers. The former group is already inclined to be critical of Western culture, and the latter group to idealize new cultures. Perhaps traveling social workers are most at risk!

The problem with the defense stage is that it’s judgmental. Whether you’re judging a culture to be good or bad, you’re still judging.

The act of judging is emotionally charged; it’s not possible to learn and grow in a highly emotional state. Also, judging is still about you. You are at the center; you are the judge. The process of becoming culturally competent is about taking yourself out of the center and seeing yourself, instead, as relational.

As we’re discussing judging, let’s not judge this stage. There is important learning that happens here. We start to realize that we can evaluate and change our habits, thoughts, and beliefs. We have the chance to work on cognitive flexibility and choice. It’s a valuable place to be.

The third and final stage of ethnocentrism is minimization. Someone here thinks “we’re all human” and “I don’t see culture; I just see people.” There is a focus on our physiological commonalities and basic human values.

The danger is that you choose the “universal” elements from within your own cultural frame. Labeling those things as universal can leading to overlooking important cultural differences. You may also trivialize differences because you assume that difference is only on the surface—“basically we’re all the same.” Yes, we are alike, and we’re different too.

Just as with the defense stage, there’s important learning that happens here. We develop empathy and compassion, and we imagine how we would feel if we were subjected to the same injustices. We become motivated to act.

As you read this, I encourage you to reflect on your experiences and look for clues regarding your own level of development. Also keep in mind that professional growth is often nonlinear. You may revisit previous stages when under stress or when working in a new context. If this does happen, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. You just get the chance to learn again.


Further reading:

The Intercultural Development Research Institute, (2011). A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from

Carlton College. Milton J. Bennet’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from

In-Country Cultural Strategies Part III: Strategies for Developing Intercultural Sensitivity [pdf]. Retrieved from





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