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Basic Steps to Cultural Competence

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As more or more people from different backgrounds, countries, cultures and religions immigrate to foreign lands, those countries become an intercultural melting pot. In order for the native people and the immigrant population to blend and create a thriving and successful atmosphere both sides need to develop some sort of intercultural tolerance and understanding of the differences that may exist between them. An example of poor intercultural understanding, or one based simply on stereotypes, is offered by the town of Herouxville in Quebec, Canada.

A declaration issued by the town in January 2007, which was designed to inform immigrants, "that the way of life which they abandoned when they left their countries of origin cannot be recreated here [i.e. Herouxville]". It then went on to state that the immigrant population would therefore have to refrain from their cultural norms and activities such as to "kill women by stoning them in public, burning them alive, burning them with acid, circumcising them, etc."

The declaration paints a rather sad picture of the officials that administer the town and highlights not only their rather insular outlook but a world view of "others" based on crass and frankly incorrect stereotypes. To simply consider that anyone from another country (in this case more than likely a Middle Eastern or Asian one) regards the stoning of women and burning them alive as part of daily life derives from crude, and media led, stereotypes of other peoples.

Stereotypes are at their most basic level a set of assumed characteristics about a certain group of people whose actual beliefs, habits and realities more often than not disagree with the imposed assumptions. Stereotypes are usually based on factors such as exaggeration, distortion, ignorance, racism, cultural factors or even historical experiences. Stereotyping is therefore rightly seen as a negative way of seeing people. This is even true of what are called "positive stereotypes". A positive stereotype is where we use a blanket expression for a whole people, i.e. all the Chinese are great at maths, all Germans are well organised or all English people are well mannered. Although the intent behind the statement is positive, it still does not reflect the truth.

What we have witnessed in Herouxville should not be seen as an isolated incident. Such assumptions about foreigners exist all over the planet. However, this does not make it right or excusable. The message it does give is that there is a lot of work to be done in order to educate people to become more culturally competent.

Cultural competency is important in this day and age for exactly the reasons cited in this article. We, as citizens of planet earth, are no longer confined to our national and cultural borders. We mix with people from different cultures, ethnicities, religions and colours on a daily basis. In order to make this intercultural experience work on all levels from education to business to government, people have to develop basic skills in intercultural communication and understanding. In order to assist the officials at Herouxville, five basic steps to cultural competence are presented below:

1. Break Assumptions. Everyone makes or has assumptions about others. Assumptions are beliefs rather than objective truth and are usually influenced by a number of subjective factors. People need to assess their assumptions and ask themselves why they hold those ideas or beliefs.

2. Empathise. In order to come to appreciate and understand people from different cultures, empathy is vital. Through putting yourself in someone else's shoes you come to see or appreciate their point of view.

3. Involve. Involving others in your world and involving yourself in other's empowers and educates. Don't build walls between people but learn from one another.

4. Avoid Herd Mentality.Herd mentality refers to a closed and one dimensional approach. Such a way of thinking curbs creativity, innovation and advancement as people are restricted in how to think, approach and engage with people or challenges. Cultural competency can only develop if people are encouraged to think as individuals, bring their cultural influences to the table and share ideas that may be outside the box.


5. Shun Insensitivity. People can and do behave in culturally insensitive ways. By attacking someone's person, you attack their culture and therefore their dignity. This can only be divisive. Cultural competency is based upon people thinking through words and actions to ensure they do not act inappropriately. When insensitive behaviour is witnessed it is the responsibility of all to shun it and ensure it remains unacceptable.

6. Be Wise. Wisdom is not called wisdom for nothing. People need to be aware how to interact with people with respect and knowledge. Cultural competency is essentially founded upon wisdom, i.e. showing maturity of thought and action in dealing with people. Through thinking things out and have background knowledge to intercultural differences much of the communication problems witnessed within business could be avoided.


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