Human Services Guide

Understanding Cultural Competency

The term cultural competence is used to describe a set of skills, values and principles that acknowledge, respect and work towards optimal interactions between the individual and the various cultural and ethnic groups that an individual might come in contact with. At the heart of Cultural competency is effective communication that has as its basis a desire for mutual respect and empathy. Cultural competency is sometimes linked to the term diversity in that in encourages acknowledgement and acceptance of differences in appearance, behavior and culture as a whole. By having an in-depth understanding of how to effectively and respectfully interact with people from a wide range of cultures, the individual maximizes the chance of optimal interactions in a professional setting. This is very important for fields where an individual worker is likely to come into contact and interact with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

Cultural competency is extremely important in the field of human services in particular where there is a high degree of professional contact with a wide variety of different cultures. As such, for those who plan on working in Human Services it is critical to pursue a high degree of cultural competency. The best way to go about this is to put effort into developing your cultural competency by examining cultural biases, learned prejudices, active listening, effective communication and spending time with others who are working on their own cultural competency. Spending time with others interested in cultural competency can range from attending workshops and trainings to taking classes on multiculturalism, diversity or cultural competency in a formal academic setting.

The key components for a high degree of Cultural Competency are:

Awareness. Being aware of your own individual biases and reactions to people who are of a culture or background significantly different from your own. By being aware of your own internal biases you can begin to work towards other aspects of Cultural Competency.

Attitude. The significance of attitude in cultural competence is to delineate the difference between just being aware of cultural differences and actively analyzing your own internal belief systems and developing awareness.

Knowledge. Research into human behavior has shown that our values and beliefs about equality may not line up with our actual behaviors and further we often are ignorant as to the degree of difference between our beliefs and our actions. It has been shown that people who may test well in regards to having low prejudices may in fact act with great prejudice when actually interacting with other cultures. Understanding this disconnect is why knowledge is considered a key aspect of developing one’s own cultural competence.

Skills. This component is about actually taking practices of cultural competency and repeating them until they become integrate into one’s daily behaviors. The most important aspect of the skills component is having an excellent grasp on effective and respectful communication whether within an organization or between individuals. An often overlooked aspect of communication is body language and the sometimes extreme variation in the meaning of gestures between one culture and another.

Once you begin to integrate all four components into your day to day behaviors your degree of cultural competence will increase dramatically. By being aware of your internal learned biases, having an attitude that reflects a desire to deeply understand your own behavior, showing a high degree of knowledge of the subject and implementing the skills of cultural competency, you will soon move from the realm of theory and learning to that of active practice. As the world becomes more global the need for a high degree of cultural competence will only grow and few fields will this be a more important trait than in that of Human Services. Developing your own cultural competency will help you to become the most effective human services worker possible and will greatly increase your chances of gaining and maintaining employment in the field.

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