Gender & Identity, Life

5 steps anyone can take to become more culturally sensitive

It's time to get uncomfortable.

The fact that the distance between members of different cultures is being reduced more and more every day with the internet (and migration), forces us to think about what an intercultural interaction will be like both online and in real life.

Although I think that cultural sensitivity should’ve been talked about earlier, it’s starting to become a “thing” in education, healthcare, and the news just now. By this I do not mean that people are practicing it already, but at least it’s becoming a subject of conversation.

From experience I can say that intercultural communication is not exclusive to travel, it is inevitable even within the boundaries of the US (and it’s been for quite a while already). After all, isn’t this country a “melting pot” or a “tossed salad?”

Well, if it is, then it’s long overdue to talk about the ways in which we can become more culturally competent.

1. Be aware of why you want to learn more about other cultures. 

When I decided to take intercultural communication class it wasn’t only because I needed the credits, but because I genuinely wanted to do the best I could to train myself into becoming a better global citizen. At first it was challenging to get off my high horse and view aspects from other cultures (i.e. religion, language, family structures, etc.) on the same level as my own, but with time I learned that no culture is superior than another, they’re simply different.

Before starting off, it’s important to have something very clear (no matter how cheesy it may sound): we are all equal and in studying other cultures you’re not doing charity work.

2. Educate yourself on intercultural communication.

There’s so many ways to do this! I chose to take a formal course on the subject, but that’s only half of the work. It’s important to read books by diverse authors, watch movies or TV shows that come from other places than Hollywood, and perhaps even documentaries that portray people from other cultures doing amazing things to change the world.

Even something as simple as watching a TV show like “An African City” helped me better understand a culture that I knew nothing of before. When I dove into another culture’s world of entertainment, I started to empathize with people different than myself, and it also helped me realize that we had more things in common than I expected.

3. Become aware of your own culture and biases.

This one was – and continues to be – one of the most challenging aspects of becoming more culturally conscious. I think it’s because we have a hard time thinking critically and questioning our own beliefs and worldview within our “culture bubble.” But if we willingly chose to get out of it (might be through travel, or simply undergoing step 2), we become more conscious of who we are and why we carry certain prejudice against specific groups of people. This is a tough phase, but it was necessary for me in order to become aware of the stereotypes that I had against other cultures and willingly decide to replace these notions with real facts.

4. Let go of any ethnocentric beliefs.

After undergoing steps 2 and 3, I started to realize that there were some things I liked – and did not like – about my culture. Once I saw the bigger picture, I understood that all cultures had things I identified with and things I did not. For instance, as I began to study different religions, I many times ended up liking them better than my own, which was the case with Buddhism and Hinduism. When I opened myself up to this feeling, I came to the conclusion that I could learn so much from others if I let go of the belief that my culture was the best one. It was also really cool to start to admire the way others live and think without it being from a place of superiority.

5. Ask questions during intercultural exchanges!

Before taking the course in intercultural communication, I had already engaged in the practice itself (after all, it was inevitable as an international student in America) but things were different now. I became more aware of my communication and tried to shift it in order to meet the needs of the other culture. For instance, after years of friendship, I finally understood why my Japanese friend was withdrawn at times. Things changed in our relationship when my latino self stopped pressuring her into sharing too much information and actually asked if she felt comfortable with disclosure. It’s better to ask than assume!

Needless to say, the journey does not end here; becoming truly culture conscious is an ongoing process. Engaging with people from other cultures is – fun – and perhaps the only way to actually understand another human being.