When I introduced the idea of cultural competence, I ended with the idea that cultural competence starts with YOU! This means that, in order to be culturally/multiculturally/interculturally competent, you have to start with a personal evaluation. In the last post, I recommended this link for a checklist to look at your current situation.
I love the word ‘aware’ in English because it just seems to encompass so many different ideas in a succinct way—for example, it represents both knowledge about and perception of a situation or a person. I also really like what awareness of your own culture means. For example, have you ever thought about how your family celebrates traditions might be different to other families, even just in your own area? If you grew up being a different religion or different ‘intensity’ of religion to those around you, you probably know what I’m talking about, if not you probably think that everyone does something similar to your family because it is ‘normal.’
The idea that normal is not normal is something we talk about a lot in sociology, and I consider that most things that we consider to extend to all walks of human life are, in fact, cultural qualities. This means that the way you celebrate Christmas isn’t necessarily how others do it (check out a Catalan Christmas for more inspiration). It also is reflected in many other elements of daily life—everything from the way we dress to the way we walk and talk can, in many cases, be related to the culture around us. The next time you are out and about, try to notice what you do and reflect on this question: Has every person from the beginning of people done it this way (something that belongs to the human species) or is it something we do in our culture (naturalized)?
Note: In Spanish I have yet to find a translation that incorporates both the idea of knowledge (conocimiento) and perception (conciencia) and, therefore, tend to use the word ‘awareness’as is even in translations.
Once you become aware that you do things a certain way because of the cultural influence, you can begin to understand the why behind your actions. In Spain, for example, they celebrate a whole week for Easter with strange-to-us parades (called processions), while we tend to see Easter Egg Hunts and long lunches as the norm. Or, perhaps, you celebrate Passover during this time and have a whole different experience of the holiday. As you can imagine, when you become aware that you do things differently than others, you can also begin to question why. Until you recognize that these actions are naturalized within our society and not necessarily ‘natural,’ you cannot begin to question them or understand why they are so ‘normal.’
Understanding the history and potential reasoning behind our actions and cultural experiences can help you comprehend why another culture would do things differently. However, until you truly understand why you do it the way you do, it is hard to imagine why someone else could think differently.
For example: In the United States we tend to mix food cultures in a way that is abominable to different cultures. It will only take a conversation or two with an Italian for you to understand that your pizza or pasta isn’t ‘real Italian food,’ but some sort of ‘Americanized’ interpretation. Due to our mixed history and the plethora of influences, we don’t worry about things like putting strange toppings on our pizzas, but Italians are very specific of their interpretation of this dish. Until you realize the impact history has on American food culture, it is hard to understand why another culture, one with a different history, could interpret the same thing differently.
Your behavior or skills
Most behavior that you have at this point of your life is probably learned behavior (except, perhaps, in fight-or-flight experiences, etc.). Therefore, that also means you can learn new behavior to reflect your new understanding of the situation. At first it may be hard to understand how things work in your new home—things such as how work, school, or even the grocery store change—, but eventually you will develop the skills you need to thrive.
However, this capacity of cultural competence is not something you can learn overnight, in fact, I would personally say it is a never-ending process. As long as you find yourself in new situations with people from different cultures you will have to work towards adapting to and developing skills to deal with those situations. In the long term, however, I do believe it gets easier the more you practice and the more exposure you have.
In the next update on cultural competence, we will dive a bit further into the world of cultural competence with some tips on how to face different situations. If you have any questions in the meantime, please let us know!