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What Is Cultural Competency?

What Is Cultural Competency?

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the concept of cultural competency

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Culture plays a very large role in determining how we behave and how we view the world. So having a better understanding, not only of our own culture, but of other cultures, goes a long way in helping prevent miscommunication and conflict. Well, I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about something called cultural competency.

So cultural competency, what is it? I have written the term here, and cultural competency is not cultural immersion or cultural fluency-- I'll define those terms in a moment-- but cultural competency refers to the ability to recognize when culture might be playing a role in any miscommunication or conflict. Not only recognize it, but then be able to raise the possibility with the people who are experiencing miscommunication or some sort of issue.

So that's cultural competency. Any conflict resolver wants to strive for cultural competency. Now, sometimes people think this requires cultural immersion. So cultural immersion is long-term constant contact with the norms, traditions, worldviews, of any particular culture.

So most of us don't have an opportunity to become totally immersed in a culture that way. So cultural immersion is not necessary to be culturally competent.

Well, now, what about cultural fluency? Well, cultural fluency is the ability to function in a culture like a native. Now, it might sound a lot like cultural immersion, but it can be contextual.

Let's say you marry into a culture. Simply by spending time with your in-laws in various situations that bring you very closely into the culture, you can grow to be fluent in the culture. So it doesn't necessarily mean the long-term immersion, but just becoming very familiar and fluent with the culture.

Now, to be culturally competent-- here-- it doesn't mean you have to be fluent in the culture or really familiar, you simply need to be able to recognize that there are cultural issues at play and then be able to bring them up. So that requires being aware of worldview and that worldviews differ.

And you know worldview is the way we see the world. Everybody has a worldview. We come from a culture with a particular worldview, and that's how we interpret the world. How we judge what is right, correct, normal. And we tend to think the way we do things, our own particular worldview, is the right way and universally true because we just take it for granted.

But worldviews differ. So it's being able to recognize world view, and then to be able to not stereotype. Because stereotyping is the belief that trends or traits that you see describe everyone and not recognizing that every culture, every worldview, is made up of people, some of whom aren't going to fit. We're all individuals. And so a worldview doesn't absolutely describe every person in the same way, but people differ in the way they interpret things.

So a culturally competent person recognizes that there are worldviews, every culture has a worldview, and we can see how it's expressed through the music in a culture, proverbs, sayings that go back centuries, art, literature, that all expresses worldview. So we recognize worldview, but steer clear of stereotyping.

So how do we do this? How does this work effectively? Well, you want to be able to raise the possibility that culture could be a play. And a good way to do that is through questions. If you suspect something could be at play, ask a question for the parties to consider.

Or perhaps paraphrase something you heard. Reflect if you understand something correctly so that you are posing the possibility that a cultural issue could be at play. The idea is to build bridges between parties, between people. So to create discussion and mutual understanding.

Now, the worst thing that you could do, of course, is to say something that could sound blaming or stereotypical of a culture. To kind of pronounce something that you think might be true, when perhaps it's not. So asking questions, paraphrasing, and reflecting is a much better way to build that bridge and to initiate discussion.

So once again, to be culturally competent, a person does not need to immerse themselves in a culture or to even become really fluent or familiar with the culture. A person just needs to be able to recognize that cultures differ in the way they communicate, the way they see the world, and then be able to bring up the possibility of cultural differences in a way that could be helpful to the parties.

So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Cultural Competency

The ability to recognize when culture may be playing a part in a conflict or communication difficulty and the ability to raise the role of culture in a way that helps overcome the problem.

Cultural Fluency

The ability to function within a given culture as if one were native to that culture.

Cultural Immersion

Long-term nearly constant contact with the rules, norms, and worldviews of a different culture.


Forming a belief that certain general trends or traits of a group (culture) apply equally strongly to all individual members of that group; perceiving people as simplistic representatives of abstract cultural traits rather than as individuals.


The way a person interprets and makes decisions about his or her environment (world), including beliefs or assumptions about what is considered right or normal.