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August 10, 2020

What Is Cultural Competence? The Value of Sensitively Connecting With Diverse Groups of People

Sometimes referred to as cultural proficiency, cultural competence is the ability to respect, understand, appreciate, and effectively communicate with individuals across different cultures. Being culturally competent goes beyond an individual and is an awareness that businesses and health organizations should take on as well. Being aware of different cultures allows individuals to improve their quality of communication and collaboration with other communities. 

Why Is Cultural Competence Important?

Cultural competence not only shows a sign of cultural respect, but it also shows the willingness to learn and accept other cultures into your daily life. There are many beneficial takeaways from studying other cultures. When countries are known for different things, for example, like how Costa Rica is named one of the happiest places to live, then studying their way of life can teach you different lessons that you may want to implement in your own daily routine. 

several children of varying races huddled together with interest as they explore a globe - brought to you by specialplacesofcostarica.com

It seems that teaching children early on about tolerance, grace and other aspects of cultural competency would make the world a better place

Cultural proficiency also allows for professionals, such as healthcare workers, to be able to tend to an individual in a way that is respectful to their culture. Some people come from countries or have religious backgrounds that are important to be aware of prior to providing patient care. Some of the health beliefs and practices they may be faced with include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Individuals from different cultures who believe it is honorable and desirable to tolerate pain;
  • Co-sleeping is acceptable in some communities to help monitor children for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS);
  • People of certain religions, i.e. Jehovah’s Witnesses, may refuse the practice of blood transfusions or other surgeries;
  • Traditions surrounding birth can vary across the board. For example, some mothers and new-born babies stay indoors for a defined period of time;
  • Death rituals are unique to each culture.

Cultural Competence Examples

Showing cultural competence comes in a variety of ways — everything from learning a language to understanding different mannerisms. Let’s take a deeper look at what else cultural competence may look like:

  • Educating yourself on the history and traditions of different cultures;
  • Showing respect for an individual’s way of living, even if it is different than yours;
  • Developing a positive attitude towards cultural differences and acknowledging similarities;
  • Addressing your own cultural biases and learning what needs to be done to reverse them;
  • Continuing to learn even when you think you know it all.

How to Be Culturally Competent

It may sound straightforward, but there is a lot that goes into learning cross-cultural skills. Listed below are tips for individuals across all cultures to follow to help them increase their cultural proficiency. 

Do Preliminary Research

Prior to traveling, take a moment to conduct preliminary research on the country you’re going to visit. Not only do you want to get a better understanding of its history, but you will also want to educate yourself on different policies, basic etiquette, common words and phrases, and other cultural customs. 

closeup of a hand writing "hello" on a chalkboard in several languages - brought to you by specialplacesofcostarica.com

Taking the time to learn essential phrases in the language of your destination is a no brainer…

It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into before you go to prevent any cultural misunderstandings. What you may consider normal behavior could be offensive to people of other cultures. They may even have different policies in place that you may not be familiar with. For example, Costa Rica’s environmental policy has been created to help form a better, healthier future for generations to come. In order to accomplish this, Costa Rican officials created a decarbonization plan that would make Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral country by 2021. Large plans like this one are important to educate yourself on, especially when they make a significant impact on its residents. Of course, this is just one example of many policies that would be good to educate yourself on before your travels. 

Learn Basic Phrases in the Local Language

It’s no secret that learning the local language and basic phrases of a foreign country before vacationing there is beneficial. Not only does this allow the traveler to better communicate, but it also shows the locals a sign of respect. Even though approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English, it isn’t always safe to assume that the people you come in contact with abroad speak English as well. Packing a language book, downloading translation apps, and taking free language courses are common ways to learn basic phrases in the local language.

Learn Local Food Customs

Understanding local food customs is more than trying traditional meals. It also means that those traveling should be educated on the different cultural table manners, place settings, sacred foods to avoid, and pre/post meal traditions (prayer, placing utensils over the plate when finished, etc.). An example of a local food custom is the Costa Rican tamale (similar to the traditional Mexican tamale). Named one of the top 10 foods to try in Costa Rica, their version of a tamale can be traced back to 7,000 B.C. and is a traditional meal to be eaten around Christmas time.

several colorful and tasty looking small sampler dishes arranged on a white doily - brought to you by specialplacesofcostarica.com

Learning local food customs can prevent an embarrassing faux pas, or worse, an unintentional insult

If you find yourself traveling to Costa Rica during the holidays, it wouldn’t be taboo to see this cuisine at every family dinner table. Other food customs and table manners around the world include:

  • Avoiding talking business while dining out (Australia);
  • Avoiding sipping your wine, instead finishing the glass at once, while at a supra, a traditional Georgian feast; 
  • Filling your tea only halfway is a good sign that your waiter/waitress enjoys serving you (Kazakhstan);
  • Slurping your food to show appreciation (Japan);
  • Splitting the tab between multiple people could be a sign of unsophistication (France).

Consider Proxemics

Proxemics is understanding the accepted amount of space that people feel comfortable with setting between themselves. Acceptable social distance can vary widely from culture to culture — some find it acceptable to stand or sit within very close quarters of each other, while others find this to be offensive or strange. It can be a lot to try and understand personal space across cultures, especially when their cultural norms are completely different than what you are used to. But in places like the Middle East, it is normal to be within close proxemics of the people you are talking to — so if you try to back up, they may move towards you to remain close. Other cities like Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro have separate subway cars for women to avoid creating intimate space between men and women.

Watch Your Volume

In countries such as Japan and Switzerland, it can be considered rude to be loud in public. Even gestures such as laughing too loud, belching, blowing your nose, and small talk may be offensive to people of other cultures, even though it is your daily norm.   

Don’t Assume the Worst

It is important to always consider that there may be a cultural difference at play if you think someone is being rude; instead of getting offended, communicate with them, and clarify their actions. This provides an educational cross-cultural opportunity for you and them. 

To put this into perspective, if you are taking a tour of a potential Costa Rica rental home, your tour guide may lean in to greet you with a kiss on the cheek. This may seem odd to those from America, but in Costa Rica, this is a traditional way to greet one another. 

Respect Heritage and Religious Sites

It is almost certain that when traveling the world you will be faced with new heritages and religions that you have never interacted with before. Whether it is Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or any other religion, it is extremely important to respect the person’s beliefs — even if you don’t share the same religion.

three huge stone spheres sit atop a Costa Rican hill overlooking a verdant valley below | the importance of cultural competency - brought to you by specialplacesofcostarica.com

Known locally as Las Bolas, these mythical spheres are reportedly a thousand years old, carved with magic potions, and filled with gold – like ancient stone piñatas!

Reading informative religious books, researching on the internet, and watching documentaries is a great way to inform yourself of these different heritages and religions. It can also allow you to see where in the world different cultures consider religious sites and how to respect these locations as well. 

Valuable Cross-Cultural Skills

Acquiring cross-cultural skills is essential to help ensure you are prepared to embrace whatever cultural differences may come your way. 

  • Having the ability to stay engaged can help individuals retain information as they learn it at a fast pace. When exploring new cultures first hand, it is important to stay alert and engaged so that you don’t miss any vital information.
  • In order to embrace other cultures, one must be able to be accepting of those that may have alternative beliefs. 
  • Be difficult to obtain other cross-culture skills needed when traveling abroad. 
  • Empathy is a must-have cross-cultural skill. It allows you to really feel for those who differ from you and gain a better understanding of what it is like to walk a mile in their shoes. 

Being more culturally competent paves the way to better relationships and allows us to coexist with people from all backgrounds. Understanding the importance of learning a local language, custom foods, and traditional practices can provide you with a better experience during your travels — but most of all, it shows a common ground of respect between you and the world of cultures around you.


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