The Terms of Culture

Cultural competence. Cultural humility. Culturally responsive practice. How do these terms differ? Is it “just semantics,” or does the term influence the outcome?

Depending on where you look, the definitions and descriptions of these terms can overlap or pit these concepts against each other. These terms have more in common than most of us think; some of us even use them interchangeably. Yet, at the same time, many people feel that one can never be truly culturally competent, whereas others take offense at being told they need more cultural humility. As you try to gain clarity, you may be left questioning your qualifications, your approach to clinical practice, and your confidence in serving individuals whose culture and language differ from yours.

The debate over this terminology serves as a stumbling block to determining how to discuss culture and language in clinical practice and professional interactions. The most important commonality is that they all seek to improve the outcomes of service delivery.

Engaging in all three—cultural competence, cultural humility, and culturally responsive practice—leads to better service delivery for all. As long as our focus remains on what we do to achieve desired/positive outcomes.

All three of these terms are lifelong processes and require ongoing commitments. We will never know everything about everyone, or all that we could know, but we have to know enough to recognize that there’s more to learn. All three concepts require self-examination and that we step out of our role as the “expert” and into our role as the partner. After all, who knows more about the client/patient/student—and what they need and want—than them and their loved ones? All three also require a level of sensitivity to and respect for an individual's experiences, values, and beliefs. When we approach service delivery with a culturally humble lens, we take a unique approach to serving each individual—one size does not fit all. Considering the context and lived experiences in determining how services are provided allows us to adjust our approaches to be responsive to their individual needs.

The reality is that we should all be questioning our skills and ability to work with every individual in our clinical encounters—but not to the point that we don’t serve them. We should question ourselves just enough to think about our capacity and the resources we need to tap into in order to achieve the outcomes that the people that we serve need and want.

Here’s one way to look at this: Cultural humility is a way of thinking; cultural competence is a way of becoming; and culturally responsive practice is a way of doing. We should strive for growth in all three. Let’s focus on thinking differently, aspiring to become more, and doing better for all of the individuals we serve!

Listen, Reflect, and Seek: Tips for Addressing Culture and Language in Service Delivery

  • Listen to the people you work with. Listen to understand what’s important to them—what their daily life is like—so you know how communication and related functions impact their experiences.
  • Reflect back on things you did and said, and how it was received. Look for opportunities to reframe your thinking, and constantly enhance your approach to service delivery.
  • Seek out education, tools, and resources. Know the resources that are available to help you adjust your approach and offer services.

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