What is Cultural Sensitivity?

Cultural sensitivity is important to understand fully. The new global marketplace has brought together peoples from far-flung parts of the globe –peoples who otherwise might never have encountered each other. This has often led to friction as disparate cultures try to adapt to each other’s ways. It’s important to stay aware of one’s own culture and how the culture of others might differ as these new cross-cultural encounters unfold. Staying open to differences while holding back the temptation to judge is what cultural sensitivity is all about.

Cultural Sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity is defined as remaining value-neutral in the face of cultural differences. When one encounters major cultural differences, there’s a temptation to automatically consider the encountered culture as inferior to one’s own. It’s easy to slide into think in terms of “good” versus “bad.” This judgment can cause interpersonal and organizational difficulty. It’s hard to build a team when the individual members don’t trust each other and tend to look down on each other’s traditions, languages, values, and backgrounds.

In the US, the dominant culture has been largely derived from the separate cultures of Europe. Our dominant language is English, our foods are often German, Italian, or English. Our manners tend to be inflected by those of the British. Our religious (or non-religious) beliefs still largely reflect those common in the Europe of the 15th through 19th centuries – back when the American continent was conquered, overrun, and resettled. Racially, “Americans” are still largely Caucasian or white – just as Europeans were and largely remain. The America of today still reflects European cultures and customs. Thus, in most important ways, our culture is dominantly white, Christian, and European.

However, these cultures and customs often contrast with those of the newer influx of residents from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. This contrast (we won’t say “conflict” here) oftentimes causes difficulties when trying to bring people together for a shared purpose.

The goal of cultural sensitivity training is to transform the awareness of one’s culture from an absolute to a relative. Other cultures aren’t “wrong:” they’re just different. That’s the main thrust of cultural sensitivity.

A Loaded Phrase

“Cultural sensitivity” is a loaded phrase for a few different reasons. Foremost of these is that it places the burden mainly on those identified with the dominant culture, regardless of the particular case.

To be culturally sensitive demands the dominant culture make accommodations for the culture that’s seen to be at a disadvantage in the given time and place. In America, that means assuming people from cultures that don’t resemble those of Europe or the US have already compromised their own cultures, and thus have already been forced to relativize their cultural awareness. Now, the onus is on the members of the dominant culture to accommodate any remaining cultural differences. This might work on a macro level when considering the meeting of cultures, but at a micro level – on the ground everyday in offices, schools, and factories – the effect can be irritating if not demoralizing.

Oftentimes, it’s assumed in organizations and groups characterized by people from non-dominant cultures that the few representatives from the dominant culture must still be the first called upon to be “sensitive.” In these situations, logic would suggest cultural sensitivity be extended to the person in the minority. That isn’t always the case.

Another difficulty inherent with cultural sensitivity: accommodating the internal conflicts among disparate peoples. An example is when people from a deeply traditional – though still formally non-dominant – culture meet those with different values. Should it be called “culturally insensitive” to force deeply religious members of a non-dominant culture to embrace modern, secularized LGBTQ culture on its own terms? Is that not an example of forcing the absolute values of a “culture of tolerance” on people who remain at a disadvantage themselves?

These questions arise when the phrase “cultural sensitivity” comes up. This is mainly because the phrase itself is used like a pick-axe, kept above the door just in case. “Break glass in case of fire” the sign reads above the “cultural sensitivity” box. When “cultural sensitivity” is mentioned, it’s assumed someone was offended by a real or perceived aggression or slight, and now there will be consequences. Those consequences will land mainly people most closely identified with the dominant culture, whether they or their culture was behind the event or not.

Thus, there’s a reason why it’s called “cultural sensitivity” and not “cultural fairness.”

A Reasonable Approach

Beyond the theories put forward by academics and the passion of ideologues, and beyond the legalities around “protected classes,” there’s still the need to just get along. People oftentimes do this very well on their own, if the process isn’t interrupted by a well-meaning – but oftentimes clueless -- interlocutor. People from different human cultures have been encountering and accommodating each other at the personal level for eons.

There are some things that can be done to encourage the blending of culture and help establish a basic atmosphere of fairness. It’s most important all participants see each other as humans, first.

Some ways to encourage cultural sensitivity:

Rise above the negative. “Cultural sensitivity” is often a hated phrase because it is perceived as accusatory. Purveyors of cultural sensitivity often suggest members of the dominant culture “check their privilege.” They are called upon to deeply consider the ways in which they are being insensitive and have been in the past. The natural assumption is that they will make amends in some way. There’s a redress to be made, and as apparent representatives of the dominant culture, must learn to be “better.” This is a recipe for interpersonal disaster, and causes nothing so much as friction and resentment. A far better way is to set aside any historical awareness, and refuse to call individuals to account for the perceived failings of their culture in the past. The emphasis needs to be on establishing real empathy. Walking a mile in another’s shoes has always been far more helpful than any serving of passionate preaching, angry denunciations, or shaming.

Stage some cultural encounters. It’s important to humanize the members of each culture. One of the painful parts of the phrase “cultural sensitivity” is how it wipes away individual differences, and plasters them over with a broad stroke of a “cultural” brush. Cultures are inhabited by individual human beings. These humans find each other relatable because beyond all differences, they are still human. This is not a new insight. To help people relate to others as people, it’s important to help them find a situation where they can relate to each other openly. Thus, the importance of team-building or “Outward Bound” sorts of experiences. People can bridge enormous gaps when called upon to get something done as a team, and they tend to cast petty differences aside automatically. In fact, they do it without even knowing they are being “culturally sensitive.”

Study a different language. Language both binds us together and keeps us separate. Those who study a foreign language enough to somewhat understand its grammar are at a real advantage when it comes to understanding other people, as well as making themselves understood. That means it’s necessary to go beyond the “tourist Spanish” of asking about beer and bathrooms. The real study of a language gives a view into the mental world of the native speaker. Americans are some of the most mono-lingual people in the advanced industrial world, which hurts our ability to relate to other cultures. We’re tightly bound by our dedication to English and insistence that everyone speak it. Reaching out beyond our undeclared “national language” helps develop a real cultural sensitivity that no posters, slogans, or afternoon group activity in the cafeteria ever can. It’s also evident that people from other cultures have already expanded their worldview by somewhat learning English – if they have done so.

Politely decide to disagree. Some cite Voltaire’s quote: “Though I disagree with what you say, I will fight to my death for your right to say it.” That’s a bit extreme. Few feel so passionately about any topic, so the “fight to my death” thing is a bit overblown. Instead, call upon the wisdom of 1970’s country-rock hit makers, The Bellamy Brothers:

There ain’t no good guys
There ain’t no bad guys

There’s only you and me
And we both disagree

These lines were written as a recognition of a romantic breakup, but they can apply to any cultural encounter that seems to create friction. There are no good guys, and no bad guys. The encounter between cultures gets down to individual people meeting each other and recognizing their mutual humanity. Just as in matters of the heart, it’s best to extend understanding and indulgence to each other, and recognize the irreconcilable differences while maintaining some measure of mutual respect. To be real, there are limits to tolerance, and too often what’s really being demanded isn’t mere tolerance, but an all-out embrace. That’s the ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world – not by a long shot. Sometimes it’s best to wish each other the best and just move on, whatever that entails.

The True, Overarching Culture

Of course, there is an unspoken culture that underlies the calls for cultural sensitivity. It’s not as though any of us exist in a vacuum. There’s a culture that dominates all of us, and into which we all must integrate in some way. It would be mistaken to say that “cultural sensitivity” results in a true value-neutral acceptance of any culture at all. It couldn’t be this way, since the acceptance of any culture might entail the acceptance of premises, ideas, and values that would lead to the destruction of the culture that demands we treat each other with tolerance.

So what is this overarching culture that calls us to accommodate each other, and needs to constantly remind us to accept one another in a way that can be observed, and meets certain outward criteria? We need to ask the real reasons driving the demand for cultural sensitivity. What is the purpose of “cultural sensitivity” in the first place?

The purpose of instilling cultural sensitivity in an organization is to get people from disparate human cultures to set their differences aside to support the ultimate dominant cultural value underlying the organization itself. In most ways, this gets down to maximizing value for shareholders. The cultural frictions among people from different backgrounds must be subsumed under the overarching culture of making money for corporate investors.

Thus, international, traditional culture(s) must give way to the larger culture of profit and loss. Long-standing differences must be cast aside to attain (and extend) corporate success.

And that’s the true, overarching culture to which we all must surrender.

If you’re having difficulties with cultural sensitivity where you work, in your school life, or in any other organization, and you feel there might be a need for legal assistance, you should consider posting your legal need to UpCounsel. UpCounsel chooses their legal professionals from the top 5 percent of all applicants. These are highly-educated and extensively trained graduates of universities like Yale, Harvard, and Colombia. They are aware of the challenges behind integrating cultures in modern organizations, and can assist with interpreting any legal implications you might face. Don’t suffer in silence as you deal with encounters between disparate cultures. Whether you’re from the dominant American culture, or from a culture without the same historic influence, the wisdom of UpCounsel professionals might help you.