Cultural competence no easy feat

Recently, I attended a diversity workshop as an audience member rather than the leader. person leading the workshop.

It was an excellent opportunity for me to take on the “beginner’s mind” when it comes to diversity issues in our society. And an usual phrase — at least for a diversity beginner — came up: “cultural competence.”

Culture is a term that most people get. Although many mistakenly equate it with race, upon reflection we all know it is really about the norms and unofficial rules and preferences that guide a united group of people.

Some of our cultures come from circumstances of necessity (say, work environments), others from birth or chosen identity (such as race and ethnicity), and some from personal choice (avid skiers or marathon runners, for example). Regardless of what cultures you are in, you know how to navigate what you know. It’s other cultures that can be the problem.

That’s where the competence part comes in. It’s a skill to figure out how to work beside or interact with others of a different culture. And there is almost always a fragile or at least uncomfortable learning curve in doing so if the culture conflicts with whatever preconceived idea you have about it.

Part of the reason it’s called competency is that you don’t ever master getting to know another culture, since every single difference can’t possibly come your way.

No matter how big your workforce is or how diverse you think it is, trust me, you haven’t hit the wall of religions, ethnicities, variations of human sexuality, physical and mental disabilities and other differences that compose the thousands of sub-cultures you could potentially meet.

That’s why, in this case, competency is not a matter of doing the minimal amount; it’s a way of acknowledging that perfection isn’t what you’re aiming for. You’re aiming to respect other people in ways that allows you both to get your jobs done in the best way.

And being in the habit of doing that means you’re a little bit more comfortable doing it all over again when you have to get culturally competent about another culture.