Chapter 48: Cultural Competency

The information in this chapter is designed to better prepare students for the intellectual and societal challenges facing an increasingly diverse society.

Life in Quarantine

Since March 2020, the world has been turned upside down due to the covid-19 pandemic.  The Life in Quarantine Project has invited people from all over the globe to share their personal stories about how the pandemic has affected them.  To read about others’ experiences and share your own story, please see:

Where Are You From?

Think about the question “where are you from?” What does it imply? Is it home? Is it where someone was born? Is it where their parents were born? Their grandparents? Is where someone is “from” connected with where they live? Have you ever assumed that someone of a certain ethnic background might come from a certain region?

A beautiful woman is wrapped in a glittering green scarf with only one kohl lined eye peering out at the viewer. Gold cuffs adorn both of her wrists as she holds gently onto the scarf

Definitions of Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is the social awareness that everyone is unique, that different cultures and backgrounds affect how people think and behave, and that this awareness allows people to behave appropriately and perform effectively in culturally diverse environments.

Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professions to function effectively. Five essential elements contribute to a system’s, institution’s, or agency’s ability to become more culturally competent which include:

  • Valuing diversity
  • Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment
  • Being conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact
  • Having institutionalized culture knowledge
  • Having developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting and understanding of cultural diversity

These five elements should be manifested at every level of an organization including policy making, administrative, and practice. Further these elements should be reflected in the attitudes, structures, policies and services of the organization[1].

As a college student, you are likely to find yourself in diverse classrooms, organizations, and – eventually – workplaces. It is important to prepare yourself to be able to adapt to diverse environments. Cultural competency can be defined as the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities. It involves “(a) the cultivation of deep cultural self-awareness and understanding (i.e., how one’s own beliefs, values, perceptions, interpretations, judgments, and behaviors are influenced by one’s cultural community or communities) and (b) increased cultural other-understanding (i.e., comprehension of the different ways people from other cultural groups make sense of and respond to the presence of cultural differences).”1

In other words, cultural competency requires you to be aware of your own cultural practices, values, and experiences, and to be able to read, interpret, and respond to those of others. Such awareness will help you successfully navigate the cultural differences you will encounter in diverse environments. Cultural competency is critical to working and building relationships with people from different cultures; it is so critical, in fact, that it is now one of the most highly desired skills in the modern workforce.2

Cultural Quotient (CQ)

Cultural Quotient (CQ) helps us understand and communicate with people from other cultures effectively. It is one’s ability to recognize cultural differences through knowledge and mindfulness, and behave appropriately when facing people from other cultures. Mindful is defined as being conscious or aware of something. The cultural intelligence approach goes beyond this emphasis on knowledge because it also emphasizes the importance of developing an overall repertoire of understanding, motivation, and skills that enables one to move in and out of lots of different cultural contexts[2].

Due to the globalization of our world, people of different cultures today live together in communities across our many nations. This presents more opportunities to interact with diverse individuals in many facets and thus, today’s workforce would need to know the customs and worldviews of other cultures. Therefore, people with a higher CQ can better interact with people from other cultures easily and more effectively.

Rationale for Curriculum Inclusion

Our country and our workplace settings are becoming more and more culturally diverse. Additionally, interaction with individuals and groups from other countries and cultures either face-to-face or in virtual contexts is more commonplace than ever. Effective working relationships provide for productive outcomes (e.g., products, services). For college students to be successful in their future careers, it is necessary that they be exposed to others who are culturally diverse and that they engage in discussions and activities that help them not only effectively function in those settings but actively contribute to those positive and productive outcomes.


Intercultural Skills Project. Students are to choose one of the following three options (activities) that will contribute most to their personal and professional goals and learning.

Option A: Attend and assist with activities at the International Student Orientation. Once you have participated in this activity, please prepare a report in which you address the following points:

  1. Describe your feelings and thoughts regarding your experiences at the orientation.
  2. What did you learn about yourself?
  3. What did you learn about international students?
  4. Name two ways in which you can use what you have learned in relationship to your personal/professional goals.

Option B: Make contact with a refugee center, international service agency, director of International Program (if not in your office), place of worship, or local commmunity center to volunteer.  The goal is to be able to meet and spend some time serving an international student, family, or individual. (This must be a student, family, or individual you are not previously acquainted with). Many international students have remained on the campus during the break or are soon arriving at campuses. They may need assistance finding their way around, visiting various campus/community offices, grocery shopping, etc. Some International Centers may have refugees who may need someone to take them grocery shopping, to visit thrift shops, or other introductory experiences in the community.

Once you have participated in this activity, please prepare a report in which you address the following points:

  1. Describe your feelings and thoughts regarding your cross cultural interaction.
  2. What did you learn about yourself?
  3. What did you learn about individual(s) from other countries?
  4. Name two ways in which you can use what you have learned in relationship to your personal/professional goals.

Option C: Develop a program, activity or service designed to meet the needs of a specific international student population. As part of the research for the development of this program, activity or service, you should interview and interact with representative(s) of the international student population identified for this project. Once you have participated in this activity, please prepare a report in which you address the following points:

  1. Describe the program, activity or service you developed (what, why, how, when, where).
  2. What did you learn about yourself?
  3. What did you learn about individual(s) from other countries?
  4. Name two ways in which you can use what you have learned in relationship to your personal/professional goals.

Sample scenarios:

Matt’s case:

Matt is participating in a student exchange program in Japan. He loves to eat doughnuts or pancakes for breakfast.   However, his host-family usually has a traditional Japanese breakfast (e.g., rice, miso-soup, pickles, egg dish, and/or broiled fish) with chopsticks. He is learning and getting better at using chopsticks. However, he doesn’t feel like having soup or fish for breakfast.   One day when he went to a grocery store with Sachi, his host-mom, he found a doughnuts section. Matt suggested that they have doughnuts for breakfast. Sachi was surprised and said, “We can have doughnuts as a snack, but not for breakfast. They are too sweet for breakfast.”

Cultural norms influence when, how, and what we eat.

Kate’s case:

Kate is a first-generation college student from a rural area of Kentucky.

When she came to college, she was surprised to see many foreign-born students and faculty/staff on campus.   One of her class instructors is not a native English speaker, and he has a thick foreign accent. At first she was shocked because she could hardly understand her teacher. However, when she paid more attention to what he said, she found out that his English was not bad. She actually got used to his accent during the first week of classes.

One day, Kate met Tim from Boston, Massachusetts.   Unfortunately, she sometimes could not understand what he said because of his Boston accent. When she politely mentioned his accent, he laughed and pointed out that she has a Southern accent. He seems to be a nice person, but she feels that he is too direct.

How we speak and what kind of accent we have is determined by our experience (i.e, where we grew up and by whom we were raised, etc.).

In the following video, representatives from Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care elaborate on the concept of cultural competency:

Video: Cultural Competency at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care

We don’t automatically understand differences among people and celebrate the value of those differences. Cultural competency is a skill that you can learn and improve upon over time and with practice. What actions can you take to build your cultural competency skills?

  • Acknowledge your own uniqueness, for you are diverse, too. Diversity doesn’t involve just other people. Consider that you may be just as different to other people as they are to you. Don’t think of the other person as being the one who is different, that you are somehow the “norm.” Your religion may seem just as odd to them as theirs does to you, and your clothing may seem just as strange looking to them as theirs is to you—until you accept there is no one “normal” or right way to be. Look at yourself in a mirror and consider why you look as you do. Why do you use the slang you do with your friends? Why did you just have that type of food for breakfast? How is it that you prefer certain types of music? Read certain books? Talk about certain things? Much of this has to do with your cultural background—so it makes sense that someone from another cultural or ethnic background is different in some ways. But both of you are also individuals with your own tastes, preferences, ideas, and attitudes—making you unique. It’s only when you realize your own uniqueness that you can begin to understand and respect the uniqueness of others, too.
  • Consider your own (possibly unconscious) stereotypes. A stereotype is a fixed, simplistic view of what people in a certain group are like. It is often the basis for prejudice and discrimination: behaving differently toward someone because you stereotype them in some way. Stereotypes are generally learned and emerge in the dominant culture’s attitudes toward those from outside that dominant group. A stereotype may be explicitly racist and destructive, and it may also be a simplistic generalization applied to any group of people, even if intended to be flattering rather than negative. As you have read this chapter so far, did you find yourself thinking about any group of people, based on any kind of difference, and perhaps thinking in terms of stereotypes? If you walked into a party and saw many different kinds of people standing about, would you naturally avoid some and move toward others? Remember, we learn stereotypes from our cultural background—so it’s not a terrible thing to admit you have inherited some stereotypes. Thinking about them is a first step in breaking out of these irrational thought patterns.
  • Do not try to ignore differences among people. Some people try so hard to avoid stereotyping that they go to the other extreme and try to avoid seeing any differences at all among people. But as we have seen throughout this chapter, people are different in many ways, and we should accept that if we are to experience the benefits of diversity.
  • Don’t apply any group generalizations to individuals. As an extension of not stereotyping any group, also don’t think of any individual person in terms of group characteristics. People are individuals first, members of a group second, and any given generalization simply may not apply to an individual. Be open-minded and treat everyone with respect as an individual with his or her own ideas, attitudes, and preferences.
  • Develop cultural sensitivity for communication. Realize that your words may not mean quite the same thing in different cultural contexts or to individuals from different backgrounds. This is particularly true of slang words, which you should generally avoid until you are sure the other person will know what you mean. Never try to use slang or expressions you think are common in the cultural group of the person you are speaking with. Similarly, since body language often varies among different cultures, avoid strong gestures and expressions until the responses of the other person signify he or she will not misinterpret the messages sent by your body language.
  • Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness. Your college likely has multiculturalism courses or workshops you can sign up for. Special events, cultural fairs and celebrations, concerts, and other programs are held frequently on most campuses. There may also be opportunities to participate in group travel to other countries or regions of cultural diversity.
  • Take the initiative in social interactions. Many students just naturally hang out with other students they are most like—that almost seems to be part of human nature. Even when we’re open-minded and want to learn about others different from ourselves, it often seems easier and more comfortable to interact with others of the same age, cultural group, and so on. If we don’t make a small effort to meet others, however, we miss a great opportunity to learn and broaden our horizons. Next time you’re looking around the classroom or dorm for someone to ask about a class you missed or to study together for a test or group project, choose someone different from you in some way. Making friends with others of different backgrounds is often one of the most fulfilling experiences of college students.
  • Work through conflicts as in any other interaction. Conflicts simply occur among people, whether of the same or different background. If you are afraid of making a mistake when interacting with someone from a different background, you might avoid interaction altogether—and thus miss the benefits of diversity. Nothing risked, nothing gained. If you are sincere and respect the other, there is less risk of a misunderstanding occurring. If a conflict does occur, work to resolve it as you would any other tension with another person.
Since before the writing of the Declaration of Independence,African descendants have been here on this land helping to grow and build it into what it is today. “I too am America”shows some figures and collages of the past and present to showthe viewer that even though the struggle has persisted we are still herefighting just to be considered. 3/5 is written on the canvas just in case we have forgotten that African Americans or blacks were not even considered a whole person. With the killing of so many people of color through the years it still feels that way
I too am America

Developing your cultural competency will help you be more in tune with the cultural nuances and differences present in any situation. It is also the first step in being able to appreciate the benefits diversity can bring to a situation.




  • Define and apply principles of cultural competency


This activity will help you examine ways in which you can develop your awareness of and commitment to diversity on campus. Answer the following questions to the best of your ability:

  • What are my plans for expanding myself personally and intellectually in college?
  • What kind of community will help me expand most fully, with diversity as a factor in my expansion?
  • What are my comfort zones, and how might I expand them to connect with more diverse groups?
  • Do I want to be challenged by new viewpoints, or will I feel more comfortable connecting with people who are like me?
  • What are my biggest questions about diversity?
  • Submit this assignment according to directions from your instructor.

Consider the following strategies to help you answer the questions:

  • Examine extracurricular activities. Can you get involved with clubs or organizations that promote and expand diversity?
  • Review your college’s curriculum. In what ways does it reflect diversity? Does it have departments and courses on historically unrepresented peoples, e.g., cultural and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Look for study-abroad programs, as well.
  • Read your college’s mission statement. Read the mission statement of other colleges. How do they match up with your values and beliefs? How do they align with the value of diversity?
  • Inquire with friends, faculty, colleagues, family. Be open about diversity. What does it mean to others? What positive effects has it had on them? Ask people about diversity.
  • Research can help. You might consult college literature, Web sites, resource centers and organizations on campus, etc.


Global Stratification and Classification

This photo is of a city with large high rises in the background and a slum in the foreground.
Figure 48.1 Contemporary economic development often follows a similar pattern around the world, best described as a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Nijdam/Wikimedia Commons)

The April 24, 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, was the deadliest garment factory accident in history, and it was preventable (International Labour Organization, Department of Communication 2014).

In addition to garment factories employing about 5,000 people, the building contained a bank, apartments, childcare facilities, and a variety of shops. Many of these closed the day before the collapse when cracks were discovered in the building walls. When some of the garment workers refused to enter the building, they were threatened with the loss of a month’s pay. Most were young women, aged twenty or younger. They typically worked over thirteen hours a day, with two days off each month. For this work, they took home between twelve and twenty-two cents an hour, or $10.56 to $12.48 a week. Without that pay, most would have been unable to feed their children. In contrast, the U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and workers receive wages at time-and-a-half rates for work in excess of forty hours a week.

Did you buy clothes from Walmart in 2012? What about at The Children’s Place? Did you ever think about where those clothes came from? Of the outsourced garments made in the garment factories, 32 percent were intended for U.S., Canadian, and European stores. In the aftermath of the collapse, it was revealed that Walmart jeans were made in the Ether Tex garment factory on the fifth floor of the Rana Plaza building, while 120,000 pounds of clothing for The Children’s Place were produced in the New Wave Style Factory, also located in the building. Afterward, Walmart and The Children’s Place pledged $1 million and $450,000 (respectively) to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, but fifteen other companies with clothing made in the building have contributed nothing, including U.S. companies Cato and J.C. Penney (Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights 2014).

Think about the global system that allows U.S. companies to outsource their manufacturing to peripheral nations, where many women and children work in conditions that some characterize as slave labor. Do people in the United States have a responsibility to foreign workers? Should U.S. corporations be held accountable for what happens to garment factory workers who make their clothing? What can you do as a consumer to help such workers?

Just as the United States’ wealth is increasingly concentrated among its richest citizens while the middle class slowly disappears, global inequality is concentrating resources in certain nations and is significantly affecting the opportunities of individuals in poorer and less powerful countries. In fact, a recent Oxfam (2014) report that suggested the richest eighty-five people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion combined. The Gini coefficient measures income inequality between countries using a 100-point scale on which 1 represents complete equality and 100 represents the highest possible inequality. In 2007, the global Gini coefficient that measured the wealth gap between the core nations in the northern part of the world and the mostly peripheral nations in the southern part of the world was 75.5 percent (Korseniewicz and Moran 2009). But before we delve into the complexities of global inequality, let’s consider how the three major sociological perspectives might contribute to our understanding of it.

The functionalist perspective is a macroanalytical view that focuses on the way that all aspects of society are integral to the continued health and viability of the whole. A functionalist might focus on why we have global inequality and what social purposes it serves. This view might assert, for example, that we have global inequality because some nations are better than others at adapting to new technologies and profiting from a globalized economy, and that when core nation companies locate in peripheral nations, they expand the local economy and benefit the workers.

Conflict theory focuses on the creation and reproduction of inequality. A conflict theorist would likely address the systematic inequality created when core nations exploit the resources of peripheral nations. For example, how many U.S. companies take advantage of overseas workers who lack the constitutional protection and guaranteed minimum wages that exist in the United States? Doing so allows them to maximize profits, but at what cost?

The symbolic interaction perspective studies the day-to-day impact of global inequality, the meanings individuals attach to global stratification, and the subjective nature of poverty. Someone applying this view to global inequality would probably focus on understanding the difference between what someone living in a core nation defines as poverty (relative poverty, defined as being unable to live the lifestyle of the average person in your country) and what someone living in a peripheral nation defines as poverty (absolute poverty, defined as being barely able, or unable, to afford basic necessities, such as food).

Global Stratification

While stratification in the United States refers to the unequal distribution of resources among individuals, global stratification refers to this unequal distribution among nations. There are two dimensions to this stratification: gaps between nations and gaps within nations. When it comes to global inequality, both economic inequality and social inequality may concentrate the burden of poverty among certain segments of the earth’s population (Myrdal 1970). As the chart below illustrates, people’s life expectancy depends heavily on where they happen to be born.

Country Infant Mortality Rate Life Expectancy
Norway 2.48 deaths per 1000 live births 81 years
The United States 6.17 deaths per 1000 live births 79 years
North Korea 24.50 deaths per 1000 live births 70 years
Afghanistan 117.3 deaths per 1000 live births 50 years

Table 48.1 Statistics such as infant mortality rates and life expectancy vary greatly by country of origin. (Central Intelligence Agency 2011).

Most of us are accustomed to thinking of global stratification as economic inequality. For example, we can compare the United States’ average worker’s wage to America’s average wage. Social inequality, however, is just as harmful as economic discrepancies. Prejudice and discrimination—whether against a certain race, ethnicity, religion, or the like—can create and aggravate conditions of economic equality, both within and between nations. Think about the inequity that existed for decades within the nation of South Africa. Apartheid, one of the most extreme cases of institutionalized and legal racism, created a social inequality that earned it the world’s condemnation.

Gender inequity is another global concern. Consider the controversy surrounding female genital mutilation. Nations that practice this female circumcision procedure defend it as a longstanding cultural tradition in certain tribes and argue that the West shouldn’t interfere. Western nations, however, decry the practice and are working to stop it.

Inequalities based on sexual orientation and gender identity exist around the globe. According to Amnesty International, a number of crimes are committed against individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles or sexual orientations (however those are culturally defined). From culturally sanctioned rape to state-sanctioned executions, the abuses are serious. These legalized and culturally accepted forms of prejudice and discrimination exist everywhere—from the United States to Somalia to Tibet—restricting the freedom of individuals and often putting their lives at risk (Amnesty International 2012).

Global Classification

A major concern when discussing global inequality is how to avoid an ethnocentric bias implying that less-developed nations want to be like those who’ve attained post-industrial global power. Terms such as developing (nonindustrialized) and developed (industrialized) imply that unindustrialized countries are somehow inferior, and must improve to participate successfully in the global economy, a label indicating that all aspects of the economy cross national borders. We must take care how we delineate different countries. Over time, terminology has shifted to make way for a more inclusive view of the world.

Cold War terminology was developed during the Cold War era (1945–1980). Familiar and still used by many, it classifies countries into first world, second world, and third world nations based on their respective economic development and standards of living. When this nomenclature was developed, capitalistic democracies such as the United States and Japan were considered part of the first world. The poorest, most undeveloped countries were referred to as the third world and included most of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The second world was the in-between category: nations not as limited in development as the third world, but not as well off as the first world, having moderate economies and standard of living, such as China or Cuba. Later, sociologist Manual Castells (1998) added the term fourth world to refer to stigmatized minority groups that were denied a political voice all over the globe (indigenous minority populations, prisoners, and the homeless, for example).

Also during the Cold War, global inequality was described in terms of economic development. Along with developing and developed nations, the terms less-developed nation and underdeveloped nation were used. This was the era when the idea of noblesse oblige (first-world responsibility) took root, suggesting that the so-termed developed nations should provide foreign aid to the less-developed and underdeveloped nations in order to raise their standard of living.

This video portrays assumptions and expectations some people have about having their DNA tested.  How do you think it ties into cultural competency?

Video: The DNA Journey

Curator’s note: This chapter was created as a project for an Stanford University EPIC (Education Partnership for Internationalizing Curriculum) Global Studies Fellowship project.

Licenses and Attributions:

The Life in Quarantine Project was designed by Stanford University graduate students Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo, Farah Bazzi, and Ellis Schriefer.

CC licensed content, Original:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

All rights reserved content:

  1. Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., and Isaacs, M. (1989). Toward a culturally competent system of care (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: Georgetown University.
  2. Ang, S., & Van Dyne, L. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook on cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement and applications. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2021 by Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book