What is Cultural Competence?


There are many academic definitions of cultural competence, probably almost as many as there are for 'culture'. (See website of National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University)

Practically, at a personal level, cultural competence is the ability to interact comfortably with, and provide services effectively to, people from a wide range of ethnic/cultural and linguistic backgrounds, some of whom may look and/or sound seriously different from you. Cultural competence includes the ability to overcome language barriers.

At an organisational level, cultural competence requires policies and systems that support and facilitate individual cultural competence. 

At both levels, cultural competence is an ongoing process. There is no final destination to reach. The individual's understanding, knowledge and skills will, ideally, just continue to grow.

Unfortunately, cultural awareness is at the 'unconsciously incompetent' stage for many organisations, and therefore just not on managers' radar at all.

The individual's journey

There is a range of personal qualities or values that are regularly associated with cultural competence: curiosity, empathy, kindness, humour, persistence, patience, courage, humility, sensitivity.  Some people have these naturally, and some people have to work hard to develop them.

Sometimes items of knowledge assist in the development of these qualities. When I have finished a training segment which explores how difficult it is for many adults to acquire a second language to a high level of competence, Anglo-Australian participants have said to me that they are going to be much more patient in future with people who are struggling with English, or that they feel much more motivated to offer/arrange a professional interpreter. In this way, attitudes and values are influenced by the understanding that comes from knowledge.

Detailed information about the migration/refugee experience can have a similar effect. Many Anglo-Australians have never really 'heard' the intensity of the suffering and fear, and when they do, their empathy (sensitivity, patience) is greatly expanded.

The skills associated with cultural competence are not difficult to learn, once you have the values: the ability to listen carefully and to really hear; the ability to ask the right questions at the right time; the ability to organise, and communicate effectively through, a professional interpreter. One of the most daunting skills to develop if you don't have it naturally is the ability to decipher English through an unfamiliar accent. Even this can be improved.

The good news is that cultural competence can be learned, and the learning process is exceptionally enriching. Further good news is that you don't have to know everything about all the cultures in Australia to be culturally competent. That would be impossible in any case (More than 220 other birthplaces? and more than 220 languages?). Good will, and knowing the right questions to ask, will take you far.

Good cross-cultural training will provide invaluable support and direction for this addictive adventure into the world of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Margaret Bornhorst Cross-Cultural business name of Mango Management & Services Pty Ltd
ABN 81 003 648 342

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