In this lesson, we will discuss cultural sensitivity. Learn more about cultural sensitivity, how it plays out in the real world, and why it is important. Look at some examples that illustrate it as well.

What Is Cultural Sensitivity?

Cultural sensitivity refers to a set of skills that allows you to understand and learn about people whose cultural background is not the same as yours. But, what does that really mean? Let’s take a look at some examples.

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Example 1

Avery Jones, a 55-year-old African-American woman, has not been feeling well. Since she is new in town and has not yet had a chance to establish care with a physician, she decides to go to Dr. James Morrison at her friend’s recommendation. Upon their first meeting, the 32-year-old Dr. Morrison introduces himself as ‘Dr. Morrison’ and calls her ‘Avery.’ Dr. Morrison then assumes that she is on Medicaid. Avery Jones leaves Dr. Morrison’s practice upset and decides to find a different doctor. Dr. Morrison is obviously confused about her response. So, what did he do wrong?

In this example, Dr. Morrison was not being culturally sensitive. In many cultures, it is customary to call people by their last names, especially when they are older than you. Since Dr. Morrison called his patient ‘Avery’ instead of ‘Mrs. Jones,’ she took it as a sign of disrespect. To make matters worse, Dr. Morrison assumed that Avery was on Medicaid based solely upon his initial impression of her. This not only upset Mrs. Jones, but also prevented her from getting the medical treatment that she needed.

So, what would the culturally sensitive approach look like? Instead of calling her ‘Avery,’ Dr. Morrison would have asked her how she would like to be addressed. He could then make a note in her chart so that all of the staff know to address her as ‘Mrs. Jones.’ Instead of assuming that Mrs. Jones was on Medicaid, Dr. Morrison would have asked her if she had medical insurance and who her insurance provider was. Or maybe, he would have avoided the subject all together, as most practices have a billing department that handles insurance matters. Let’s look at another example.

Example 2

Jane is an international business woman whose company has decided to open an office in Japan. Jane is preparing for her first meeting in the new office. Jane has several Japanese assistants working with her to help her get ready. Jane tries to beckon one of the assistants to come into her office. Instead of pointing her index finger at the assistant, Jane walks over to her assistant and politely asks her to join her in the office.

How is Jane being culturally sensitive? While it is okay to beckon someone in the United States by curling or pointing your index finger at them, in Japan this behavior is seen as offensive.

It is obvious that Jane has taken the time to educate herself about Japanese culture and adjust her behavior to the culture. Jane is not placing value on these cultural differences, i.e., Jane is not saying that her culture is better than the Japanese culture. Rather, she is being respectful of her assistants’ culture, keeping an open mind, and educating herself about the culture so that she can run a better business.

Importance of Cultural Sensitivity

Our culture influences many aspects of our lives. It influences how we interact with others and with the world around us. People who are culturally sensitive are able to function in other cultures. They value and respect diversity and are open to learning things from the point of view of others.

Cultural sensitivity allows us to respond in a respectful and appropriate manner to different types of people in a way that recognizes and affirms their worth, regardless of their cultural background. Cultural sensitivity is especially important in helping professionals such as doctors, psychologists, and nurses. This is because cultural barriers between professionals and their patients have been found to lead to inadequate health care among minority groups.

There are several ways in which you can improve your cultural sensitivity, including:

  • Being open to learning about the traditions and beliefs of other cultures
  • Being aware of your own culture and how it has influenced you
  • Examining your own biases and prejudices
  • Seeking knowledge about other cultures, especially those that you encounter often
  • Taking time to listen to others and ask questions instead of making assumptions

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Cultural sensitivity is defined as skills that permit us to learn about and understand others who come from a different cultural background. Cultural sensitivity is important because it allows us to effectively function in other cultures, allows us to respect and value other cultures, and can reduce cultural barriers between professionals and their patients. We can improve our cultural sensitivity by examining our biases and learning about other cultures that we encounter, among other things.

Ways to Improve Cultural Sensitivity

  • Pay attention to one’s own prejudices and biases
  • Listen to others
  • Ask questions rather than make assumptions
  • Cultivate knowledge about other cultures

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed the lesson on cultural sensitivity, you could have the enhanced ability to:

  • Understand what is meant by the term ‘cultural sensitivity’
  • Discuss examples of individuals displaying cultural sensitivity or a lack of sensitivity
  • Determine the reasons that cultural sensitivity is important
  • Outline methods for improving cultural sensitivity