Cultural Sensitivity

Lately the word “sensitive” is often used to describe someone who gets their feelings hurt easily. It’s become, in some circles, a code word for being touchy or lacking resilience. I know I probably should roll with the cultural punches and let language shift as it shifts, but I hate giving up on “sensitive.” Yes, I could use the word “responsive” instead. I could call this “cultural responsivity,” but what an awkward and clinical-sounding phrase. “Sensitive” means exactly what it sounds like: using your senses to be quick to detect even small signs of change. I love that. When it comes to cultural issues, we should have our feelers out and finely tuned. We should train ourselves to be quick to detect and respond to how someone from another culture feels.

If you’re thinking you’re a long way from being quick to detect and respond, welcome to the club. It’s okay to be at the beginning of the process. Like a butterfly, we all start out as hungry little caterpillars, focused just on ourselves and filling up our own needs every day. We take in our own culture, live off of our little leaves, and it’s all the satisfaction we need. When we realize that this isn’t enough, that’s the first step, the building of a chrysalis where we can take a long look inside. We turn inward and take stock. We open ourselves up to be changed. But we can’t stay there forever either. At some point we have to break free, our new antennae feeling out the world, our new wings carrying us lightly from place to place. In this new sensitive and active form, we not only experience so much more of the world, we also become useful pollinators.

So how do we get there? Metaphors are lovely, but they lack something in specifics. Again, I’m no expert. Too often I am slow to detect and slower to respond to cultural needs. But I’m learning.

Here’s what I’m working on:

1. I pay attention to my own biases. We all have biases. Assumptions about people who look a certain way. Attitudes or words that rub us the wrong way. Behaviors that make us cringe. Actions that we judge as selfish or wrong. And sometimes biases go the other way: personality traits we automatically approve of, demeanor that puts us at ease. We all have biases. Having a bias isn’t wrong. We have to make judgements about the world or we can’t navigate it. What we want to avoid are the twin terrors of being unaware that we have biases or allowing our biases to be based on ignorance.

I try to be honest with myself about my biases. I’ll try to be equally honest with you and name a few. Because of my life experiences, I often find myself biased against people from my own culture. If you are wearing a t-shirt with an inspirational saying on it, my automatic response is to think we’ll never be able to have a serious conversation. If someone tends to talk big about his life and accomplishments, I automatically don’t trust him. Other of my biases stem from my own culture. I hate it when people play their music too loud (sensitive ears combined with white upbringing). I have a hard time not finding it rudely invasive. I often find that I make the assumption that physically fit people have their lives together more than those who aren’t fit. (This despite the fact that I’m not particularly fit.)

Once I’ve recognized these biases, I need to stop and think why I hold them and evaluate their validity. The only reason I associate physical fitness with being in control is because that’s how it was always talked about when I was growing up. I now know it’s a false assumption (in both directions) but still I have to fight it. I’m never going to love loud music (unless it’s mine and I’m in the right mood), but I can acknowledge that it doesn’t represent a character flaw in those who do. And though I’ll not be wearing any myself, I’ve met quite a few white women in inspirational t-shirts who had a lot to speak into my life. Big caveat here: I do not suspend all my judgment. I can allow for big-talkers in the sense of larger-than-life personalities, but even after long evaluation, I have found that most boastful people of any culture are lying. It’s not necessary for me to place my trust in liars in the name of being culturally sensitive. We’re recognizing and evaluating our judgment here, not suspending it completely.

Once I can recognize my bias, I can put is aside long enough to do the next thing.

2. I listen to others. I am working to ask questions instead of making assumptions. Experts (not me) tell us that active listening involves five steps. First we really hear, by setting aside distractions and prejudices and letting someone else speak. Second, we attend to what they’re saying, paying careful attention to nonverbal signals and emotions being expressed. Third, we seek to understand by repeating back what we’ve heard and asking follow-up questions. Fourth, we respond, still not talking about ourselves but rather using our empathy to give a response to what they’ve said. Finally, we remember, following up with them later to have more conversations.

A couple of notes about asking questions:

Leading questions are not really questions. A question that only asks for a yes or no, or a question to which you already have an answer in mind is a leading question. “Do you think being late is okay?” Or even, “What are your thoughts on being on time to things?” when you really just want them to say it’s important. True listening questions give people an opening to talk about their own thoughts and feelings. “How is the pace of life different here from where you grew up?” “How does it feel to you that everyone talk about being on time constantly?”

Try to avoid asking people to speak for their whole culture. It’s fine to ask for them to describe how things are in their neighborhood or country or even to describe the behavior of people around them. But no one should have to be a spokesperson for the attitudes and motivations of people they don’t know. And they don’t know everyone from their culture. Ask instead what their experiences have been, how they feel about things, what motivates them personally. Listen to them as a person, not a representative.

3. I initiate in cross-cultural relationships. I’m not always good at this because I, like many people, don’t enjoy taking interpersonal risk. But here’s the reality: if we all just did what came naturally and easily, we’d all just hang out with people from our own culture. Go look at the cafeteria at your local school during lunchtime. Kids sit with kids who look like them. They just do. And it’s not necessarily about hate. It’s about comfort and security (or the lack thereof).

We’re not kids anymore, but our insecurities do linger, don’t they. If I want to learn how to bridge cultural gaps, I’m going to have to start by, you know, stepping into the water. I have to speak up, to introduce myself, to offer coffee or set up a play date or invite someone to dinner. I have to be willing to be awkward, uncomfortable, and wrong. I will be, but I’ll also find things I love that I never knew existed. I’ll make mistakes and possibly cause offense. Then I’ll get the chance to be humble and apologize and I’ll learn on a level I couldn’t have any other way.

I can’t wait for it to happen naturally (it won’t) or for someone else to make it happen (I’ll be waiting a long time). I have to step up.

4. I intentionally learn about other cultures. There are a lot of obvious ways to do this. I eat food from other cultures. I read books about them or (seldom) watch documentaries. I travel if I can. But this isn’t a purely academic idea. I also reach outside my usual routine and consume art from other cultures. I sometimes listen to kinds of music I don’t normally love and try to understand it. I read books I wouldn’t normally, watch TV shows with characters that don’t look like me, go to movies not aimed at my demographic. If I am allowed to give one piece of personal advice, this is it: don’t just check out things that describe people, check out the things they’re into, explore the art and entertainment they enjoy and try to see why they enjoy them. The art people produce communicates so much about their culture. Give it a try. (And if you don’t know where to start, email me. I have thoughts.)

5. I consider more than my personal behavior and evaluate the systems I participate in. Here’s where I take it to the next level and really spread my shaky butterfly wings. My field of work, my kids’ schools, my local government, my housing association, my church, the organizations I belong to. I want to be thoughtful and honest about all of them. What are their cultural leanings? In what way are they making it difficult for people of other cultures to thrive in them? Is there anything I can do to make the system more culturally inclusive?

We can’t let ourselves believe the lie that we’re only responsible for our personal relationships. Yes, I need to be warm and kind and open and understanding with those I meet. But as much as I would like to think of myself as just an individual (more on this cultural leaning in a future post), I am also a member of a community. Several different communities actually. As such, I have a larger responsibility to see how the bigger system of my community is affecting people. My personal kindness isn’t helping families who can’t get decent housing because of neighborhood rules and standard real estate practices. It’s not helping the students failing high school because it was never designed to teach people like them. It’s not helping single moms get appropriate health care in a system with rules that raises hurdles to access on every side. To help those people, I need to do my part to enact systemic change.

If that feels overwhelming, well, sure. It is. Remember, we’re taking steps here. Don’t worry, you don’t have to dismantle health care this week. For now, maybe just be willing to consider the ways the system is not as culturally sensitive as you are. Set aside your bias about it. Then ask some people not like you what their experiences have been. Listen to what they tell you.

Break out of your self-contemplation. Spread your wings and fly around a bit. Look at your comfortable place from the outside. Put out your antennae and sense what others are feeling.

Be ready to respond.

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