What is Cultural Sensitivity?

The question “What is Cultural Sensitivity?” continues to haunt our organizations. Here’s all you ever wanted to know but were too politically correct to ask.

A Definition of Cultural Sensitivity

There are several definitions of cultural sensitivity out there, but I find this one gets the idea across the best.

Cultural sensitivity is being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong.

It simply means that you are aware that people are not all the same and that you recognize that your culture is no better than any other culture. A challenge, if you ask me, for members of dominant cultures.

What is Cultural Sensitivity in the Context of a Dominant Culture?

What is cultural sensitivity? Can you teach Cultural Sensitivity?

What is cultural sensitivity?
Photo Credit: letsbuildnebraska.blogspot.com

In life and work environments we frequently face situations where there is a dominant and a secondary culture. For instance, in the U.S. the European American is the dominant culture whereas Hispanic, African American and Chinese cultures are all secondary.

Cultural sensitivity implies that both groups understand and respect each other’s characteristics. This is always a challenge, and even more so in large corporations where the dominant culture is the one employees are expected to adopt.

Can you teach cultural sensitivity to people and their organizations?

The short answer is yes. There is no lack of programs, books and trainers focused on developing cultural sensitivity skills.

The problem is that they usually come around in times of crisis when people are least receptive to this kind of training. It feels more like a punishment for something that went wrong than an honest attempt at developing real cultural sensitivity.

This is not to say that you can’t help your employees go through all the stages of what Milton Bennett, one of the most respected experts in the field, identified in his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.

Understanding what is cultural sensitivity with the theory of intercultural sensitivity stages

Many years ago, Milton Bennett developed a solid framework to understand the various stages of cultural sensitivity (or as he calls it “intercultural sensitivity”) that a person may experience.

He argues that as people become more and more culturally sensitive, they progress from having an ethnocentric orientation to a more ethnorelative worldview.

In Bennett’s words, “In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.” [1]

According to this theory, people who are truly interested in embracing cultural sensitivity move from:

  • Ethnocentric stage
  • Denial > Defense > Minimization
  • Ethnorelative stages
  • Acceptance > Adaptation > Integration


Definition of each stage of intercultural sensitivity

Let’s take a look at the meaning of each one of these stages.

Ethnocentric stages of intercultural sensitivity

These three stages are: Denial, Defense and Minimization.

Denial: At this stage of cultural sensitivity, people don’t recognize cultural differences and experiences.

They believe their culture is the only “real” one and they tend to interact in homogenous groups and to stereotype everyone else.

Example: People who say, “We are all the same and I don’t understand why we have to learn about the different groups in the company. Why don’t they just learn how we do things in America?”

HSBC Cultural sensitivity campaign | What is Cultural Sensitivity in the Context of a Dominant Culture?

The definition of beauty varies according to culture as featured in the iconic HSBC Cultural sensitivity campaign and responds to the question What is Cultural Sensitivity?

Defense: At the defense stage of cultural sensitivity, people recognize some differences, but see them as negative because they assume their culture is the most evolved, the best one.

Example: People who say, “In Latin America you can’t just get to the point and talk business. They want to tell you their life story. I don’t understand why they can’t just learn to be more direct and save everybody time.”

Minimization: Individuals at this stage of cultural sensitivity are unaware that they are projecting their own cultural values. They see their own values as superior. They think that the mere awareness of cultural differences is enough.

These people think we are all the same because we are more similar than different and, in the end, we all have similar physical, biological, psychological needs etc.

They think they are wonderful because they see people as people but they are actually denying the influence of culture in every person’s experience.

Example: Statements such as, “In the end, we all want to be liked,” or, “We are all people.”

Ethnorelative stages of intercultural sensitivity

The three ethnorelative stages of intercultural sensitivity are: Acceptance, Adaptation and Integration. Let’s see what they look like.

Acceptance: At this stage of cultural sensitivity people are able to shift perspectives to understand that the same “ordinary” behavior can have different meanings in different cultures. They are able to identify how experiences are influenced by one’s culture.

They may not agree or even like the differences they observe but they are interested in finding out and learning about another culture.

Example: People who approach others with genuine interest and curiosity about how they experience the same situations. They ask questions such as, “How do Dominicans do it?” or, “What would your family do in a situation like this?”

Another example of how different people can have widely different perspectives when looking at people, animals, situations, etc. Another great example of the iconic HSBC

Another example of how different people can have widely different perspectives when looking at people, animals, situations, etc. Another great example of the iconic HSBC Cultural sensitivity campaign

Adaptation: Individuals who are at this stage of cultural sensitivity become more competent in their ability to communicate with other cultures.

They can evaluate other people’s behavior from these people’s frame of reference and can adapt behavior to fit the norms of a different culture.

Example: People who seamlessly interact with others from different cultures by following the norms of that culture. They feel that they can respect their own values while adapting to the values of other cultures they interact with. They use empathy effectively.

For instance, people who bow at the right time when interacting with Japanese clients or naturally expect their Mexican guests forty-five minutes after the scheduled start time of a party.

Integration: People who are at this stage of cultural sensitivity are able to shift easily from one cultural frame of reference to another. They develop empathy for other cultures.

People who are equally comfortable with one culture or another.

Example: This stage is easy to see with perfectly bilingual/bicultural individuals who almost change their personality when they interact with one group (their family, for instance) or another (their Anglo co-workers, for instance) but they are equally genuine in both situations.

How far should you expect your team to go regarding their own cultural sensitivity?

Part of answering the question of what is cultural sensitivity is to realize that one of the main purposes of becoming more culturally competent is to become more effective in your relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers.

What is Cultural Sensitivity? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is delicious to some and disgusting to others.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is delicious to some and disgusting to others.

Don’t expect for people to change their worldviews overnight or after a workshop or even an intensive program.

It is the cohesive introduction of opportunities for interaction with different cultures, training in the practice of empathy, and practical exposure to the way different cultures experience a similar situation that will produce more sustainable results.

Team building, hands-on activities, and facilitated story telling (where members of a diverse group take turns sharing stories) are good tools to awaken interest in evolving from an ethnocentric to a more ethnorelative stage of intercultural sensitivity.

[1] Milton Bennett, Developmental Model of Cultural Sensitivity, 1993

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Award-winning, best-selling author, corporate consultant and international speaker on career success and women empowerment. Frequent media contributor on CNN, Univision, Telemundo and others. Her latest book "Find Your Inner Red Shoes" is the backbone of the Red Shoe Movement.
9 replies
  1. Carmen Gary
    Carmen Gary says:

    I have experienced different cultural aspects to how person are being raised in their homes, and lacking cultural respect for young generations vs elders/old school respect for the family.

  2. Joy Butler
    Joy Butler says:

    I agree that it is important to recognize that people often do not change their views overnight. Although, having intercultural guest speakers in your office could be a great way to gradually soften your employees sharp views and enable them to be more sensitive. It could be a good idea to discuss your intentions of inviting a speaker so that your employees could know that they should be focused on the message of being culturally aware is important to your workplace.

  3. Valerie Wieckowski
    Valerie Wieckowski says:

    Hi! I’m a student at Western Michigan University studying Spirituality, Culture, and Health. The degree teaches a lot about cultural sensitivity, competence, and diversity and inclusion. In regards to health care and organizations. I’m looking to find job titles to search for when I graduate in the realm of consulting work, spiritual care, and diversity manager. Do you have any suggestions.

    • Mariela Dabbah
      Mariela Dabbah says:

      Hi Valerie, congratulations on your choice of career. You should look at “Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, Manager or Director.” Some companies are starting to use the term “belonging” as in “Chief Inclusion and Belonging Officer.” Although it’s probably too early in your career for that position, keep your eyes open for what may come up using that term. Also check anything under “leadership development”. Good luck!


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