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Lessons in Cultural Competency In An Everchanging American Landscape

Updated on February 6, 2014

Cultural Competency

Cultural competency can be defined as not just tolerating another's differences, but also understanding another's differences and educating oneself, so that our attitudes will inform us on how to act appropriately and in a considerate manner towards others who "appear" or "sound" different.

Cultural Competency Lesson #1: Think before you speak, Consider before you utter a word, Pause before you lose your patience

We've all heard the term "ugly American" but as the landscape in America changes and we become more of a cultural mecca, there is a certain intolerance that needs to be addressed - that of cultural competency. Cultural competency can be defined as not just tolerating another's differences, but also understanding another's differences and educating oneself, so that our attitudes will inform us on how to act appropriately and in a considerate manner towards others who "appear" or "sound" different.

For example, for the past four years, I worked in a tax preparer's office, primarily with immigrants and refugees who had jobs but no idea about the tax code (and if you really want to know - none of us Americans have any idea about our tax code, either)! Therefore, before reading the following lesson, sit back, close your eyes and imagine that you do not speak English and you have spent several years in a refugee camp. You do not know what size shoe you even wear. Survival is the only name of any game you might have played. You then come to America, where there are laws, rules, traffic codes, and taxes - an infrastructure like you never imagined. You have been given a Social Security card and a job. Your first day on the job, you are given a 1040 Instruction booklet and are asked to fill out a W-4. For most of us, it is a foreign language, although it is written in English. For those who do not speak English, they read the 1040 and W-4 instructions as if they are trying to decode Wingdings. Get the picture? Read on for Lesson 1:

Think Before You Speak

Comments around the office began to surface around the reluctance of many foreigners to pay taxes. One of the comments was, "Don't they know that if you work, you pay taxes?"

The answer to that question is - "no." In this country, we all know that taxes and death are inevitable. In other countries and cultures, however, taxes may not be collected and death is the passage into another dimension. So, in answer to the person who asks if foreigners "know" - in many cultures, the answer lies, really, in the attitudes towards money in other cultures and the role that money plays in that particular culture. A more culturally competent comment (if any comment were really warranted) would have been to empathize with the growing number of immigrants and refugees we have in this country who are thrust into Western civilization without proper education of American rules, regulations, and our general way of life. None of us was born with a set of instructions on how to be an American, nor do any refugees or immigrants enter this country with anything other than a dream to create a better life for their children and families.

Consider Before You Utter A Word

I, too, learned my lesson one day as I invited one of my colleagues from an affiliate agency out for coffee. He is African American from the Congo. He accepted and then told me when we arrived at the coffeehouse, that those who have dark skin do not drink coffee - their job is to pick the coffee for the richer, lighter-skinned people in his country. He told me that the darker-skinned people of the Congo drink tea. Lesson learned and before I ever considered inviting someone for coffee again, I instead said, "Let's meet in the morning for breakfast."

Pause Before You Lose Your Patience

Another case in point: Have you ever spoken to someone in English and then realized that English is not their first language, they did not understand you, so you spoke louder, but still in English, to them? The correct manner in which to speak with someone who does not understand your words, is to slow down and enunciate your words. This is more culturally competent than losing one's patience and appearing to scream at someone who still does not understand you, no matter the volume!

The Moral of the Story

Currently, in the state of New Hampshire alone, where I live, there are 82,000 immigrants. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2010 data, Hispanics will comprise 25% of American residents by the year 2025. Understanding, tolerance, and a little consideration is all we need to exercise, in order to demerit the present moniker of Ugly American. Most of all, in terms of finances - as your grandmother told you: it doesn't cost anything to be nice!

Would you self-describe as an Ugly American?

What is your cultural competency index?

See results

Stay tuned for Cultural Competency Lesson #2

In the next edition of this series on Cultural Competency, we will examine the attitudes of money on a culture-for-culture basis.


Submit a Comment

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Luckily he is not teaching anymore and is probably no longer alive so his prejudice went with him unless he indoctrinated his nieces and nephews against Italians. Sometimes that kind of hatred carries on through families so ignorance perpetuates. Some people just need something or someone to take their unhappiness out on.

  • drfil profile imageAUTHOR

    Filippa S. Viola, Ed.D 

    4 years ago from New Hampshire

    I am so sorry that you had a teacher who made comments about your heritage. There are teachers and there are educators. I would venture to say that yours was no educator, because no self-respecting person would dare to comment on another's heritage. I don't know how long ago that was, but if this was recent, that teacher could face disciplinary measures. At best, I do hope s/he is not in the classroom anymore. Thank you for your comment, especially adding that bullying is also part of this mix of acceptance.

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    I think tolerance also has to do with when you were born. I didn't grow up with many African Americans in my community so I didn't know what racial problems were about. What I experienced was discrimination because I was Italian by a teacher who hated them. I had no idea where he was coming from but would make me cry in his class by making terrible comments about me and my heritage. Such ignorance. Our communities are so diverse today it is just plain ignorant not to be tolerant. You have to remember we are all made of the same thing: flesh, bone and blood and we all have feelings (except for the psychopaths). Most children are now taught zero tolerance for bullying due to differences so hopefully this will continue with future generations.


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