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The Advantage of Subculture Awareness in Counseling
Learning about Subculture Facilitates Rapport
Get Your Subcultural Hat On
We are all aware of the need for cultural competency in counseling. Culture and subculture are of tremendous importance in understanding clients, especially when a certain behavior takes the therapist by surprise or is baffling. I feel that as much as culture is important, subculture is equally so. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, and using that to help create rapport with clients is an effective skill.
When It Works
In Reading Terminal Market, I am sitting with my son. Next to us is a table full of people, all wearing brown. Their children are playing a game of tag; one little boy tags my son and yells, “He has the power now! He has the power!” Smiling, I tell my son, “Say, ‘No power in the ‘verse can stop me!” Every pair of eyes at the table next to me is suddenly focused on me – and they are all smiling.
I am in my first session of family therapy, which has he unusual structure of being three sisters, each with a runaway teenage daughter. The family is Jewish; I recognize the mezuzah on the door and the Judaica in the home. As I lay the groundwork for how the session will run, I say, “When we are talking, please be appropriate with one another. Nobody gets to be a meshugenah.” Everyone laughs; I am one of them.
I am working with abused and neglected youth who are aging out of the system, teaching life skills. These are young adults who often have few connections and have learned one thing about the system – no one cares about them. Reaching them takes a special touch. I remember advice a colleague and friend once gave to me about working with this type of client. She told me that knowing the music was a key to creating rapport – and you have to really know it, because these kids will test you to see if you’re faking. I learn the words and the names of the bands and even end up with some on my iPod. When I use my iPod in the program van on a group trip, the kids are able to find music they know and understand there: Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes, Gwen Stefani. I gain their respect.
I am working with a dysfunctional family. The rest of the therapy team has informed me that the father in the family often yells, is not responsive to calls, and does not do his homework. On the second session, I notice the father is wearing a T-shirt with a dragon and a warrior on it; later he tells me he wants to open a New Age shop. “You’re pagan!” I say. “You know about that,” he responds, approvingly. I do – and Dad returns my calls, allows me in his home to work with his kids when he isn’t there, and does every homework assignment I give him. He speaks freely to me and tells other members of the treatment team that he’s happy I’m there. For the first time in a long time, the family has a week where no one hits anyone else.
Nearly every culture has subcultures. If a therapist happens to know that he will be working with clients from a particular culture or subculture, it is often tremendously helpful to take enough time to research information about that group. In my second story above, I was able to draw on six years of Hebrew school and a half-Jewish upbringing to show my clients that I am able to understand where they are coming from and what their culture expects of them. It helped me to avoid missteps in discussing spirituality when our sessions headed in that direction. In the story about the dysfunctional family, my understanding of the pagan community gave the Dad a reason to consider trusting me, which he had not been able to do with other therapists.
Understanding of culture is a key to building rapport and establishing the therapist as a “real” person in the eyes of the client. With couples, this understanding allows us to see where each client is coming from as an individual as well as where cultural beliefs, sometimes not even recognized as beliefs, add to clashes.
Couples with greater subcultural divergence are more likely to have marital problems than couples without. Helping partners remember those similarities within a cultural or even a subcultural framework can help strengthen the relationship. Furthermore, a therapist who is able to understand how the subcultural story of the couple has changed over time (the frequently heard “We’ve drifted apart” or “S/he’s changed”) may be able to approach the couple’s problems from a frame of mind that a therapist who is not paying attention to culture and subculture might miss.
The importance of culture and subculture cannot be overestimated in any kind of therapy. Cultural beliefs are ingrained from birth; we all have these scripts and assumptions. They come from our families, our education, and the world around us. Largely, we are unaware of them. Subculture is often constituted from chosen beliefs or affiliations and can create the opportunity for openness between client and therapist. A therapist who understands a chosen subculture – for example, Goth, thespian, artist, equestrians, sports fans, or, in the case of my first story, fans of Firefly/Serenity – often gains immediate credibility and acceptance that other therapists might not. Investigating subcultures is an effective way to better care for your clients.