The claim that every person is a product of his own cultural background which includes, among other things, his life experiences as well as family, religion, ethnicity and age (Kim, 2001, p. 207) reflects the idea that cultural competence inevitably requires an understanding of other people’s cultural background other than one’s own.
While it is true that “our cultural inventory provides us with valuable insights for understanding our beliefs and attitudes” as well as our values and assumptions” (Kim, 2001, p. 207), it is also important to consider the need to fill that inventory with how other individuals perceive people from other cultural backgrounds. With respect to cultural competence, it is not always enough to satisfy the need to widen our cultural awareness solely through our personal knowledge of other cultures.
Indeed, it is true that we should look into the different parts of “our own cultural identity and examine their positive and negative impacts on our professional and personal development” (Kim, 2001, p. 27). But more to that, we should also consider how other people see other people in terms of their cultural background.
In essence, cultural competence can sustain cultural awareness and tolerance inasmuch as it can further foster interaction among cultures. According to Johnson, Lenartowicz and Apud (2006), cultural competence involves at least four elements: knowledge of personal cultural worldview, knowledge of other cultural worldviews and practices, perception towards differences in cultures, and cross-cultural skills. Assuming that we are the products of each of our own cultural backgrounds, it appears that to be culturally competent means to be able to recognize other cultures and to be able to interact with those cultures.
Interaction can come in many forms, from simple hand and facial gestures to the more complex ones such as personal interaction on a verbal basis. Whatever way we choose to interact with people who belong to another culture, it is important to practice tolerance towards cultural differences. Cultural intolerance can very well lead to disagreement or, worse, to bigotry. Cultural competence presupposes cultural tolerance precisely because the latter allows individuals from distinct cultures to interact with one another without resorting to hatred or bigotry.
Cultural tolerance can only progress if people begin to realize the idea that the belief-systems that each one of us subscribes to does not necessarily invoke the task to assimilate others into our own belief-systems (Persell, 1997). It can also progress if people are able to realize that various cultures can live side-by-side without necessarily interfering with the affairs of one another (Fischer, 2007). If communities of individuals are able to coexist and interact, the cultural landscape becomes one that is peaceful and lively.
In a peaceful and lively society thriving with unique cultures, the task of obtaining and practicing cultural competence becomes an easy task. On the other hand, a society where racial bigotry exists among others is a society that pre-empts cultural competence right at the bud. One way to achieve cultural tolerance is through seeing and understanding how other people understand other people from other cultures. Additionally, it also helps to see and understand how other individuals interact with other individuals from other cultures.
Like a third-person viewer, being aware of the dynamics of the cultural exchanges of people expands our mental horizons as we become more equipped with cultural knowledge that we may have hardly had in directly interacting with people from other cultures. Our cultural inventory becomes more comprehensive since we are able to gather more information about how people from different cultures communicate, for instance, with one another. Many different forms of cultural exchanges happen in ordinary life and to be able to bear witness to these different forms gives us a clearer picture of what it takes to be culturally competent.
When we begin to realize that cultures do not essentially incite hatred and indifference, we become more convinced to study other cultures and to mingle with other people. Eventually, being culturally competent becomes an easy task to take. Another way to achieve cultural tolerance is through a theoretical study of the practices and beliefs of various cultures. This can be done with the help of academic institutions which offer formal ways to introduce and to educate people about the ways of other cultures.
These institutions provide a pivotal role in enlightening people—presumably students—about unfamiliar cultures and their practices and beliefs. Armed with cultural insight, people can, in a manner of speaking, let other cultures be. Moreover, the education given by these academic institutions provide a fundamental block towards reaching the goal of cultural competence; for without at least an academic knowledge of cultures there can hardly be any individual progress towards any one of the four elements of cultural competence.
Perhaps the most effective and yet most difficult way of achieving cultural tolerance is through the study and practice of the languages of other people. Interestingly, it is argued that language holds the most useful key to understanding other cultures (D’Andrade, 2002). The setup and function of the linguistic component of culture appears to be universal. That is, every language in the world regardless of cultural distinctions involves the receiver and the sender of the message of the medium, language being the medium.
Language regardless of cultural distinctions is essentially used for communication, which is why learning a ‘foreign’ language is a crucial step in learning a ‘foreign’ culture because it enables us to penetrate linguistic barriers. Having the language of another culture as part of our so-called “cultural inventory” is a formidable advantage in dissolving the hindrances towards a comprehensive cultural awareness and, ultimately, cultural competence. How is it possible that cultural tolerance leads to cultural competence?
For the most part, a person who is tolerant of other cultures is a person who has already satisfied the need to know one’s own culture and other cultures. An individual cannot be tolerant of a culture which he or she is not even aware of. Moreover, the culturally tolerant person is also someone who has already formed his own perceptions towards other cultures including his own. The only thing missing in all of these is the actual practice of that tolerance into reality. A person who is fully tolerant of other cultures is one who is already able to interact with other individuals who belong to another race or religion, for instance.
As a case in point, expatriates are people who have been absorbed into another culture in more or less the same way as they have absorbed such culture into their lives. They are culturally tolerant individuals because, at the least, they are able to mingle and live with people of what used to be a different culture. More importantly, expatriates are also individuals who possess cultural competence not only as a result of their cultural tolerance but also as a product of their interest and inclination in becoming ‘one’ with another culture.
They become thoroughly attached to another culture to the point that they are already able to speak the native tongue, subscribe to and practice the dominant religion or even adapt the general lifestyle of that culture. In any case, cultural competence and cultural tolerance go with one another in most, if not all, instances. It may be noted, however, that our reflection on “the various aspects of our own cultural identity and [our examination of] their positive and negative impacts on our professional and personal development (Kim, 2001, p. 207)” may not necessarily lead to cultural competence.
It may only lead us to cultural tolerance to a certain degree without ever reaching the stage of putting into practice what we have learned from our acts of reflection and examination of our cultural identity. Even though “each of us is a product of our cultural background (Kim, 2001, p. 2007),” we are not naturally inclined to be culturally competent. The fact that there are people who struggle to become culturally competent and that there are those who deny themselves of the chance to become one suggests the same thing—human beings are not naturally inclined to know other cultures and to interact with them.
However, what it entails on a positive note is the idea that there is the possibility of an overlap among the many different factors involved in determining the cultural identities of individuals. Perhaps the biggest struggle towards achieving cultural competence is overcoming the possibility of treating one’s personal cultural worldview or even one’s culture as superior to the rest. In submitting to such risk, we become more prone to cultural intolerance as we tend to put down cultures other than our own.
We may eventually lose interest in knowing other cultural worldviews and in observing people of different cultures interact with one another from an outsider’s perspective. Our “cultural inventory” becomes filled only with our own cultural worldviews and our reflection and examination of culture may hardly extend towards other cultures. Nevertheless, people can overcome all these risks and struggles as part of the task of becoming culturally competent.
A person’s level of cultural competence may hardly be quantified (Fischer, 2007) but it does not mean that there is no such thing as cultural competence. The fact that cultures exist and the fact that each person is the product of his own cultural background (Kim, 2001) suggests that interaction among cultures is possible, if not highly likely. Obtaining cultural competence may be a laborious task but, in the end, it poses large benefits in sustaining cultural tolerance on both personal and group levels. REFERENCES D’ANDRADE, R. (2002) Cultural Darwinism and Language.
American Anthropologist, 104, 223-232. FISCHER, M. M. J. (2007) Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems. Cultural Anthropology, 22, 1-65. JOHNSON, J. P. , LENARTOWICZ, T. & APUD, S. (2006) Cross-Cultural Competence in International Business: Toward a Definition and a Model. Journal of International Business Studies, 37, 525-543. KIM, E. Y. (2001) The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox, London, Intercultural Press. PERSELL, C. H. (1997) The Interdependence of Social Justice and Civil Society. Sociological Forum, 12, 149-172.