We live in a time where globalization fastens the exchange and transfer among nations and interconnected societies are experiencing a complexity of multicultural subgroups¹. As cities are becoming more and more culturally diverse, we also gain increasing cultural awareness among certain individuals and communities, and cultural sensitivity is gaining more importance. But what does cultural sensitivity really mean?
Let’s start by asking what culture actually refers to. Culture may be understood as a ‘consortium of communication (or a bundle of messages) that a group of people have in common: their shared experiences, shared perceptions, and values, shared consciousness’². This is important as culture guides the actions of individuals and groups as behaviours are a highly visible aspect of it. Culture links us to language, certain artifacts and food, symbols, and rituals. Even businesses have their own culture that is usually there to guide the organization’s behaviours. Culture is complex as it is always in flux and each individual might have their own understanding of their culture. Therefore, other cultures will be more difficult to grasp and make sense of. This leads us to explore the meaning of cultural sensitivity.
Cultural sensitivity refers to a set of skills that allows you to learn about and understand people whose cultural background is not the same as yours. What makes the whole thing harder is that this means that you operate with the awareness of cultural differences, that exist between yourself and the people you meet, and you do so without assigning them a value. This does not mean you consider people from another cultural background to be the same, as this would make you ignore that cultural differences exist. Rather, cultural sensitivity is interested in learning about other cultures, by asking questions, demonstrating empathy and embracing diversity.
An essential part of cultural sensitivity is to improve self-awareness by asking: ‘What are my cultural values, beliefs and attitudes?’, ‘How might these elements of my culture reflect in my behaviour?’ and ‘How adaptable and tolerant am I really?’. By asking these questions, one could gain greater understanding of the cultural similarities and differences of another culture, in relation to their culture³.The American sociologist Milton J. Bennett outlines six stages of cultural sensitivity, which define the developmental process of an individual’s integration into a different culture. Each stage provides a deeper understanding of one’s thoughts, actions and experiences in the process of adapting to another culture. The six stages include: denial, defence, minimization, acceptance, adaption, and integration.
Denial: Being ignorant or unaware of cultural difference. Common misconceptions in this stage include thinking the different culture will be extremely similar to one’s own culture, including the language, conceptions of time, or social behaviours. Usually, people in this stage have not undergone intercultural experiences before.
Defence: The ethnocentric view that one’s culture is better, an ‘us and them’ mentality. People in this stage usually stereotype in simplistic and negative ways, protecting themselves with a hardened boundary between themselves and the ‘others’. These negative assumptions hinder the individual from experiencing and understanding the true aspects of the culture.
Minimization: The act of acknowledging differences in culture but underrating the importance of the differences. Assuming that ‘deep down we are all alike’, which is still ethnocentric as it assumes that there is too much similarity.
Acceptance: Requires a perspective shift, while still retaining one’s personal values. The individual finally understands that the cultural differences and experiences are dependent on the cultural context and are not universal.
Adaption: Is the ability to function in a bicultural capacity by adapting cognitively (thinking with both cultures in mind) and behaviourally (taking action with the appropriate cultural norms in consideration). This stage engages in empathy and is able to look at differences based on one’s own culture and then see the differences based on other cultural perceptions.
Integration: Being able to effortlessly shift between multiple cultures and evaluate norms based on both culture’s views. This entails that an individual changes from being ethnocentrism oriented, to polycentrism oriented4.
Cultural sensitivity in business communication
Cultural sensitivity also plays an important role in business communication, as it does not only enable the organization to become more people-orientated (internally & externally), but it can bring competitive advantage. Therefore, it could be beneficial to be aware of some of the most important elements of culture such as verbal and nonverbal language, differences in understanding time, appropriateness of personal space or being able to read the language of material things.
Verbal/Nonverbal Language: Verbal language can create the most obvious divide between cultures and could be a barrier in making business transactions. Nonverbal language is often taken for granted, but it actually comprises 80-90% of a culture’s communication.
Understanding of Time: The way a culture views time into monochronic and polychronic orientations. These two forms of viewing time relate to the culture’s structural representation of time in terms of planning and scheduling. Monochronic cultures are more task oriented and punctual, where the clock decides when a task or situation is begun and finished. While polychronic cultures focus on the importance of the individuals involved in a task or situation and concentrate more on the completion of human transactions than meeting schedules.
Personal Space: What is considered appropriate space and inappropriate space is heavily influenced by culture.
Language of Material Things: Can be seen through the level of individualism and collectivism of a culture. Cultures that are more individualistic will hold material things in greater importance than collectivistic cultures5.
Cultural sensitivity is something that has to be acquired over a longer period of time, so it will not be enough to only read this article. But what you might take away is a certain awareness of cultural differences and a starting point to build your cultural sensitivity by asking people questions that do not have the same culture as you do.