By Alana Foreman and Rebecca Frieden
In a country like the United States – universally known as the “melting pot” of cultures – with a diverse racial distribution, there will inevitably be people with varying beliefs and outlooks on the world. We have a responsibility as citizens to be informed about other cultures in order to be more understanding and receptive to one another. Being culturally aware is a valuable skill you can use throughout your life, as interacting with people from different cultures has become more and more frequent and important.
Cultural sensitivity is defined as being aware that cultural differences exist without assigning them a value, which means without believing that one culture is superior to the other. In order to be culturally sensitive, it is important to be informed about other cultures and beliefs. A person who is well-informed about different cultures tends to be more open-minded and respectful because they are less likely to form unfounded opinions about other cultures. Many of us have been taught that ignorance begets prejudice, so how can we expect to connect with other people if we do not understand their own perceptions of the world and their values? All individuals form stereotypes, whether based on specific experiences or their own set of beliefs. Uncovering these stereotypes and acknowledging any explicit or implicit bias is key to becoming a stronger, more effective communicator and member of society.
Being culturally aware is the key to effective communication. For example, in American culture, eye contact is generally viewed as being assertive and firm, while lack of eye contact is associated with evasiveness and dishonesty. In some Asian cultures, such as China’s, direct eye contact is viewed as being rude and disrespectful. An American person conversing with someone from China might interpret his or her lack of eye contact as dishonesty while that person may merely be trying to show respect. In Hispanic culture, people greet each other with kisses on the cheek, a gesture that is associated with intimacy and love in other cultures; however, if misinterpreted, this can spark confusion among people who are not aware. Therefore, being aware can result in us connecting with other people more respectfully.
How can one improve their cultural awareness? Cultural awareness is an understanding of one’s self and how one needs to adjust to the environment and atmosphere that he or she is in. To be culturally aware, one is acknowledging what one’s culture is and how to adjust one’s behavior in a specific way. The first step is to develop an open mind and to make a deliberate attempt at learning about another culture. One should be constantly observing and questioning why people hold certain beliefs. In addition, one should communicate with people from a diverse range of cultures and ask them questions about their traditions, beliefs, and thoughts on the world. It is important to appreciate differences among people and learn to accept them, fostering a positive learning mindset. Being culturally aware is an advantage because people with different backgrounds will approach problems in new and innovative ways, offering more solutions to problems.
If you think of culture as an iceberg, what we see of a culture is minimal in comparison to what we cannot see. It is the unseen elements of culture such as values and beliefs, that are usually hardest for people to understand and deal with. In a world where there are millions of people with different cultures, it is important now more than ever to learn more about the people we live and interact with frequently. Not only will this improve the way we perceive other groups, but it will also promote collaboration among people with different virtues. Our differences can be used to benefit us, but only if we are aware of them.
Alana Foreman and Rebecca Frieden are members of the Cultural Exchange Club that aims to promote cultural understanding and explore different cultures. This article is a part of a series written by members of the Cultural Exchange club to encourage our community to adapt these attributes to become more culturally aware citizens.