Developing a Cross-Cultural Mindset

Memorizing lists of dos and don’ts per culture is impractical and leads to stereotyping. When we stereotype people we tend to apply characteristics rigidly, as if to say that ALL people from a particular culture believe the same things and behave in the same ways. This simply does not leave room for the great variety in human experience, individual personality, and so on.

To begin building an awareness of cultural differences so that we actually can make useful comparisons between people’s views of the world, it is useful to pay attention to informed generalizations about the cultures with which people identify. We can’t talk about culture without talking about groups, and we can’t talk about groups without forming generalizations. But HOW we conceive of and apply these generalizations in the context of a medical interaction determines whether or not we are falling back on useless stereotypes.

Dimensions of culture are a useful starting place. To use a medical analogy, they are like the symptoms we pay attention to when we diagnose. We understand that these informed generalizations can’t be applied rigidly to each individual. There are more things involved in making an accurate assessment of the individual patient.

Below are four steps to developing a cross-cultural mindset. Building awareness in each step is also essential to improving cross-cultural patient care and health outcomes.

1. Begin to build awareness around aspects of culture that aren’t visible – the values, beliefs, and attitudes that drive the visible aspects of culture, including culture-based healing practices. This is where the dimensions of culture, such as time control and social power distance are extremely useful.

2. Pay attention to your thoughts. Do you assume your culture’s way of doing things is “normal” or somehow more “real” and everyone different is somehow acting out a cultural variation that is less valid? If so, you trivialize difference automatically, though probably subconsciously. Members of any dominant culture in any society may tend to do this without awareness. We have to step back to understand our assumptions about how people operate in the world. It’s a very complex world.

3. Maintaining “cultural humility” with patients is crucial. If you don’t understand your own culture, including western medical culture, you may think that “ethnic people” have all the culture, and that’s why they are different in the first place. Cultural identity is central to all human experience. Learn more about your own culture to establish a baseline for learning. Making effective distinctions about cultural world views is extremely important in achieving cultural humility.

4. Be willing to adjust your behavior. If you just keep on doing what you’ve always done, you miss opportunities to achieve successful health outcomes with your patients.

“As clinicians, we need to ‘check our own pulse’ and become aware of personal attitudes, beliefs, biases, and behaviors that may influence (consciously or unconsciously) our care of patients as well as our interactions with professional colleagues and staff from diverse racial, ethnic, and sociocultural backgrounds.” — Robert C. Like, MD, MS, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

‘Developing a Cross-Cultural Mindset’ by Marcia Carteret. Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.