Want to become more “culturally competent”? Then…read journal articles??

Being a student member of the APA and a prospective psychology graduate student gets me a subscription to gradPSYCH magazine. Yay! This months issue had an article titled “How do I become culturally competent?” where some expert advice was offered to do just that. What were the nuggets of wisdom contained therein? Here we go:

  • Do some self-reflection using a scientific process.
  • Learn about different cultures by…. reading journal articles and books. And if that’s not enough, read some novels and memoirs too. Oh, and throw on a second language while you’re at it.
  • Interact with “diverse” groups by…. doing a research project or an internship among “diverse” people.
  • Attend “diversity-focused” conferences.
  • And finally, ask your faculty to train you more in “diversity.”

Let’s do a quick recap of the above expert advice. To become more culturally competent pretty much just think about yourself and then find very clinically sterile ways to sort of interact with people, but not in any way that would take you out of your professional comfort zone.

I got a chuckle out of the article’s opening anecdote with the grad student who gets thrown for a loop trying to work with a Catholic client. His big answer to get better at working with future clients not like him? He took a cultural issues class.

Not that that isn’t a good thing, but I’ve got an incredibly radical suggestion to add to the above list ‘o cultural competency building. If you want to learn how to better interact with “diverse” people, then how ’bout getting out of your clinical bubble and actually forming some friendships with folks who don’t look or think like you. And I don’t mean interacting with “diverse” people by viewing them as research subjects or internship clients. I mean some real honest-to-goodness relationships with people who see the world differently than you do.

I’m not completely knocking the above advice. I just think it’s missing the most important component to the issue. If you know you’re going to be working with Catholic clients – or Pentecostal, or Mormon, or Hare Krishna, or any other racial/religious/cultural definition – then build some honest friendships with folks that have those outlooks. They’ll teach you more about their respective worldviews then any journal article or diversity conference ever can.

It’s been my experience that what matters most in issues of “cultural competence” isn’t so much that you’re an expert in other cultures, but that you honestly treat the people you interact with like fellow human beings, and that you can find a connection point between you and them no matter how “diverse” they might be from you.

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2 Responses to Want to become more “culturally competent”? Then…read journal articles??

  1. I forgot to add another important point. No group of people completely think and believe the same way. Not all Native Americans share the same beliefs or worldviews, or all Catholics, or…so on and so forth. Every person’s worldview is a worldview unique from everyone else’s.

    To me, cultural competence is the ability to see the unique richness of an individual person’s worldview and what matters most to them, and then being able to find a point that connects theirs with yours. You don’t have to give up your worldview – you just need to find a shared foundation to build a relationship on.

    Reading isn’t actual human interaction, classrooms are sterile environments, and there is always a power differential in research and client work between researcher/clinician and subject/client. For psychology trainees, to really make the cultural competency stretch I think you need to build egalitarian friendships with people who aren’t like you that have nothing to do with your work.

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