Cultural Competencies: The Myths

Cultural competence, the ability to interact effectively across difference, is a significant contributor to success for both individuals and organizations. Yet, we tend to believe that in today’s diverse multicultural world, we already “get it.”

As a result, few people take the time to build this skill set. But, if you want to be more culturally competent, you have to work at it.

Myth #1: Exposure = Competence. We hear statements such as, “I have a gay couple for neighbors, my mom has lived with a disability, and my best friend is black.” The belief inherent in this statement is that “I am exposed to difference, and therefore I am competent to interact across difference.” But cultural competence, like any other complex skill, needs to be developed. Compare it to developing math skills. You would never assume a child could learn math if you just sat her in a room with mathematicians. As with math, we build cultural competence through intentional, developmental learning, practice, and work.

Myth #2: I get this stuff; it’s my co-workers who don’t! Most people would say that they are culturally competent. Yet, only 5 to 10 percent of us actually are (as measured across the world by the foremost cultural competence assessment, the Intercultural Development Inventory). That skills/perception gap perpetuates misunderstanding. If I believe I “get it” and am in situations where I’m not that effective interacting with my co-workers, then it must be their issue.

Myth #3: Identity = Competence. Here’s a myth that, while widely believed, frequently goes unspoken. It’s the notion that people from marginalized groups—especially people of color and women—are more culturally competent, that somehow the experiences tied to our identity inherently increase our “get it” factor. In actuality, that’s not the case. Sometimes the experience of marginalization holds us back in our development and keeps us in just the second of five stages of development (using the Milton Bennett model of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity), particularly when we feel as though we need to defend our group, as is often the case for many who are marginalized.

Myth #4: Comfort = Competence. We’ve all felt discomfort at one point or another as we have encountered difference. It might have been the first time we ate dinner at a friend’s house or walked into a new workplace, new neighborhood, or new country. The fallacy comes when we believe that as the discomfort dissipates, competence somehow materializes. I can tell you I’m completely comfortable holding my high school clarinet, but you would not want to hear me play it! Just because we are comfortable does not mean we have learned how to be effective with the complexity that comes as we interact across differences.

Myth #5: Youth today are more competent. Kids today are exposed to more diversity and are also very comfortable with the differences around them. But cultural competence is a learned and developed skill, and children learn from the example set by the adults in their lives. When only 5 to 10 percent of adults are culturally competent, we’re not always the best role models.

Sara Taylor, founder and president of deepSEE Consulting, provides thought leadership in the areas of cultural competence and transformational diversity.



Most people would say that they’re culturally competent, but only 5 to 10 percent are.

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