Curiosity: What Does Culture Have to Do with It?

By: Cynthia Schelmety, Training Manager, CCF, CANS-NY Technical Assistance Institute & Cassandra Cooper, MA, LCPC, Senior Policy Analyst, University of Kentucky

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”-Aristotle

Culture comes from the Latin word cultura, which basically means to build on, to cultivate, and to foster.

Sometimes the term Culture is solely meant to refer to one’s race and ethnicity, but it is important to remember that there are many other elements that contribute to an individual’s culture. 

Elements of culture can sometimes be visible in food preferences, clothing style, language, and other differences.  However, many elements of culture are not immediately visible, such as family values, sexual orientation, or beliefs.  Each one of us has a cultural background that influences our own views, experiences, and behaviors; however, we must also be willing to open ourselves up to learn about other cultures. 

You might be thinking, “Where do I start to learn the subtleties of others’ cultures?”  You begin by being Curious! Being curious, as we know, is having a desire to know and learn something new.  

If we apply this concept of culture through the lens of curiosity, we begin to explore and adapt to a variety of cultures. Without cultural curiosity, we close the doors to learning about others who are different from ourselves. 

So how do you know if you are applying a lens for cultural curiosity? Ask yourself some of these questions: Am I excited about working with other people who are different from me? Am I willing and able to develop a sense of self-awareness?

Self-awareness, in this case, is an awareness of any biases we have that stem from our own experiences and behaviors. We are all familiar with the term “DON’T ASSUME”, right? Think of self-awareness as strengthening communication and relationships with other people by asking questions, observing, and listening. That foundation of using curiosity about others to replace assumptions about others will allow you to understand how Culture is a strong part of someone’s life.

In a culturally inclusive environment, people of all cultural orientations can:

  1. Freely express who they are
  2. Share their own opinions and points of view and
  3. Genuinely feel safe

There is a great deal of value to be had by learning about other cultures, but we must remember that we can never become an expert in someone else’s lived experiences.

Many situations of discomfort come from a misunderstanding of what is acceptable in another person’s culture. This is where cultural humility comes in. Cultural humility is people-centered and encourages ongoing collaborative and transformative changes. To use cultural humility, we cannot dismiss another person’s experiences as being invalid or assume that we are experts by association.  Cultural humility requires us to do more than simply acknowledge the fact that there are differences between us and others. It is our responsibility to learn about how another person’s cultural identity affects their life experiences.

Also, know that culture is not static or fixed; instead, it evolves over time.  Consider Culture as always “LOADING.”

3 Comments on “Curiosity: What Does Culture Have to Do with It?

  1. Great work Cynthia. Also a great read. One of the tools that I use for myself and that I use when training any staff that I have had over the past 25 yrs is:

    #1. Use Google images to find photos that represent a specific client’s culture
    #2. I identify something that I like, that interest me
    #3. I read a little about it so that I have credible questions
    #4. When meeting with the client in their home, while conversing, I find a gateway to say “Hey, I saw this really interesting thing on line about such and such. Would you happen to know anything about that? I have another client that I am seeing and I really would like to know more about this”

    This has worked for me because it’s been an ice breaker, it shows that I have a genuine interest and often clients have been both excited and impressed that I would know anything about their culture let alone be genuinely interested. – It’s amazing what we learn when we can simply say “I don’t know, please teach me.”

    • Very impressive presentation, Cynthia. I feel you did justice to the Cultural ideology!

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