Understanding the Difference Between Cultural Responsiveness, Cultural Competence, and Cultural Humility

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In today’s workplace, culture gets talked about a lot. But, the meaning of culture and how we talk about it can vary, because it morphs, shifts, and changes (the sign of a healthy workplace!). There are a few different ways to further delineate and understand culture. Three such ways include cultural responsiveness, cultural competence, and cultural humility. These terms are critical concepts for supporting inclusive and respectful work environments. Let’s break each term down in order to understand them better.

Cultural Competency

Cultural competence is often the starting point in DEI discussions. We define this concept as the ability to use knowledge and understanding of different cultures to interact effectively and respectfully within various cultural settings. Competency goes beyond recognition—it’s our ability and interest to move from theory to practice. Here, we develop the skills to show that we actually value cultural diversity. 

Think of this concept as the toolkit you can develop to interact effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds from your own. This toolkit includes your knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Being culturally competent means you’re aware of your own cultural worldview, you understand different cultural practices and worldviews, and you can apply those skills in various situations and contexts. 

For example, if you’re a healthcare provider, cultural competence might include understanding how patients from different cultural backgrounds perceive health and illness so you can provide better care to them. 

Cultural Responsiveness

Cultural competence is about having the right tools, but cultural responsiveness is about using those tools in real time. We define cultural responsiveness as the practice of being open to learning about and adapting to the cultural norms and needs of others. It’s an ongoing process of self-reflection, adaptation, continual learning, and curiosity.  

Imagine that you’re a teacher. Your students come from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds. Being culturally responsive means that you’re not just aware of those differences but also adapting your teaching methods and materials to be more inclusive and culturally supportive of all your students. 

Cultural Humility

Cultural humility is less about what you know and more about your attitude and approach. We define cultural humility as an ongoing process of self-reflection, self-critique, and learning about one’s own culture and the cultures of others. We can never fully understand another culture; we’re always learning. Cultural humility acknowledges that we can never be fully competent in someone else’s culture because, as we’ve noted above, culture is complex and always changing. Cultural humility requires us to approach every situation with a learning attitude and a growth mindset and work to build partnerships based on mutual respect and trust.

For example, a social worker who practices cultural humility understands that they need to learn from their clients and that their clients are the true experts in and of their own experiences. 

In practice, these concepts overlap with and complement each other. A culturally competent person uses their knowledge to be responsive in a variety of situations, and a culturally humble person continually seeks to improve their competence and responsiveness– the work is ongoing.