Saturday, November 18, 2006

Cultural Sensitivity

Another sensitive topic...(for Lyd, who likes the provocative posts!)

I'm working on a project with a group of people who have all done their 'cultural sensitivity training' to work with the local First Nations groups.

First, some definitions, from this site:

Cultural Knowledge: Familiarization with selected cultural characteristics, history, values, belief systems, and behaviors of the members of another ethnic group (Adams, 1995).

Cultural Awareness: Developing sensitivity and understanding of another ethnic group. This usually involves internal changes in terms of attitudes and values. Awareness and sensitivity also refer to the qualities of openness and flexibility that people develop in relation to others. Cultural awareness must be supplemented with cultural knowledge(Adams, 1995).

Cultural Sensitivity: Knowing that cultural differences as well as similarities exist, without assigning values, i.e., better or worse, right or wrong, to those cultural differences (National Maternal and Child Health Center on Cultural Competency, 1997).

But does any of this mean that people should be treated with kid gloves? I'm a little annoyed at the way statements are's hard to re-create, so I won't try, but this pussy-footing around feelings, this skittish 'oh-we-mustn't offend' attitude gets to me.

When does treating someone with the respect due them become bending over backwards to ensure no slight can even be imagined?

I'm not expressing myself clearly here...but I hear it all the time in the USA -- the We must help Them attitude that will just keep the different 'groups' separated.

And now I'm hearing it in emails like this:

...The underlying issue is simply being sensitive to cultural issues, which is what the discussions we had at our last meeting were about. The “I treat everyone the same approach” is definitely not appropriate with First Nations communities. There are very strong historical and cultural reasons for this. I have been to cultural sensitivity workshops and have learnt a lot from them, very helpful.

As far as I know, I don't discriminate, nor do I have any (undiscovered) prejudices [just don't talk to me about jocks or beauty queens!]. And I do try treat everyone with the same respect -- my question is, why does anyone have to be treated with kid gloves?

Yes, one should be aware of cultural differences.

Yes, one should strive to act in a manner appropriate to the culture you are dealing with. Never touch a Thai child on the head. Don't blow your nose at the table in Korea. Don't mention the war to Germans (sorry, couldn't resist!). And all of the really subtle things that one should try to pick up, or yes, take a class to learn.

But we are not dealing with Star Trek first encounters with alien races...we're talking about people who we share a planet with. Why would it be "definitely not appropriate"?

Who wants to be put on a pedestal and be oh-so-carefully protected? As a woman, I don't. At what point does cultural sensitivity go too far?

Talk to me people!


Metro said...

Perhaps where it goes too far is the point where you stop treating the other person as someone who isn't capable of understanding good faith communications and "has to be protected".

It's akin to saying "They're like children, really."

Of course, cultural sensitivity can really only work if it's extended in both directions. If I make a mistake in communicatiing with a straight half-black-half-Indian woman, she needs to be able to realize that the error is not an intentional offence, but a natural error from a half-Chinese-half-white gay man, for example.

Lori said...

That's exactly it. It's the 2-way street that is not acknowledged half the time.

In my experience in Korea, I found the people went too far in understanding -- forgiving the most insensitive behaviour from foreigners, because they wanted the foreigners' talents, money, connections...

PJ said...

Good point, Metro; it's condescending. Sure, I'll to my best not to offend when I'm in another country; but I'm in my home and native land. If one group gets special treatment, then everyone will demand it and we'll become a nation of easily-offended special-interest groups with thin skins and chips on our shoulders.

--a right-handed pagan feminist, last in birth order and with an aversion to crustacean foodstuffs (so don't p*** me off or I'll sue)

Lydia said...

Glad you didn't resist about "the WAR"! That line was all I could think about until you got it out of the way! The definition of CS alone proves your point. The "I treat everyone the same approach" not being appropriate for First Nation communities begs the question - how does this person treat everyone?(else)? -- a thin skinned, one shoulder higher, left-handed, excommunicated Catholic, personist, middle of eleven, save the crustacean foodstuffs for me kind of gal! (who would never sue anyone because life is too short as it is)

raincoaster said...

If blowing up English people and shooting Americans is part of my cultural heritage (and it is), does this mean I can go ahead and do that, or can I only blow up and shoot "sensitized" ones?

Relativism is the cause of a great deal of infantile treatment and infantile expectations. Surely we can treat one another in a simple and respectful vernacular appropriate to a sophisticated culture without taking or giving offence to the well-meaning. We cannot prevent the hysterically narcissistic from overreacting, however.