Cultural Competency: Intercultural Sensitivity Scale

Broadening our Cultural Competency – A Response to the Signs of the Times of Globalization

by Sister Mary McGlone

Dr. Milton Bennett, a scholar of intercultural communication and sociology, created the “Intercultural Sensitivity Scale,” which is a developmental theory about how we grow in our response to cultural differences.  What follows here is a rough summary of that theory.

One of the advantages of his theory is that it proposes a developmental scale that demonstrates how people can advance from one stage to another as they want to grow in intercultural sensitivity, a skill he sees as flowing from experience, not simply good will. The model says nothing about how good a person is, but rather how their experience has helped them develop greater cultural awareness and culturally sensitive responses.

The Theory Begins With “Denial and Defense”

In broad strokes, the developmental scale moves from ethnocentrism through a stance which minimizes differences to approaches he calls ethno-relativism.  We all begin in ethnocentrism.  That is the mark of being a well-brought up person.  We have learned “the right way” to do things and we know what is expected of us and what to expect in situations where we are with people of our own culture.

Someone in the first stage of ethnocentrism simply ignores culture. This is someone who avoids noticing differences and situations in which they might not be culturally comfortable.  For example, he may travel to other countries but keeps seeking familiar food, language and economic dealings.  The next step for someone at this stage is simply to recognize the existence of other ways of doing things.

The next stage is “defense.” The person here recognizes differences but instinctively assumes that her own way is superior.   People in this stage will mistrust other ways of doing things in education, health care, etc.  They may have an internal assumption that everyone should learn their language and if they befriend someone who is different, they tend to think of that person as more like themselves than like the group he or she comes from.  That can be expressed in the famous, “I don’t see you as a ____, like others.”

Sometimes a person striving to respect a different culture can take on the inverse of this attitude.  That means that they canonize the other culture at the expense of their own.  The other is seen as doing everything correctly.  A person in this stage may try to become as much like the other as possible.  This is still an ethnocentric attitude, just a reversal of the preference for one’s culture of origin.  The next step for someone in any expression of the stage of defense is to strive to become more tolerant of differences and to see the commonalities among different cultures.

Minimization: “Being Nice” (even if you don’t understand cultural diversity)

The middle ground is called minimization.  This is where the majority of people who have struggled against the “isms” of our society land – at least for a while.  People in this stage have come to recognize and respect the essential humanity of every person and culture and make efforts to be tolerant of difference.  Although some differences may make them uncomfortable, they will strive to “go deeper” than difference to avoid conflicts.  They may smooth everything over with “We’re all just human.” They will see “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as the ideal without realizing that not everyone wants to be treated in the same way they would like. 

The next step for people here is to learn more about their own culture so that they can avoid projecting it on the experience of others.  People who are in the majority culture at this stage will most often be unaware of the privilege that status affords them.

Ethno-Relativity: Recognizing and Appreciating Genuine and Deep Differences

The Ethno-relative stages are marked by much greater awareness of difference and a growing appreciation of the richness of diversity.  Someone in the stage of acceptance has a much clearer awareness of the realities of their own culture as well as at least one other.  They can name and discuss differences without being threatened.  They might understand cultural norms as analogous to the rules of different games – accepting the fact that in one culture it is impolite to look another in the eye or touch another while a different culture would perceive lack of eye contact or avoidance of an embrace as signs of dishonesty or aloofness.

The next ethno-relative stage is Adaptation.  This is the cultural equivalent of being thoroughly bilingual, meaning that a person can be genuine and respond according to the cultural norms appropriate to a moment.  They have learned to understand a different perspective and may be able to translate that for people on either side of the cultural divide.

The Global World is Inviting Us to More

We are all limited by our own experience.  Someone who has never had the opportunity to venture beyond their ethnic enclave cannot be expected to understand diversity in the same way as people who have lived among a variety of people of different cultures.  But we can look at the growing edges of each stage and see how we might try to get experiences that will broaden our perspectives.

This is not simply a question of “political correctness,” but it is a Gospel imperative for Christians who live in our increasingly global world.  A spirituality of incarnation recognizes that God took on human flesh because it was good; Jesus revealed that our human destiny  - for people of every time and culture – is to share divine life.  Our Trinitarian spirituality reminds us that diversity has its roots in God.  Every culture has its unique evangelical values and its own weaknesses.

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis tells us that “In the diversity of peoples the Church expresses her genuine catholicity and shows forth the “beauty of her varied face…[for] every culture offers positive values and forms which can enrich the way the Gospel is preached, understood and lived.”

Just as we have come to understand that love of God and love of neighbor are one love without distinction, our moment of history is calling us into a greater appreciation of the diversity of God’s self-revelation in the people and cultures that surround us.  As a congregation whose mission is to give witness to the great love of God, we are called individually and communally to grow in our understanding and proclamation of the great gifts God is offering our world through the variety of cultures we can now enjoy because of the realities of globalization. 

 For Discussion:

How would you describe your culture as a Sister of St. Joseph from the United States?

What has taught you to appreciate a distinct cultural viewpoint?

 What might we do to broaden our cultural horizons as a community/congregation?


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