Cultural Humility vs. Cultural Competence

I’ve written several posts now about connecting as caregivers with older adults who are from different cultural backgrounds than our own. This is a big task, and as I wrote before, we must take one bite at a time.

As I was researching this topic, I came across a term that describes something just as important as cultural competence. That term is cultural humility. But, let’s back up a step.

What is cultural competence again?

Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with people of various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious and social groups. Working towards cultural competence is an ongoing process, one often tackled by learning about the patterns of behavior, beliefs, language, values, and customs of particular groups. That has been the goal of my posts on Vietnamese and Latino older adults, for example.

As we’ve noted, though, there is A LOT to learn. Eldercare professionals cannot learn every language and understand every custom in the world, even while we valiantly refuse to give up trying.

That’s where cultural humility comes into the picture.

Cultural humility involves an ongoing process of self-exploration and self-critique combined with a willingness to learn from others. It means entering a relationship with another person with the intention of honoring their beliefs, customs, and values. It means acknowledging differences and accepting that person for who they are.

Cultural humility involves listening: to yourself and to the people you care for.

The self-exploration part of this is critical. Our brains like patterns and putting things into groups, to the extent that we’re not aware of it most of the time. That’s why we need to ask ourselves questions like these:

  • How do I describe my own ethnicity? Race? Religion? Gender? Sexual Orientation?
  • What are my most closely-held values?
  • What would I want health care workers to know about me?

And like these:

  • Am I just assuming she speaks Spanish because she looks Mexican?
  • I know he’s Muslim, so would he be accepting of a female caregiver?
  • She’s a 90 year old white lady, so she was probably married for a few decades, right?
  • His chart says he’s Chinese, so should I assume that he came to the U.S. fleeing Communism?

Every time we ask questions like this, we help to disarm our personal biases. By making a practice of self-reflection, open-minded listening, and a posture of humility, we will truly be in the best position to serve all people effectively, no matter what their cultural background is.]]>


  1. JoAnn Jordan on April 22, 2013 at 1:15 am

    Questions all of us but especial those of us in healthcare professions need to be asking. Thank you!

  2. Rhonda Miller on May 25, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    So very important. Thank you for putting this into words.

  3. Karen Lang on March 5, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    We need to be open minded and assume nothing. The more we listen the more we learn about one another.

  4. Shelley Abrahamson on April 10, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    I like to be open minded and I try to not let pre assumed ideas make up my impressions of ppl.

    • Rachelle on April 29, 2020 at 1:59 am

      That’s a good policy 🙂

  5. Aihua Zhong on May 18, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    Having humility is to make a deliberate effort to talk less and listen more and wait longer, and ask questions. It’s not easy for me at work and at home with my family members. I thought I was listening but I only hear the part I want to say myself or the part I agree with or understand – It hasn’t helped anything in establishing rapport and mutual understanding or to explore deeper connection. I have seen much positive impact after I learned to be humble and used “speak less and listen more” strategy.

    • Rachelle on May 18, 2020 at 9:38 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing that!

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