Caring Cross-Culturally

Psychology Today reminds us, “Cultural norms can account for minor differences in how people communicate their symptoms to major omissions of which symptoms they report.” (The Role of Culture in Mental Health). With so many different cultures represented worldwide, it is impossible to predict all the potential differences and omissions that might occur. The burden is on the caregiver to contextualize care practices for their specific environment. However, there are some principles in caring that are universally applicable. 

Honor the Culture You Are In

You do not have to agree with everything about a culture in order to treat it with respect. Remember that cultures develop over time as adaptive coping strategies that help a group of people live life. Practices are not randomly picked and chosen on whims. Culture represents how people see themselves, the world, and how they fit in it. This means that culture is a part of the identity factors of resilience. You will not be able to care for someone if you do not respect their cultural identity.

Learn to Work With Your Differences

Cross-cultural awareness does not mean ignoring differences. It means recognizing them and learning how to work around, through, and with them. This is very much easier said than done. You will probably find that you like some of the things that make you different from the culture you serve and are reticent to lose your own identity as you care (which is normal and as it should be). So, the challenge becomes how to navigate the differences in ways that are healthy for both you and those you serve. It is possible, and when done well, it is a miraculous coming together that represents the best of humanity. 

Provide Safety and Dignity Without Judgement

Think back to the discussion on psychological safety. Nonjudgemental safety and dignity are crucial components of creating safe spaces. If you have a judgemental attitude, do not assume you will be able to hide it. It will come out in expressions, body language, and micro-aggression that will be noticed. While few cultures are direct enough to confront those characteristics, being unable to “break through” or get people to open up is the common symptom.

Learn to Love Diversity

To care well, you need to do more than tolerate other perspectives, traditions, and practices. You will need to love them, and even more so the people that call them their own. Loving someone does not mean seeing them through their need for what you have; it means seeing them as completely equal in value to yourself and others.

There is no formula for this. You cannot “act” loving, you must “be” loving. Differences are not seen as things that separate us and them, but as things that enhance the existence of all. 

If you recognize that this is an area where you need growth, it involves the transformation of your worldview and can be a long and difficult process. It starts with intentionally seeking out those different from yourself and integrating them into your life without trying to change them, whether that difference is in race, sexual orientation, religion, philosophy, or another identifiable characteristic.

Stay Curious and Humble

There is so much to learn from other cultures. There are questions about life, the world, suffering, joy, and so many other things different cultures ask that you will never think about if you stay locked in a single perspective. Curiosity and humility will take a caregiver far further in cross-cultural caregiving than competency ever will.

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