Developing Cultural Sensitivity and Competence


  • Why is it that a person with 15 years of cross-cultural experience can be so much more culturally sensitive than another person with the same amount of experience?
  • Is there a way to assess intercultural sensitivity? How do we develop intercultural sensitivity?

Understanding the Progression of Cultural Competence

When you hear terms such as cultural sensitivity or cultural competence, what may come to mind is, “All cultures are basically the same.”  If it does, that’s good. However, it’s important, and perhaps surprising, to know that such a “stage”  of recognizing universalities does not represent the fully adapted, culturally competent person. This stage does provide a foundation from which growth can occur. But in order to move forward, we need to understand how cultural perceptions are formed and how they can develop to change the way we think and behave to positively affect us all.

A model describing a progression of cultural sensitivity can help us better understand how individuals, families, and communities can develop and attain cultural competence. Intercultural communications professor Dr. Milton Bennett has developed a model that describes movement across a continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. The goal is to move to the ideal on the far right of the continuum––the fullest development of cultural sensitivity. At this stage a person’s cultural perspectives are not seen as superior to another’s but as relative: “That ethnic group’s expression of its beliefs and behaviors is just as legitimate as mine.”

Bennett identified distinct types of experience across the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethno-relativism: denial, defense, minimization, acceptance, and adaptation.


On the far left of the continuum is Denial of cultural difference where one’s own cultural perspective is viewed as the only real one. Other cultures are either not noticed at all, or they are understood in a rather vague manner. This stage represents the opposite of cultural sensitivity.

Next, on the continuum is Defense against cultural difference where one’s culture is viewed as the best or the “most evolved” form of civilization. Culture difference is noticed but the world has become organized into “us and them.” One’s own culture is seen as superior and other cultures as inferior. The person in denial can’t see any other place to eat except McDonalds or A & W. Defense would say “I’ve eaten at that Thai restaurant, but you won’t catch me there again – what do they put in their food?” Reversal says, “Thai food is fantastic, why would you ever eat at McDonalds – do you know what they put in their food?”

The next stage is Minimization of cultural difference: a person’s own culture is experienced as universal to all and the belief is: “We’re all basically alike.” This stage represents an advancement, but it minimizes the very real differences in the way different cultures perceive the world.  The main issue to be resolved in order to move forward on the continuum is cultural self-awareness (the ability to experience one’s own culture as a particular context, not the central reality). The person in minimization regards her Greek neighbor as different, but “nice.” “They have good kids, they take care of their lawn and their house is always neat; I don’t see any real differences, we’re all human beings.” In the general population, Bennett suggests, minimization is the most common stage of intercultural development.

Acceptance of cultural difference is present when one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. People in acceptance have examined their experience of other cultures and are able to acknowledge others as different from themselves, but equally human. They are not necessarily experts in one or more cultures, but they are able to identify how cultural differences in general affect human interactions. It’s important to note that knowledge about, and attitudes toward, other cultures are not the same thing as acceptance.

On the far right of the continuum is Adaptation representing full cultural competence.  This is the stage of development where experiencing another culture produces insight so that perceptions of and behaviors toward that culture are respectful, appreciative and appropriate to that culture. Adaptationinvolves the ability to extend your range of beliefs and behaviors without substituting one set for another. This stage involves the ability to shift thinking and behavior depending on the cultural interaction.  Adaptation is not reached quickly and usually requires several years experience in another culture, and/or training and resources. This is where my training and experience can assist you, your board or organization.

The first step is assessment. It may be difficult for individuals to determine just where they are on the continuum described above.

I provide for individuals and organizations an objective assessment of individuals’ level of intercultural sensitivity. The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is a statistically reliable, cross-culturally valid measure of intercultural competence adapted from the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.  This tool is the first step, and its results help determine the next steps to take. From here we can develop a plan, determine what resources, tools and experiences to enable individuals to increasingly grow into fully functioning, culturally aware and competent people positively affecting the climate of whole organizations, companies, and communities. This work represents my passion and purpose, and I invite you to explore the possibilities to grow.

Learn more about what we can do for your organization!

Need help in the area of diversity and cultural sensitivity? We can conduct individual and group assessments, and provide plans and coaching designed to move you towards your goals.