Engaging A Culture That Is Not Our Own

If you receive the DEI weekly emails from me, then you have been taking a journey with me through some of the cultural holidays and celebrations that traditionally happen in

December each year. (If you haven’t been receiving these emails but would like to, click here to get signed up or email me at zac@leadershipharbor.com). It has been fascinating to briefly explore such holidays as Chanukah (Hanukkah), Bodhi Day, and Kwanzaa among many others. However, recently I had someone ask how they can further engage with these or other cultural customs and practices in respectful ways if they are not of that culture? How do we know the line between respectful and disrespectful engagement of a different culture whether we are engaging on our own or with a group such as family or work? This is an important question that many of us are asking in the growing awareness of the diversity around us. The answer is nuanced but begins with understanding key concepts for engaging diverse identities and cultures; these concepts being : cultural knowledge and cultural awareness, cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, cultural humility, and cultural competence.

Cultural Knowledge & Cultural Awareness

Cultural knowledge is when we have a concrete or objective understanding of what a certain culture does, values, and lives by. In other words, cultural knowledge is educating ourselves about the culture we don’t identify with, and it’s the foundation upon which we are able to respectfully engage other cultures. Building this foundation begins with taking the time, energy, and space to learn about the other culture on our own. It is not the responsibility of a member or members of the other culture to teach us about their culture. This is especially the case if we are members of the majority culture wanting to learn about another culture. After educating ourselves, we can then ask someone(s) of that culture about their experience to supplement what we learned. Cultural knowledge helps us grow our “cultural awareness,” which is the recognition and understanding of the similarities and differences that exist between different cultures.

An example of building cultural knowledge is reading the emails that I have sent out about traditions this month, and then using the given links and other resources to educate ourselves further. Once we’ve done that, we then get together with someone who is familiar with that culture and see how they might fill in some of the gaps from our learning, or may have a different perspective to share.

Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appreciation (aka “cultural sensitivity”) goes beyond building the basic understanding of cultural knowledge and awareness, and aims to broaden one’s perspective and connect with others cross-culturally while appreciating the values, norms and beliefs of the other culture without assigning values to the cultural differences (i.e. right or wrong, better or worse). Someone practicing cultural appreciation would not only learn about a culture, but would build relationships with those of the other culture and eventually be open to experiencing rituals and customs of that culture as an objective observer or participant.

Similar to cultural appreciation is cultural appropriation. Whereas cultural appreciation is aimed at understanding and appreciating the customs of the other culture, cultural appropriation is taking the custom of another culture that is not our own and using it for our own personal interest out of its cultural context. Appropriating a custom is disrespectful to the originating culture.

An example of the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation would be if we liked what we learned from the emails and wanted to experience the celebration after further researching Chanukah. Asking a Jewish Priest how we might be able to respectfully practice a part of Chanukah with our family, or asking a Jewish friend if we might be able to join them in their celebration with the desire for greater appreciation for the holiday would be ways for us to practice cultural appreciation. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, would be if we thought spinning the dreidel sounded fun so we invited some friends over to play gambling games with the dreidel instead of using the dreidel as it is intended for the Chanukah celebration. Or, within the company context, cultural appropriation would be “celebrating” Chanukah by giving gifts to employees for the eight days, without any education as to why those gifts are given or what they mean in the Jewish tradition. Cultural appreciation would be giving gifts within the context of educating employees on why Chanukah is celebrated, why gifts are given, and other important customs that are a part of the holiday with the input of a Jewish celebrant.

Cultural Humility

Cultural humility is the process of becoming conscious of our own cultural practices and social identities, and their impact on how we engage those within and without our culture. Developing cultural humility is a life-long process of growing in our self-awareness of our perceptions and biases that negatively impact our connections with others, and learning to put those aside so we can better and more fully connect with others, particularly those different from us.

An example of cultural humility on a personal level would be to ask ourselves how might our affinity towards Christmas or a different holiday keep us from better appreciating the rich meaning of Chanukah? Does my affinity for Christmas make me less open or more judgmental to the customs of Chanukah? On the business level, we might ask if our company’s policies for paid holidays are biased towards one religion or culture over others? Are there certain cultural celebrations that we have appreciated and others we have appropriated unintentionally or intentionally? Reflecting on these questions, asking others for input from what they’ve experienced, coming up with answers, and then making changes to areas of bias that are revealed would be practicing cultural humility in this moment. A commitment to cultural humility would continue this process in other cultural areas into the future.

Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence is our ability to understand, appreciate, and effectively relate with people of other cultures. It is the culmination of implementing all the concepts above (except cultural appropriation) as cultural competence requires an understanding of our own culture (cultural humility), the will to learn about different cultures (cultural knowledge), and a positive attitude toward cultural differences with the willingness to accept and respect those differences (cultural awareness and appreciation.)

On a personal level, cultural competence looks like building a relationship with a Jewish person and humbly joining them in their celebration of Chanukah, respecting how its difference does not make it better or worse than the other holiday we may celebrate. As a company, cultural competence looks like evaluating how policies might favor some holidays over other holidays that are celebrated by employees, and then changing policy to ensure that those other holidays are given the same recognition and respect.

These are the concepts that can help us respectfully celebrate holidays with our friends of differing cultures. It is not a short journey, but when we commit to living these out, we are able to recognize and value the differing cultural traditions of those around us personally and corporately. If you would like to explore further how to become culturally competent and create space for all people to be valued and belong, set up a complimentary discovery session with me at the link below or email me at zac@leadershipharbor.com. It would be my honor to take this journey with you.

Your partner in the journey,


Discovery Session

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