What is Cultural Sensitivity? - Definition, Examples & Importance

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  • 0:00 What Is Cultural Sensitivity?
  • 0:17 Examples
  • 3:03 Importance of Cultural…
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

In this lesson, we will discuss cultural sensitivity. Learn more about cultural sensitivity, how it plays out in the real world, and why it is important. Look at some examples that illustrate it as well.

What Is Cultural Sensitivity?

Cultural sensitivity refers to a set of skills that allows you to understand and learn about people whose cultural background is not the same as yours. But, what does that really mean? Let's take a look at some examples.


Example 1

Avery Jones, a 55-year-old African-American woman, has not been feeling well. Since she is new in town and has not yet had a chance to establish care with a physician, she decides to go to Dr. James Morrison at her friend's recommendation. Upon their first meeting, the 32-year-old Dr. Morrison introduces himself as 'Dr. Morrison' and calls her 'Avery.' Dr. Morrison then assumes that she is on Medicaid. Avery Jones leaves Dr. Morrison's practice upset and decides to find a different doctor. Dr. Morrison is obviously confused about her response. So, what did he do wrong?

In this example, Dr. Morrison was not being culturally sensitive. In many cultures, it is customary to call people by their last names, especially when they are older than you. Since Dr. Morrison called his patient 'Avery' instead of 'Mrs. Jones,' she took it as a sign of disrespect. To make matters worse, Dr. Morrison assumed that Avery was on Medicaid based solely upon his initial impression of her. This not only upset Mrs. Jones, but also prevented her from getting the medical treatment that she needed.

So, what would the culturally sensitive approach look like? Instead of calling her 'Avery,' Dr. Morrison would have asked her how she would like to be addressed. He could then make a note in her chart so that all of the staff know to address her as 'Mrs. Jones.' Instead of assuming that Mrs. Jones was on Medicaid, Dr. Morrison would have asked her if she had medical insurance and who her insurance provider was. Or maybe, he would have avoided the subject all together, as most practices have a billing department that handles insurance matters. Let's look at another example.

Example 2

Jane is an international business woman whose company has decided to open an office in Japan. Jane is preparing for her first meeting in the new office. Jane has several Japanese assistants working with her to help her get ready. Jane tries to beckon one of the assistants to come into her office. Instead of pointing her index finger at the assistant, Jane walks over to her assistant and politely asks her to join her in the office.

How is Jane being culturally sensitive? While it is okay to beckon someone in the United States by curling or pointing your index finger at them, in Japan this behavior is seen as offensive.

It is obvious that Jane has taken the time to educate herself about Japanese culture and adjust her behavior to the culture. Jane is not placing value on these cultural differences, i.e., Jane is not saying that her culture is better than the Japanese culture. Rather, she is being respectful of her assistants' culture, keeping an open mind, and educating herself about the culture so that she can run a better business.

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Additional Activities

Cultural Sensitivity

Activity 1:

Imagine that you are planning a trip to a country that has a very different culture from the one in which you were raised. Choose the country that you are going to visit, and do a little research on the cultural differences between that culture and yours. What do you need to be aware of when you visit that culture? Is eye contact considered respectful or rude? Is the personal space bigger or smaller than the one in your culture? Is the firmness of the handshake different? Write two to three paragraphs about this other culture, give examples of the cultural differences, and discuss how you would adapt your behavior to that culture.

Activity 2:

Can you think of a time when you have not displayed cultural sensitivity, or when you have witnessed a lack of cultural sensitivity? Write a journal entry about what you experienced or witnessed, what could have been modified so that it was not a negative experience, and whether you think the insensitivity was intentional or not.

Activity 3:

You are asked to develop an in-service for hospital nurses at a public hospital. They see many different cultures at this hospital, and it is important that the nurses display both cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity. Design a program for them to heighten their awareness of this issue so that they do not inadvertently offend a person from another culture.

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