Cultural Humility: Why Should You Care?

Cultural humility is defined as a “lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in and to developing mutually beneficial and nonpaternalistic partnerships.”


Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Cross-body bag? Check. Passport and flight info? Check. So everything is packed in your suitcase and you’re ready to go, right? Have you checked your cultural baggage? You might not realize it, but you are bringing a lot more than clothes to your life abroad.

In this ever-shrinking world, cultural exchange is easier than ever and we have to be careful about it. It’s great to be politically correct and culturally aware but we can’t stop there. We have to practice cultural humility.

Cultural humility is defined as a “lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in and to developing mutually beneficial and nonpaternalistic partnerships.” In other words, one must understand that both persons involved in an interaction are affected and there is a two-way exchange of information and opinions. Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair, of Emory University, explains that one must consider what baggage they are bringing to a conversation and how that might affect the way they interact with those of other cultures. When one reflects on their own personal experiences, they are able to better understand others because they understand themselves. With reflection and consideration of how one’s own experiences have shaped them, a deeper understanding of how to navigate interactions can be achieved.

As you prepare to live abroad, take some time to reflect on your experiences. Consider your upcoming program as a research project and focus on the investigator’s lens. What parts of your identity might affect your interactions with others? During my time in Nicaragua, I realized that certain parts of my identity were affecting my conversations with others. My familiarity of the American system of government, my age, and the fact that I have studied Spanish and International Studies changed the way I interpreted some of the conversations. For example, I grew up understanding the role of government through American laws and societal norms. When I was discussing with Nicaraguan youth their interactions with the government, however, I realized that not all nations have the same legal code and precedents. I needed to make sure I understood expectations and examples of political participation from a Nicaraguan perspective – and to not expect that their understanding of government would be the same as mine.

Furthermore, I had to make sure not to let the fact that I was the same age as the Nicaraguans I was interviewing affect the way we interacted. It would have been easy to pretend that we understood each other well because we were the same age. To be a young adult in Nicaragua, however, might represent something entirely different than to be a young adult in America.

Lastly, I had to be careful not to let the fact that I am proficient in Spanish and study Latin American society and culture give me a false sense of understanding. I did not want to misrepresent myself by giving verbal and physical clues that indicated that I understood them if I actually did not. Cultural humility was important during my interviews with Nicaraguans because I needed to present the truest form of myself, so that I could better understand how the citizens perceive the government and how they participate in civil society. In order to present myself truthfully, I had to understand that my experiences affect the way I relate to others. During the conversations, the young Nicaraguans thought I was on the same cultural page as them. Upon realizing that my own experiences were affecting the way I was representing myself during the interviews, I began to ask the Nicaraguans to clarify and explain some of their anecdotes and stories so that I could fully understand where they are coming from.  As you interact with new people, be sure to ask questions and for clarification so you can get the most out of the interaction and truly practice cultural humility.

To get ready for your whirlwind adventure abroad, be sure to research your destination so that you can understand cultural differences, consider how these differences might interact with your own personal background, and be prepared to have the time of your life! Cultural exchange is key to success in every facet of globalization, and you will be more successful in these interactions if you practice!

Tervalon, Melanie, and Jann Murray-Garcia. “Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education.” Journal of health care for the poor and underserved 9.2 (1998): 117-125.

Maura Lewandowski

Maura is from Pittsburgh, PA and loved visiting Lisbon. When it comes to traveling, she's a planner. She does research before she arrives at the destination and makes sure she can fit in as much as possible.

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