A Lesson in Cultural Humility: Observations Abroad

Training Room


The Network for Social Work Management recently held its first international training, a week long training of our human services management competencies to NGO leaders throughout China. My first morning in Beijing, a board member and I had some downtime, so we hired a guide. Our tour guide, “Sunshine” spoke English well and explained to us that he had lived in the US for many years during his formative years. He explained how his mother sent him to live with his uncle in the US. He indicated that he did not know why he was being sent away, but he was sent to a foreign country to be with foreign people. As he told his story, he told us that he was looked at as if he was a “monster” while living in the US because of his difference.  I listened ears piqued as he told his story. I quietly imagined myself in his shoes and wondered what the experience must be like for immigrants and refugees or anyone deemed as “foreign.”

As we exited our car,  my own  ‘difference’ became readily apparent. It was the first time in my life, I had felt so ‘different.” While walking around Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, I was stared at, pointed at, touched, taken photos of, and asked to be in photos. I had heard that my presence may result in these behaviors, but the actual experience was more than I could have imagined. Admittedly, I became uncomfortable.  I felt myself retreating and feeling ready for this experience to be over.  Sunshine was amused. I was not.

Later,  I considered my experience and how it made me feel.  I thought about the work we do as social workers and human service leaders. Many of us work with people who are culturally different every day. Most social workers learn about cultural competence while in their graduate program. This concept was drilled into my coursework while I was in school. The notion of culturally competent practice was something we were all encouraged to understand and utilize. I even remember reading ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down’, an example used to illustrate differences in cultures and misunderstandings.

Last June, the Network held a webinar titled, Culturally Responsive Caring and the Inclusive Workplace: Implications for Leadership” led by Dr. Robert Ortega. The concept of cultural humility was introduced during this webinar. While I had never heard of cultural “humility” as opposed to “competence,” the thought process resonated with me. After all, we can never fully be competent of another’s culture, but we can be humble, recognize this, and do what we can to still have a positive interaction with someone of another culture. In the process, why not invite them to educate us? They know more about themselves than we do.

The training itself was a great learning experience for myself and my board members. Our attendees were very pleased to welcome their “teachers” from the US. They were excited to learn more about our Western ideas and practices. While teaching, the difference in cultures became apparent. While this is something we obviously knew, actual experience tends to confirm these thoughts. We realized quickly that you cannot  go to another country and assume your teaching style will be embraced, your tools and techniques applicable, or even your jokes understood. We had to be humble. We had to adjust. With this realization and some adjustments, the end result was a very positive learning experience not only for us, but for our attendees as well.

As managers, we should be humble in everything we do. We are seen as leaders designated to not only lead an office, manage a team, but also to represent the best interest of our clients. We are trained at the onset of our education to “meet our clients where they are,” but how many of us actually do this or do it regularly? Difference is beautiful, let’s embrace it, let’s learn from each other.


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