Chapter 35: Cultural Humility

[Curator’s note: This chapter was created as a project for an Stanford University EPIC (Education Partnership for Internationalizing Curriculum) Global Studies Fellowship project and was revised as part of the Spanish Language Revision project]

The words “culture” and “humility” are common, and most people would be able to define these two words separately. Culture is usually defined as shared ways of being, including beliefs, food, language, and traditions, as well as many other things. Take a moment and think to yourself, what is my culture? How would I define it? What kinds of examples could I give to demonstrate the uniqueness of my culture?

Humility can be typically thought of as not putting yourself above others, considering carefully the worth and value of others around you. But what does it mean to have “cultural humility”? People who study intercultural communication say that learning to respect and interact with people from other cultures is a life-long endeavor.

Cultural Humility vs. Cultural Competency

Cultural competence is the social awareness that everyone is unique, that different cultures and backgrounds affect how people think and behave, and that this awareness allows people to behave appropriately and perform effectively in culturally diverse environments. Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professions to function effectively.

The idea of cultural competency has been popular as a way of helping people interact with those who are culturally different from them. However, a 1998 article by Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia, titled “Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes multicultural education” suggested that approaches emphasizing humility, rather than competency might be better at helping people avoid stereotyping or generalizing other groups. Although Tervalon and Murray-Garcia focused mostly on healthcare workers, their findings have been also used in training for social workers and educators.

The following video shows how cultural competency is a goal, whereas cultural humility is a mindset. How might this be a more helpful way to approaching interactions with different cultures?

Video: What is Cultural Humility?

As a college student, you are likely to find yourself in diverse classrooms, organizations, and – eventually – workplaces. It is important to prepare yourself to be able to adapt to diverse environments.

Cultural humility can help you learn  to be aware of your own cultural practices, values, and experiences, and to be able to read, interpret, and respond to those of others. Such awareness will help you successfully navigate the cultural differences you will encounter in diverse environments. Cultural humility is critical to working and building relationships with people from different cultures; it is so critical, in fact, that the ability to interact with other cultures is now one of the most highly desired skills in the modern workforce. 2

To learn more about cultural humility, visit this training page from Boston University and download their PowerPoint and Curriculum: 

Cultural Quotient (CQ)

Cultural Quotient (CQ) helps us understand and communicate with people from other cultures effectively. It is one’s ability to recognize cultural differences through knowledge and mindfulness, and behave appropriately when facing people from other cultures. Mindful is defined as being conscious or aware of something. The cultural intelligence approach goes beyond this emphasis on knowledge because it also emphasizes the importance of developing an overall repertoire of understanding, motivation, and skills that enables one to move in and out of lots of different cultural contexts[1].

Due to the globalization of our world, people of different cultures today live together in communities across our many nations. This presents more opportunities to interact with diverse individuals in many facets and thus, today’s workforce would need to know the customs and worldviews of other cultures. Therefore, people with a higher CQ can better interact with people from other cultures easily and more effectively.


In considering culture and cultural awareness, it is important to recognize that no person is just one culture. Instead, scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins argued that people are made up of multiple, intersecting identities and cultures. Crenshaw called this frame “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is the idea that your identity might be influenced by any number of these factors:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Linguistic background
  • Sexual orientation
  • (Dis)ability
  • Religion

All of these factors not only influence how you see yourself, but also how others might see you. Very often, race and gender are at the top of this list because they are the most visible to people who don’t know you. However, your personal and cultural identity is likely influenced by a mix of these factors, rather than just one or two.

Take a minute to think about these questions:

  • What do you think people assume about you when they see you?
    • What are these assumptions based on?
    • What would you add or change to correct these assumptions?
  • Have you ever assumed something about someone else’s culture that was later proven wrong or incomplete?
    • What did you assume?
    • What background did you have that led you to that assumption?
    • How was this assumption corrected?

Example Scenarios:

Minh’s case: 

Minh grew up in Vietnam where the classroom environment is quite different from that of the US. He was taught that looking someone in the eye (especially a superior, like a teacher), is rude and that students should be quiet and take notes in class. Students in his high school classes did not engage in class discussions or ask the teacher questions, especially during class. He was taught only to offer an answer if he was called upon.

The American classroom experience was completely disorienting for Minh. He is frustrated with how much the students talk and how little the professor actually “teaches.” It seems like the professor is just letting students dominate the class with discussion, even when they don’t know what they are talking about. He struggles to break into group discussions, even though he is fluent in English. It just seems like everyone is talking over each other.

Around midterm, Minh checks his grade on the learning management system and sees that he has a 30% for participation. What cultural assumptions have the professor and other students made about the classroom learning environment? What would you do if you were Minh? How could the professor and other students in the class create a more inclusive environment for students like Minh?

Asma’s case

Asma is from a Muslim family. She grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, and attended an all girls high school in Portland. In Asma’s culture, it is considered inappropriate for men and women to have physical contact, if they are not related or married. This extends to shaking hands.

Asma is really interested in studying Spanish and traveling in the Spanish speaking world, so she signs up for Spanish classes and begins attending events put on by La Casa Latina, the cultural resource center for Spanish-speaking students. She wants to fit in and meet people, but many people she talks to find her stand-offish and not friendly. How might cultural norms around physical contact affect Asma’s ability to make friends in this new community?

Cultural humility is a skill that you can learn and improve upon over time and with practice. What actions can you take to build your cultural humility skills?

  • Acknowledge the many aspects of your culture that are both unique and shared. Beyond language, religion, and food, you may have a wealth of other cultural identities that will help you connect with other people. Think about your work, your major, your goals, or your hobbies, or think about other aspects of your identity, like your race, gender, or ability. How do these aspects of your identity intersect with the identities of others around you? How do they make you unique? Understanding that you and others around you are unique, complex individuals can help you both find common ground and build an understanding of the value of difference.
  • Consider your own (possibly unconscious) biases. Biases and stereotypes  are fixed, simplistic views of what people in a certain group are like. These beliefs are  often the basis for prejudice and discrimination: behaving differently toward someone because you stereotype them in some way. Biases are generally learned and emerge in the dominant culture’s attitudes toward those from outside that dominant group, but they can also be shared by non-dominant groups in ways that uphold the power of the dominant elite. A stereotype may be explicitly racist and destructive, and it may also be a simplistic generalization applied to any group of people, even if intended to be flattering rather than negative. As you have read this chapter so far, did you find yourself thinking about any group of people, based on any kind of difference, and perhaps thinking in terms of stereotypes? If you walked into a party and saw many different kinds of people standing about, would you naturally avoid some and move toward others? We develop biases from many sources, including media, the influence of family, and/or peers. Thinking about and identifying your biases  are the first steps in breaking out of these ingrained thought patterns.
  • Do not try to ignore differences among people. Some people try so hard to avoid biases that they go to the other extreme and try to avoid seeing any differences at all among people. But as we have seen throughout this chapter, people are different in many ways, and we should accept that if we are to experience the benefits of diversity.
  • Don’t apply any group generalizations to individuals. This can be challenging, especially because biases are often unconscious and can come out in many subtle ways. When you meet people for the first time, try to think of them as individuals first, members of a group second; remember that any given generalization simply may not apply to an individual. Be open-minded and treat everyone with respect as an individual with their own ideas, attitudes, and preferences.
  • Develop cultural sensitivity for communication. Realize that your words and body language may not mean quite the same thing in different cultural contexts or to individuals from different backgrounds. This is particularly true of slang words, which you should generally avoid until you are sure the other person will know what you mean. Similarly, since body language often varies among different cultures, pay attention to the body language of the people you are communicating with. Pay special attention to whether or not people want to have physical contact (shaking hands, hugging) or how easily people are willing to make eye contact.  Noting the responses and behaviors of people around you will help ensure that they will not misinterpret the messages sent by your body language.
  • Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness. Your college likely has multiculturalism courses or workshops you can sign up for. Special events, cultural fairs and celebrations, concerts, and other programs are held frequently on most campuses. There may also be opportunities to participate in group travel to other countries or regions of cultural diversity.
  • Take the initiative in social interactions. Many students just naturally hang out with other students they are most like—that almost seems to be part of human nature. Even when we’re open-minded and want to learn about others different from ourselves, it often seems easier and more comfortable to interact with others of the same age, cultural group, and so on. If you are attending a Predominantly White Institution, it may feel safer, emotionally and physically, to stay close to people you identify with. However, there are many opportunities to build connections with others in your classes who are not like you. Next time you’re looking around the classroom or dorm for someone to ask about a class you missed or to study together for a test or group project, choose someone different from you in some way. Making friends with others of different backgrounds is often one of the most fulfilling experiences of college students.
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. Many college students have not had the opportunity to interact with people who are different from them in some way. Because of this, initial interactions may be a little awkward, and microagressions may be made in both directions. Be honest with your classmates if they have said something inappropriate. Likewise, be open if someone gives you similar feedback.

Licenses and Attributions:

The Life in Quarantine Project was designed by Stanford University graduate students Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo, Farah Bazzi, and Ellis Schriefer,  and adapted by Linnea Spitzer and Norma Cardenas.

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

Global Pathways: Cultural Competence Curriculum Module. Authored by Monica G. Burke, Ric Keaster, Hideko Norman, and Nielson Pereira.  Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution

Diversity and Cultural Competency. Authored by: Laura Lucas. Provided by: Austin Community College. Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution

Introduction to Sociology 2e (Chapter 10.1). Authored by: OpenStax CNX, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, et al. Located at: The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the creative commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University. For questions regarding this license, please contact Download for free at

Adaptions: Modified content to fit consistency with existing chapters, eliminate overlap/duplication of information, with consideration to consistency among multiple original sources. November 2021: Changed focus of the chapter from cultural competency to cultural humility, changed video, added references to intersectionality.

All rights reserved content:

What is Cultural Humility? (2020, October 5). Psych Hub. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

  1. Ang, S., & Van Dyne, L. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook on cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement and applications. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.


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