The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity and Awareness
In the past few months, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in hate crimes being reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s monitoring group has reported a disturbing rise in the number of hate groups operating within the country, reporting a total of 917 as of this story’s publication.
To say that the Discover Corps team finds this to be an incredibly disturbing trend is an understatement. We are thoroughly disgusted by recently reported events such as the vandalism and destruction of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the country, hateful rhetoric and violence aimed at Muslim Americans, and way too many other instances of intolerance.
In the first three months following President Trump’s election, the SPLC recorded a whopping 1,372 bias incidents. Of that total, more than 25 percent were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments.
In short, 2017 is turning out to be a challenging year for many Americans. Even simple, rational beliefs about equality and basic human rights have become increasingly politically charged. Here at Discover Corps, we believe that makes culturally immersive travel more important than ever.
We’re proud to be facilitating experiences that open the hearts and minds of travelers to new experiences and cultures around the world. We’re especially aware of the increased importance of promoting cultural sensitivity and awareness through all aspects of our work.
These values are paramount to assuring that citizens of our increasingly globalized planet are able to understand and respect one another. And embracing them is the only way to ensure that we’ll be able to come together as people to ensure that our future holds more peace and promise than our past.
What is Cultural Sensitivity?
The idea behind cultural sensitivity is very straightforward. Cultural sensitivity refers to a set of skills that allows you to learn about and understand people whose cultural background is not the same as yours.
But what does that really mean? Essentially, it means that, as you go about your daily life, you operate with the awareness that cultural differences between yourself and the people you meet exist without assigning them a value. You see our differences as a positive thing, and don’t consider one culture better or worse, right or wrong.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. With increasingly diverse populations living together in the same communities, it’s not always possible to intimately understand the backgrounds of those we’re interacting with.
But having cultural sensitivity doesn’t mean that you must be an expert in each culture’s values. It simply means that you’re willing to ask honest questions, seek understanding, and demonstrate empathy rather than judging those around you. It also means that, when you knowingly enter a space in which there will be cultural differences at play, you do a bit of homework beforehand and avoid knee-jerk reactions or jumping to conclusions.
Why is Cultural Sensitivity Important?
Having cultural sensitivity is important when you travel, of course. You want to demonstrate respect and appreciation for the culture of the people in the place you’re visiting. This helps grow your understanding of your new surroundings, and makes your time spent there more meaningful.
But cultural sensitivity is just as important when you’re at home. It’s so important, in fact, that the concept has become increasingly relevant both in the workplace and for major business branding strategies.
Large corporations now include cultural sensitivity training in their employee on-boarding process. Many publishers hire teams to review content for various cultural interpretations prior to release. Even major retail brands such as Nike have begun to produce/promote products that are inclusive of an increasingly diverse customer base’s needs. Check out their awesome new Pro Hijab as an example.
The most important thing when it comes to acting in a culturally sensitive way is that you remember to ground each interaction you have with others in the understanding that their background, experiences, and values naturally vary from your own. This will help you to lead with understanding and empathy, rather than judgment, which is an incredibly important shift.
How Can Travel Increase Cultural Sensitivity?
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” Traveling is an excellent way to practice cultural awareness and grow your experience with world views that are different from your own. This is particularly important in 2017, when a lack of cultural sensitivity is leading to growing displays of intolerance, both here in the U.S. and abroad.
The adventure of being in a new place, surrounded by people who in many cases have had vastly different life experiences from your own, is an undeniably special one. It opens your mind and heart to those who you may not previously have shared an understanding with. This cross-cultural exchange is among the most beautiful, complex, and exciting aspects of traveling in areas you’ve never been to.
It’s also a skill-set that is being increasingly fostered in our earlier, formative years. Gaining an insight into the cultures of others is an important step toward developing cultural sensitivity and awareness. More and more schools are utilizing travel experiences to formally instill these values in their students.
This is exciting news, because it will lead to the next generation of global citizens being more culturally sensitive, aware, and understanding in their interactions with others. We can only hope that the distrust and skepticism currently being aimed at minority ethnic groups will be replaced with respect and acceptance.
For our part, each of Discover Corps’ Vacations with Purpose is designed to connect travelers with meaningful components of the host community’s cultural makeup. They’re led by locals who are excited to share their own stories and experiences in the name of building cross-cultural understanding.
With nearly 20 trips to choose from, we’ve got an itinerary to spark an interest in almost everyone. Because we believe that open-minded travelers of all ages, backgrounds, and belief systems will be the people who ultimately help change our world for the better. –Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.