Worlds apart

I’ve just commenced work with an organisation that supports people from many cultural backgrounds.  I’ve realised that what I thought I knew about particular cultures is so different to what I’m starting to learn through my work. Apart from cultural sensitivity training, how can I ensure I am working in the most respectful way with my clients as well as colleagues?

Demonstrating respect and empathy for people from all backgrounds is the cornerstone of any working relationship – with your colleagues and clients. It is important to come from a place of non-judgment and accept peoples’ experiences and their differences, which may contrast significantly to what we consider to be “normal” in our own cultures.

Cultural sensitivity training can provide a good foundation for understanding more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) cultures; however, your theoretical knowledge will integrate into practice by learning more from your clients, colleagues and professional networks and interest groups.

Becoming more culturally aware is more than just learning about the uniqueness of other cultures. It’s important to be mindful of the particular challenges you and your clients may face, which may be specific to their background. For example, with people from an ATSI background, you will need to be sensitive to the impact of inter-generational trauma. Sensitivity for CALD clients from a refugee background relates to the effect of war, trauma, separation from family, displacement from home, language barriers, living in camps perhaps for years, and learning how to start a new life in a foreign country.

I myself come from a CALD background and even though I think I have a solid understanding of cultural awareness, it was reinforced to me during Cultural Sensitivity Training that we couldn’t make assumptions about anyone. When it comes to communication for example, (and we’ve seen this in our workplace) what one of our colleagues might find funny may have a negative impact on another colleague from a different cultural background. There are many instances where miscommunication or misunderstandings may occur if we do not seek to clarify or understand further. For example, we may assume that someone who avoids eye contact with us during a conversation is being rude; however, in some cultures, avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of respect.

It’s important that if you are not sure about how to approach a client or colleague from a different cultural background to yours, that you ask for help. When you meet your clients for the first time, in developing your relationship, check with them if it is OK to ask them questions about themselves and/or their culture if you are not sure of something. Gaining permission to do this is a respectful way to establish effective communication moving forward. But be mindful of how difficult it may be for some people to talk about any aspect of their life, particularly about past and current challenges, and past traumas.

Make sure that whoever you ask for help for increased cultural awareness has knowledge that is specific to your clients – general cultural awareness training is, as I said, a good foundation, but your learning needs to continue specifically to your client’s individual circumstances and of course, their particular goals. Also, be aware of your own beliefs and values and their influence how you work, in both positive and negative ways, and ensure you have regular supervision with an appropriate person within or external to your workplace.

CatholicCare has staff available to deliver Cultural Awareness Training covering working with ATSI people, as well as people from a multicultural background, particularly refugees. For further information, please call CatholicCare on 4979 1120.


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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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