By Diana Sanchez-Vega, CHI, CMI, MA in Psychological Studies
As an interpreter, I have always been fascinated with the concept of culture. My sense has been that it is
a construct that holds some mystique: many know what it is, but few are brave enough to
spontaneously, and accurately, define it.
According to Berger (2000), the term culture comes from the Latin cultus, which means “care”, and from
the French colere, meaning “to till”, as in “to till the ground”. Therefore, it can be said that culture is a
way of tilling shared meanings, that are expressed through traditions, customs, and thoughts. A person’s
culture includes all or a mix of the following aspects: age, educational level, ethnicity, geographic origin,
gender, group history, language, life experiences, religion, spiritual beliefs and practices, sexual
orientation, and socioeconomic class. Culture is dynamic and changes with time, integrating various
aspects of a person’s life and providing frameworks for action (Hudelson, 2004).
For me, culture is like a sea urchin: it has a core, but its spikes are continuously growing, moving, and
evolving. So, when the notion of cultural competence became all the rage in the 1990’s, I was quite
confused. How can someone become an expert in any culture at any given point in time, such as, the day
one ‘graduates’ from a cultural competency training? How can the ‘culture urchin’ remain still, stop
growing, and evolving if, in essence, the idea of culture is that we continuously ‘crowdsource’ its content?
It can be tempting to fall prey to the notion that we, as interpreters, are competent – know all that there
is to know - in cultures that speak the languages we are proficient in, whether we believe so ourselves,
or because these are the expectations of others. That perceived competency can be expressed by making
generalizations about, for example, a whole race (“Hispanics have strong family values”), or those born in
a certain country (“All Egyptians speak with regionalisms mostly”).
In my view, cultural competence can promote bias, because it requires us to approach interactions with
others with a closed stance, where we know – or are expected to know – all that there is to know about
a culture, or how to interact with those from a certain culture. Conversely, if we don’t know everything
there is to know about a culture, or how to interact with those from a certain culture, then we are not
Cultural humility, on the other hand, “is a process of openness, self-awareness, being ego-less, and
incorporating self-reflection and critique after willingly interacting with diverse individuals” (Foronda,
Baptiste, Reinholdt, & Ousman, 2016). This open stance empowers lifelong learning, and fosters
compassion and empathy when interacting with others.
Check out the table below that compares cultural competence with cultural humility.
Difference Between Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility
View of Culture
Note. Adapted from “Cultural Humility: Essential Foundation for Clinical Researchers”, by K.A. Yeager and
S. Bauer-Wu, 2013, Applied Nursing Research, 26, p. 12. Copyright 2013 by National Institutes of Health.
Adopting a culturally humble approach in our practice as interpreters in education supports our ethics and
standards related to cultural awareness. It shifts how we engage with stakeholders in interpreted
encounters from mastery (competence) to accountability (humility) (Fisher-Borne, Cain, and Martin,
2015), and fosters an environment where everyone truly has a voice.
Berger, A. A. (2000). The meanings of culture. M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 3(2). Retrieved from
Retrieved from http://www.api-network.com/mc/0005/meaning.php
Foronda, C., Baptiste, D., Reinholdt, M. M., & Ousman, K. (2016). Cultural humility: A concept analysis.
Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 27(3), 210-217. doi:10.1177/1043659615592677
Hudelson, P.M. (2004). Culture and quality: An anthropological perspective. International
Journal for Quality in Health Care, 16(5), 345–346. doi:10.1093/intqhc/mzh076
Yeager, K. A., & Bauer-Wu, S. (2013). Cultural humility: Essential foundation for clinical researchers.
Applied Nursing Research: ANR, 26(4). doi:10.1016/j.apnr.2013.06.008.