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Cultural Humility: Beyond Cultural Competence

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

(fully) competent.

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.

Table 1

Difference Between Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility


Cultural Competence

Cultural Humility

View of Culture

  • Group traits

  • Group label associates’ group with a list of traditional traits and practice

  • De-contextualized

  • Unique to individuals

  • Originates from multiple contributions from different sources

  • Can be fluid and change based on context

Culture Definition

  • Minorities of ethnic and racial groups

  • Different combinations of ethnicity, race, age, income, education, sexual orientation, class, abilities, faith and more


  • Immigrants and minorities follow traditions

  • Everyone follows traditions


  • Promotion of stereotyping

  • Power differences exist and must be recognized and minimized​


  • Differences based on group identity and group boundaries

  • Promotion of respect


  • A defined course or curriculum to highlight differences

  • Individual focus of not only the other but also of self


  • A defined course or curriculum to highlight differences

  • An ongoing life process

  • Making bias explicit


  • Competence/expertise

  • Flexibility/humility

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

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.

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Mar 15, 2023

This short essay about cultural humility really expresses my own questions and thoughts throughout the years regarding culture. As a medical interpreter I have found that what works best is aiming to connect from person to person, from one heart and one intelligence to another. STS

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