Cultural Awareness—How to Be More Culturally Aware & Improve Your Relationships

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Cultural awareness, sometimes referred to as cultural sensitivity, is defined by the NCCC (National Center for Cultural Competence) as being cognizant, observant, and conscious of the similarities and differences among and between cultural groups.

Becoming more culturally aware is a continual process and it can help to have curiosity, an open mind, a willingness to ask questions, a desire to learn about the differences that exist between cultures, and an openness to becoming conscious of one’s own culturally shaped values, beliefs, perceptions, and biases.

The Value of Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness is important because it allows us to see and respect other perspectives and to appreciate the inherent value of people who are different than we are. It leads to better relationships, healthier work environments, and a stronger, more compassionate society.

Read on to learn more about cultural awareness, including the impacts it can have, how to become more culturally aware, how to approach conversations about cultural awareness, and how to address cultural awareness in intercultural relationships.

The Importance of Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness involves learning about cultures that are different from your own. But it’s also about being respectful about these differences, says Natalie Page Ed.D., chief diversity officer at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. “It’s about being sensitive to the similarities and differences that can exist between different cultures and using this sensitivity to effectively communicate without prejudice and racism,” she explains.

5 Reasons Why Cultural Awareness Is Important

Here are five reasons why it’s important to become more culturally aware:

  1. When you strive to become more culturally aware, you gain knowledge and information about different cultures, which leads to greater cultural competence, says Dr. Page
  2. Engaging in cultural awareness makes you more sensitive to the differences between cultures that are different than your own, Dr. Page says; you also become less judgmental of people who are different than you.
  3. Studies have found that greater cultural awareness in the workplace leads to an overall better workplace culture for everyone involved.
  4. Research has found that cultural awareness creates better outcomes for people in healthcare environments, and in other environments where people are receiving care from others.
  5. According to Nika White, PhD, author of Inclusion Uncomplicated: A Transformative Guide to Simplify DEI, cultural awareness can improve your interpersonal relationships. “Just like any other relationship, you must understand their culture to truly understand someone’s lived experiences and how they show up to the world,” Dr. White describes.

How to Be More Culturally Aware

Knowing about the importance of being more culturally aware is one thing, but actually taking steps to do so is something else.

It’s about being sensitive to the similarities and differences that can exist between different cultures and using this sensitivity to effectively communicate without prejudice and racism.


Here are a few tips for how to go about becoming more culturally aware.

Understand That It’s a Process

“Becoming culturally aware is a process that is fluid, birthed out of a desire to learn more about other cultures,” says Dr. Page.

She says it can be helpful to study the model laid out by Dr. Ibram Kendi, the author of How To Be An Antiracist. Dr. Kendi says that there are basically three paths to growing cultural awareness:

  • “The first is moving from the fear zone, where you are afraid and would rather stay in your own culture comfort zone,” Dr. Page describes.
  • Next is moving into the learning zone, where you strive to learn about different cultures, how people acquire their cultures, and culture's important role in personal identities, practices, and mental and physical health of individuals and communities. The learning zone can also include becoming more aware of your own culturally shaped values, beliefs, and biases and how they impact the way you see yourself and others.
  • “The last phase is the growth zone, where you grow in racial advocacy and allyship,” says Dr. Page.

Ask Questions

Dr. White says that asking questions is a vital part of becoming more culturally aware. You can start by asking yourself some important questions, such as: “How is my culture affecting how I interact with and perceive others?” Dr. White suggests.

You can also respectfully ask others about their lives. But make sure the exchanges aren’t one-sided, she recommends: when you ask others about their cultures, tell them about yours, too. “Tell your own stories to engage, build relationships, find common ground, and become more culturally aware of someone from a different culture,” she says.

Educate Yourself and Do the Work

There’s no way around it: if you want to become more culturally aware, you need to take action and educate yourself.

“Don’t lean on assumptions,” says Dr. White. “Actually research cultures different from yours.” This can help you become more aware of how culture affects every aspect of your life and the lives of others. In addition to research, educating yourself often involves seeking and participating in meaningful interactions with people of differing cultural backgrounds. “Expand your network to include people from different cultures into your circle,” Dr. White recommends.

Study the Cultural Competence Continuum Model

The Cultural Competence Continuum Model is an assessment tool that helps us understand where people are on their journey to becoming more culturally competent.

Different people fall into various categories along the continuum. Categories include cultural destructiveness, cultural incapacity, cultural blindness, cultural pre-competence, cultural competence, and cultural proficiency.

Studying this model can help us become more aware of the process of moving toward more cultural sensitivity, and become more patient with ourselves and others as we move through the process.

Acknowledge Your Own Bias

We all have our own biases when it comes to cultural awareness, because we all begin by looking at the world and at others through our own cultural lens.

It is important to acknowledge this as it can help us see how our cultural biases may prevent us from being as culturally sensitive as we wish to be.

What If I Say the Wrong Thing?

Often, people don’t want to address topics having to do with culture or race because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing or make a mistake while talking to someone.

The truth is, most people make mistakes on their journey toward cultural awareness, and that’s understandable, says Dr. Page.

“If you make a mistake, simply apologize and let the person that you may have offended know that you are learning and be open to any suggestions they may have,” she recommends. Sometimes it even makes sense to apologize in advance, if you are saying something you are unsure of. You can say, “I may have this wrong, so I apologize beforehand but…” Dr. Page suggests. “The key is to be sincere in your conversations and always open to learning from others,” she says.

Making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process and it is important to approach these topics and conversations with shared respect, compassion, and grace.

Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity in Intercultural/Interracial Relationships

If you are in a relationship with someone who is of a different race or culture than you, it’s important to have open, honest discussions about this. “If a person is going to grow in interracial and intercultural relationships, you have to step out of your cultural comfort zone and seek an understanding about other cultures,” says Dr. Page.

Questions to Ask Someone to Learn About Their Culture

Having a genuine discussion with someone about your differences can feel awkward, and it can be helpful to kick-start the conversation with a few open-ended questions. Dr. White shared some helpful questions:

  • Can you tell me about your culture?
  • Tell me a little something about how you were raised?
  • What role does religion play in your life?

Here are some additional questions that could be asked with respect and consent, to another (and also to yourself!):

  • What holidays and celebrations are important in your culture?
  • What customs and etiquette are important in your culture?
  • What is your favorite food in your culture?
  • Is religion an important part of life in your culture? If so, what religion do people practice most often and why do you think that is?
  • How do you express your cultural identity?
  • What stereotypes or misconceptions do people from your culture often face and what do you wish more people knew?
  • Is there anything about your culture that you find challenging?
  • How has your culture changed over time?
  • How do you think your culture has influenced your personal values and beliefs?
  • What is the importance of family in your culture?

Can I Ask Someone to Help Me Learn About Their Culture?

One of the important ways to develop culture awareness is to educate yourself about other cultures. Learning directly from people of different cultures is a fantastic way to get authentic information. But it’s important to engage in conversations with others about their cultures in respectful, appropriate manners.

When you decide to ask others about their culture, be mindful that they may not want to answer, and know that that’s okay, says Dr. White. It’s also important to make the conversation a two-way street. Don’t just ask them about their culture—talk about your culture as well. “Share your culture first to model the behavior and let others know it is safe to talk about their culture,” Dr. White suggests.

Finally, make sure to take it upon yourself to do some of the work. “Once you learn of someone’s culture you wish to cultivate a relationship with, do your homework to learn as much as you can,” Dr. White says. Don't simply rely on others to educate you—this may be seen as insensitive, Dr. White says.

Pitfalls of Not Developing Cultural Awareness

The main pitfalls of not developing cultural awareness is that we don’t expand our understanding of other cultures, we don’t deepen our relationship with people who are different than we are, and that we risk continuing to have a narrow view of the world around us. 

“We live in an ever-changing diverse world,” Dr. Page says. “We rob ourselves when we only hang out with people from our cultural groups. We have to branch out and experience the beauty that others bring.”

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Shepherd SM, Willis-Esqueda C, Newton D, et al. The challenge of cultural competence in the workplace: perspectives of healthcare providers. BMC Health Services Research. 2019;19:135. doi:10.1186/s12913-019-3959-7

  3. Kaihlanen AM., Hietapakka L, Heponiemi T. Increasing cultural awareness: qualitative study of nurses’ perceptions about cultural competence training. BMC Nursing. 2019;18(38). doi:10.1186/s12912-019-0363-x

  4. Calkins H. How You Can Be More Culturally Competent. Good Practice. 2020:13-16.

  5. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Improving Cultural Competence.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.