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Cultural Sensitivity, Awareness and Competence


It should be noted that political, economic, social, and other processes taking place in society are gradually reflected in inter-ethnic contacts. This leads to the fact that they activate various psychological reactions both at the personal and at the group levels (Bird & Mendenhall, 2016). The exacerbation of ethnocentric processes in the United States, Europe, and other countries push researchers to explore resources that can be relied upon to minimize the negative effects of these trends. For that reason, it is particularly important to comprehend such domains as cultural awareness, sensitivity, and competence since they are central to effective cross-national dialogue. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast these three concepts.

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General Points

Before discussing the differences and similarities between the domains, it is necessary to specify what they denote. Cultural awareness implies that a person understands that there are different ethnic or racial groups, which have their ideas, representations, customs, and attitudes (Tsaur & Tu, 2019). It also means that the individual is capable of recognizing the differences that exist between people of various cultures and nationalities (Bird & Mendenhall, 2016). In its turn, cultural sensitivity is a domain, which implies that a person can recognize and accept these differences between people and does not assign values to them. Importantly, a culturally-sensitive individual does not assess the customs or actions of others as correct or incorrect (Schouler-Ocak et al., 2015). Meanwhile, cultural competence is the ability to recognize and appreciate the different behaviors and attitudes exhibited by various nationalities or ethnicities.


Cultural awareness is a platform based on which the interaction between people from different cultures should occur. It requires a certain degree of self-reflection since a person needs to be aware of their values and perceptions, which often stem from their cultural background. This quality allows people to determine why they act or react in a certain way and why other individuals may have different perceptions of the same situation (Angelova & Zhao, 2014). Therefore, cultural awareness implies an understanding that there is no point in applying culture-specific meanings to make sense of someone else’s reality. Otherwise, it may lead to misinterpretation and biases instead of a respectful attitude towards some person’s cultural background. People should try to comprehend what the behavior of the other individual means instead of making assumptions based on their worldview. It may be assumed that cultural sensitivity and competence evolve from the person’s ability to exhibit cultural awareness.

There are several degrees of cultural awareness, and almost any person has to pass through them to become culturally sensitive and competent in communicating with other people. At the initial stage, a person cannot perceive the differences between cultural groups in an adequate manner and assumes that his or her way of doing things is the correct one (Cramer & Bennett, 2015). As an individual begins to recognize the impact of cultural differences, they may agree that there are several possible ways of understanding some situation, but their approach is the most appropriate one. As a person evolves in their awareness, he or she may start to notice that there can be two possible ways of resolving a situation, and the choice of a specific strategy depends on the circumstances. The final stage centers on a dialogue of cultures during which people join a mutual effort of creating shared meanings (Cramer & Bennett, 2015). Cultural sensitivity and competence evolve together with the person’s increasing awareness.

Sensitivity and Competence

Frequently enough, cultural sensitivity is confused with cultural competence; however, these two concepts have both similarities and certain differences. In particular, cross-cultural competence is an ability to interact with representatives of another culture (and, in general, with those having different behavioral codes) effectively. Consequently, it can be assumed that cultural competence is the foundation at which communication and interaction of cultures occur (Fisher-Borne, Cain, & Martin, 2014). Interestingly, there is a point of view that intercultural sensitivity is one of the main components of cultural competence. Sensitivity must imply recognition of differences between cultures and awareness that difficulties in intercultural communication are likely to occur (Schouler-Ocak et al., 2015). It is possible to argue that intercultural sensitivity is one of the most significant factors (and only one of the sides of competence) affecting the interaction with representatives of other cultures.


Contemporary social psychology pays great attention to the phenomena accompanying the process of intercultural interaction. The domains of ethnic identity, tolerance, and communicative competence of a person are being studied actively along with intercultural sensitivity since they are all socio-psychological phenomena (Reichard et al., 2015). Intercultural sensitivity has some similarities with cross-cultural competence since it also implies a person’s ability to transform affectively, cognitively, and behaviorally. In the same way, sensitivity involves a gradual change in emotions and consciousness, which contributes to correct and effective conduct during intercultural communication (Yurtseven & Altun, 2015). Thus, the concept of intercultural sensitivity may be regarded as one of the dimensions of intercultural communicative competence. In its turn, it includes three aspects, which are the cognitive, affective, and behavioral abilities of a person. Cognitive capabilities are represented by cultural awareness, affective abilities – by intercultural sensitivity, and behavioral capabilities – by intercultural efficiency or skills.


As noted above, intercultural sensitivity is an understanding and acceptance of other cultures. Since this concept is close to the domain of cross-cultural competence, these two terms are often used as interchangeable ones, but this is not entirely correct. Competence implies the ability of an individual to think and behave in a multicultural environment in such a way that their conduct will not seem disrespectful to other cultures (Saunders, Haskins, & Vasquez, 2015). However, the second term means the capability to distinguish and feel cultural differences between people. This concept is based on the system of skills that allow a person to explore and understand other cultures, which contributes to the effective interaction of different people in a single social system. Sensitivity is a necessary tool in building relationships based on mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance (Dressler, Balieiro, & dos Santos, 2018). It is one of the key instruments that allow a cultural group to study and understand the value system, faith, behavior of other groups to the same degree as they know their own culture.

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Thus, it can be concluded that cultural awareness, sensitivity, and competence should not be regarded as synonyms. These three domains reflect different aspects of a person’s ability to perform effective cross-cultural communication. Awareness is the platform based on which the other two concepts are built. Meanwhile, sensitivity and cultural competence are the skills individuals need to develop to be able to recognize and appreciate a different worldview and join a meaningful dialogue of cultures.


Angelova, M., & Zhao, Y. (2014). Using an online collaborative project between American and Chinese students to develop ESL teaching skills, cross-cultural awareness, and language skills. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 29(1), 167-185.

Bird, A., & Mendenhall, M. E. (2016). From cross-cultural management to global leadership: Evolution and adaptation. Journal of World Business, 51(1), 115-126.

Cramer, E. D., & Bennett, K. D. (2015). Implementing culturally responsive positive behavior interventions and supports in middle school classrooms. Middle School Journal, 46(3), 18-24.

Dressler, W. W., Balieiro, M. C., & dos Santos, J. E. (2018). What you know, what you do, and how you feel: Cultural competence, cultural consonance, and psychological distress. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1-12.

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J. M., & Martin, S. L. (2014). From mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural competence. Social Work Education, 34(2), 165-181.

Reichard, R. J., Serrano, S. A., Condren, M., Wilder, N., Dollwet, M., & Wang, W. (2015). Engagement in cultural trigger events in the development of cultural competence. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 14(4), 461-481.

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Saunders, J. A., Haskins, M., & Vasquez, M. (2015). Cultural competence: A journey to an elusive goal. Journal of Social Work Education, 51(1), 19-34.

Schouler-Ocak, M., Graef-Calliess, I. T., Tarricone, I., Qureshi, A., Kastrup, M. C., & Bhugra, D. (2015). EPA guidance on cultural competence training. European Psychiatry, 30(3), 431-440.

Tsaur, S. H., & Tu, J. H. (2019). Cultural competence for tour leaders: Scale development and validation. Tourism Management, 71, 9-17.

Yurtseven, N., & Altun, S. (2015). Intercultural sensitivity in today’s global classes: Teacher candidates’ perceptions. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies, 2(1), 49-54.

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