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Cultural awareness - guidance for WLBC staff

Customs and beliefs shape how we see the world and can influence how we act.  Customs and beliefs vary across different groups of people – this is not just about how people from ‘other’ countries or nationalities behave but about how our background and experiences make us different.  Across England we have lots of regional customs, dialects and practices that differ but these don’t make us any less English.

Guidance for staff

It is impossible to become an expert in every culture but we can be more aware of how culture affects the decisions and actions of the people we meet and our own actions.  If we do this, we may find it easier to communicate with people and to help them achieve their goals.  It may be particularly important if we want to challenge someone’s behaviour or plan work that will help them change their situation.  In any event, it is simply good practice to get this right – we would always want to take any reasonable steps we can to avoid offending people and to make them feel welcome.  It’s also important to consider whether someone we perceive as rude is simply sticking to the rules as they understand them in the culture they are familiar with. 

Differences can lead to misunderstandings, for example:

  • In some cultures (Greece for example) a nod of the head means ‘no’ and a sideways movement means ‘yes.’ In India wagging your head from side to side means lots of things that don’t include ‘no’
  • For some (Arabic cultures for example) it could be an insult to refuse someone’s offer of food or shelter and if you admire something owned by another person you run the risk that they will expect you to take it as a gift
  • In many cultures outside of Western Europe, it is polite to always leave some food on your plate – if you eat everything it can be interpreted as you felt you were not offered enough 

These are just examples of the many ways in which our day to day experiences may be different. 

We cannot ‘learn’ all of these but we should be culturally aware and acknowledge that our actions might be misinterpreted. If we are regular visitors to someone’s home or a workplace where a different culture is practised it might be appropriate for us to prepare accordingly – this should not prevent us from doing our job or require us to behave in a way that feels uncomfortable or unnatural but it may help us to be clearer about our intentions.  We should avoid assumptions – someone with a different heritage or ethnicity may not have different customs.  Cultural awareness is intended to be just that – being aware that someone may see the world differently to you.

Further guidance for staff