Five Myths that Explain Why We Don’t Pay Attention to Cultural Competence

In our work to build cultural competence for individuals and organizations, we see recurring myths pop up about this skill.


Myth #1: Exposure = Competence. With this myth we hear statements such as, “I’m around Diversity all the time. I have a gay couple for neighbors, my mom has lived with a disability and my best friend is black.” The inherent belief in this statement is that ‘I am exposed to difference; therefore I am competent to interact across difference,’ as if a new skillset is in the air when Diversity is present and all we need to do is breathe in. Cultural competence, like any other complex skill, needs to be developed. Think of it in comparison to developing math skills. You would never assume a child could learn math if you just sat them in a room all day where mathematicians are present. As with math, we build cultural competence through intentional, developmental learning, practice and work.

Myth #2: I get this stuff; it’s my co-workers that don’t! Most people, if asked, would say that they are already culturally competent. Yet, the shocking reality is that only 5-10% of us actually are (as measured across the world by the foremost cultural competence assessment, the IDI). This perception/reality gap that most of us are walking around with leads to much of the confusion and conflict that happens as we interact across difference. If I believe I “get it” and am still in situations where I’m not that effective interacting with my co-workers that are different, then it must be their issue. That’s also why I don’t need any more of this “Diversity stuff.”

Myth #3: Identity = Competence. Here’s a myth that, while widely believed, goes unspoken more often than not. It’s the notion that people from marginalized groups—especially people of color and women—are somehow more culturally competent; that somehow the experiences tied to our identity inherently increase our “get it” factor. In actuality, that’s not the case. In fact, many times that experience of marginalization holds back our development and keeps us in just the second of five stages of development (using the Milton Bennett model of the DMIS). That is particularly true when we feel as though we need to defend our group, as is often the case for many that are marginalized.

Myth #4: Comfort = Competence. We’ve all felt discomfort at one point or another in our lives as we have encountered difference. It might have been the first time we ate dinner at a friend’s house or the first time we walked into a new workplace, new neighborhood or new country. The fallacy here comes when we believe that as the discomfort dissipates, competence somehow materializes. I can tell you I’m completely comfortable holding my High School clarinet, but you would not want to hear me play it! Likewise, just because we are comfortable does not mean we have learned how to be effective with the complexity that comes as we interact across differences.

Myth #5: Youth today are more competent. This myth is basically an extension of myths #1 and #4. Kids today are exposed to much more Diversity than we adults were at that age; they also very comfortable with the differences around them. Cultural competence is a learned and developed skill and who are children learning from? They learn from the example set by the adults in their lives. Remember, only 5-10% of us are actually culturally competent, so unfortunately we’re not the best role models.

The realities behind these myths: Every interaction is a cultural interaction; and we know that cultural competence is a significant contributor to effectiveness and success for both individuals and organizations. Yet, because we believe that we already “get it,” few take the time to build this mindset and skillset. You can’t just breathe it in, so if you want to be more competent, you have to work at it.


Nicholas French