Cultural Competence: An Important Skill Set for Successful Communication

By Dr. Shahin Shooshtari 1, Dr. Sandra Sukhan 2, Sabena Singh 3

1 Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba; Director of Diversity, Whyte Ridge Community Centre
2 Honarary Consul for Guyana; Vice-President, Pembina Active Living (PAL55+)
3 Independent Consultant, PhD (c), Peace and Conflict Studies, Arthur V. Mauro Institute for Peace and Justice, University of Manitoba

Canada is a multicultural country. In 2016, the Canadian population consisted of people from more than 250 ethno-cultural backgrounds. In 1871, only about 20 ethno-cultural backgrounds were counted in Canada1. Immigration has been the main reason for increased ethno-cultural diversity of the Canadian population. If Canada’s immigration policies remain the same, it is projected that the diversity of the Canadian population will increase in the years to come.

Here at home, in Manitoba, we have a very diverse population. Of the 1.2 million people living in this province, 18.2% reported Indigenous origins; more than 66% were from European origins; 2.3% were from African origins, and 14.4% were from Asian origins. A significant number of people also reported more than one ethno-cultural origin2.

In February 2019, the residents of Whyte Ridge celebrated our diverse cultures with an event that featured a variety of cultural foods and music. The aim of the event, which was well attended, was to spark cultural engagement in our community. We acknowledged that people speak in different languages, greet each other differently, prepare and eat different types of food, and have different types of music and entertainment.

Although acknowledgment and celebration of diversity is an important first step, it is not sufficient for effective communication in multicultural environments such as our workplaces and neighbourhoods. In some instances, cultural differences might prevent people from communicating with each other comfortably, ethically and effectively. For example, in some cultures, close physical distance is a sign of respect, but the same action might be received differently by other cultural groups.

While celebrating our cultural diversity, we must reflect and work on our attitudes, knowledge, and skills, and learn to become more culturally competent so that we can live, work, and operate more effectively. But, what is cultural competence?

Cultural competence is a person’s ability to effectively interact, work, and develop meaningful relationships with people of various cultural backgrounds.3 This is an important skill set for successful communication in the 21st century.

Developing cultural competence is a process which starts by increasing cultural and global knowledge. To become culturally competent, we need to learn more about other cultures, for example, their languages, religious beliefs, family values, types of food, and traditions regarding marriage, parenting, clothing, to name a few. Understanding those cultural practices may have a huge positive  impact on our lives. A more practical example to illustrate this, is in the context of COVID-19; cultural attitudes towards vaccination can have a positive or negative impact on the success of public health efforts to vaccinate every eligible person.

The second element for becoming culturally competent is to do a self-assessment, which means critically reflecting on our own biases and prejudices. Our biases could be rooted in our backgrounds and/or life experiences. However, by taking time to reflect and build awareness, we can make changes to not let our words, actions, and reactions negatively impact how we interact with people from different cultures.

The next element for becoming culturally competent is active listening. Active listening helps us learn about someone’s culture and experiences; rather than becoming involved in a mental conversation with ourselves on how to respond, we listen for the general meaning by focusing on what is being said.

The next element for developing cultural competency is empathy. Empathizing with someone from a different culture goes beyond walking in that person’s shoes. It means listening actively and openly, without judgement, in order to understand the other person’s cultural perspective, position on different issues, and worldview, rather than our assumed or perceived view of a situation we have not encountered. Demonstrating empathy does not mean that we agree with the other person’s perspective, only that we respect their point of view.

Effective engagement is the next step towards becoming culturally competent. Effective engagement is to learn from each other in a respectful manner by focusing on the behaviours or issues of interest rather than the persons themselves.

Practicing cultural competence means going beyond accepting and appreciating cultural groups we are familiar with. It means living and working together to build a united community enhancing everyone’s quality of life, and adding to the greater good of humanity.


1Statistics Canada (2017). Census in Brief: Ethnic and cultural origins of Canadians: Portrait of a rich heritage. Retrieved from:

2Statistics Canada. Census Profile, 2016 Census – Manitoba and Canada. Retrieved from:

3Roseario M., Durden, T., Taylor, S., Guzman, J.K., Potthoff, K.L. (2016). Cultural Competence: An Important Skill for the 21st Century. NebGuide, Issue February 2916. University of Nebraska.