Cultural sensitivity, also sometimes referred to as cross-cultural sensitivity or simply cultural awareness, is the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of other cultures and others' cultural identities. It is related to cultural competence (the skills needed for effective communication with people of other cultures, which includes cross-cultural competence), and sometimes regarded as the precursor to the achievement of cultural competence, but is a more widely used term than cultural competence. On the individual level, cultural sensitivity enables travellers and workers to successfully navigate a different culture with which they are interacting.
Cultural sensitivity counters ethnocentrism, and involves intercultural communication and other skills. Many countries' populations include minority groups comprising indigenous peoples and immigrants from other cultures, and workplaces, educational institutions, media and organisations of all types are mindful of being culturally sensitive to these groups. Increasingly, training is being incorporated into workplaces and students' curricula at all levels. The training is usually aimed at the dominant culture, but in multicultural societies may also be taught to migrants to teach them about other minority groups, and it may also be taught to expatriates working in other countries.
Definitions and aims
Definitions of cultural sensitivity abound. At base, it is the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of other cultures. It includes "the willingness, ability and sensitivity required to understand people with different backgrounds", and acceptance of diversity. Crucially, it "refers to being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value", and also the skill set acquired by this learning. Cultural awareness is having the knowledge of the existence of multiple different cultures with different attitudes and worldviews; cultural sensitivity means the acceptance of those differences and not believing that one's own culture is superior. The term "cultural competence" is often used to describe those skills acquired to embody cultural sensitivity, particularly in the workplace. Cultural sensitivity requires flexibility.
Cultural sensitivity was found to be a more widely used term in a literature search of global databases, both popular and scholarly, in 2008. Based on an analysis of sources found in the same search, the following definition was adopted: "Cultural sensitivity is employing one's knowledge, consideration, understanding, respect, and tailoring after realizing awareness of self and others and encountering a diverse group or individual".
There are many different types of cultural diversity in any society, including differences such as marginalised or socially excluded groups; ethnicity; sexual orientation; disability; values and cultural norms; cultural sensitivity is relevant to all of these.
Support of cultural sensitivity is based on ideological or practical considerations. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, advocated cultural sensitivity as an essential value in the modern world:
Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where people are becoming more and more closely interconnected.
In the dominant culture
Cultural awareness and sensitivity helps to overcome one's personal ethnocentrism, mainly by learning about other cultures and how various modes and expectations may differ from one's own in various areas, from ethical, religious and social attitudes to body language and other nonverbal communication. Cultural sensitivity is just one dimension of cultural competence, and has an impact on ethnocentrism and other factors related to culture. The results of developing cultural sensitivity are positive: communication is improved, leading to more effective interaction between the people concerned, and improved outcome or interventions for the client or customer.
It is taught in many workplaces, as it is an essential skill for managing and building teams in a multicultural society. Intercultural communication has been cited as one of the two biggest challenges within the workplace, along with internal communications (mission statement, meetings, etc.), particularly in agribusiness in the US.
Cultural sensitivity training in health care providers can improve the satisfaction and health outcomes of patients from different minority groups. Because standard measures for diagnosis and prognosis relate to established norms, cultural sensitivity is essential, because a person's norms are defined by their culture, and these may differ significantly from the treating medical professional. Language barriers, beliefs and trust are just a few of the factors to consider when treating patients of other cultural groups. It is important to understand the concept behind the "buzzword" in the healthcare setting, as it can, for example, increase nurses' appreciation of and communication with other professionals as well as clients.
Working and travelling abroad
On the individual level, it allows travellers and expatriate workers to successfully navigate a different culture with which they are interacting; it can increase the security of travellers because it helps them see things from the other person's perspective. An individual's understanding of another's culture may increase respect for the individual, allowing for more effective communication and interactions for managers as well as employees, and it is vital in business or government jobs. 
For workers, this cross-cultural sensitivity can lead to competitiveness and success when working with or within organisations located in a different country. These benefits are highlighted in the way this concept is defined. It is concerned with the consideration of how two societies and cultures operate, particularly with respect to how they are similar and different from each other. Being able to determine these in terms of thoughts, behaviour, beliefs, and expressions among others makes it possible to solve problems meaningfully and act in a manner that is acceptable to all stakeholders.
Milton Bennett was the first to create a model or framework designed to help comprehension of various stages of “intercultural sensitivity”, known as the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), or simply referred to as the Bennett scale. This has been developed over several decades, since 1986, and is included in The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication (2017).
Bennett describes a continuum, which moves from ethnocentrism to "ethnorelativism". The model includes six stages of experiencing difference, in which the individual moves from denial through acceptance to integration.
Community Tool Box levels
The Community Tool Box was developed by the University of Kansas' Center for Community Health and Development, a designated World Health Organization "Collaborating Centre for Community Health and Development". In a section on "Building Culturally Competent Organizations", a guide for diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, the Tool Box refers to three levels leading up to the fourth, the end goal, being cultural competence: cultural knowledge, cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity. Each step builds on the previous one, with the final one, cultural competence, the stage where the organisation has effectively enabled better outcomes in a multicultural workforce.
Cultural sensitivity and competence training
Training to achieve cultural competence or cultural sensitivity is undertaken in schools, workplaces, in healthcare settings
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- Cultural Sensitivity: A Concept Analysis
- Intercultural Sensitivity and Conflict Management Styles in Cross-Cultural Organizational Situations
- Cross-cultural competency tools