National Center for Cultural Competence
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Cultural Awareness

Key Content Areas

I. What Is Culture?

=First, what is culture, anyway, and how do we humans acquire our cultures? A good working definition is the following: Culture is the learned and shared knowledge that specific groups use to generate their behavior and interpret their experience of the world. It comprises beliefs about reality, how people should interact with each other, what they “know” about the world, and how they should respond to the social and material environments in which they find themselves. It is reflected in their religions, morals, customs, technologies, and survival strategies. It affects how they work, parent, love, marry, and understand health, mental health, wellness, illness, disability, and death.

Much of culture resides only in people’s heads; thus, it is invisible and sometimes hard to detect. One way to understand culture is to think of it as the “software” of the mind. Essentially, individuals are “programmed” by their cultural group to interpret and evaluate behaviors, ideas, relationships, and other people in specific ways that are unique to their group. Another excellent analogy for understanding the cultural process is to see culture as the “lens” through which people in a specific group view the world.


Notice that these analogies imply that culture exercises a kind of invisible control over members of a cultural group. Psychologists call this “internalizing” our cultural norms and concepts. We all do this very naturally. However, this process often has the effect of rendering our own culture invisible to us, though we can readily identify cultures that differ from ours.

Despite the invisibility of “software” or a “lens,” a culture is clearly reflected outwardly in such things as how people behave, what they eat, how they dress, the tools they use, and the values and ideas they express. Nevertheless, it takes considerable introspection and self-analysis for individuals to discover how deeply and strongly their culture influences their own thoughts and behaviors.

Doing this reflective work is a crucial part of becoming culturally aware.


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Additional Info FAQs Glossary Resources Search Site Map National Center for Cultural Competence Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development Home Cultural Awareness: Introduction and Rationale About the NCCC Print Modules Cultural Awareness: Introduction and Rationale Key Content Areas; What is Culture? How Do Human Beings Acquire Culture What culture is not Cultural identity and cultural clustering Culture and race in the epidemiology of disease Culture and personal identity Cultural awarenss and professional effectiveness Teaching Tools, Strategies, and Resources: Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Case Studies Self-Discovery Exercises Teaching Tools Definitions Resources for Module Resources for the series References Acknowledgments Home