What is wrong with refusing or sipping vodka in Russia, or showing the hand sign for “OK” in Brazil? Greeting someone with a warm embrace in Asia? Making a V for victory or peace sign in South Africa? Showing the thumbs up for good in the Middle East? Or even talking too much in Finland?
In many places these actions are common and harmless, but in others they can be seen as rude or offensive! While these are the basic cultural faux pas, cultural competence requires a much deeper understanding and awareness.
What is culture?
Culture is a complex phenomenon. The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about culture is ethnicity, but in the broader context culture refers to “any and all potentially salient ethnographic, demographic, status, or affiliation identities”. By extension, culture includes not only race and ethnicity, but also language, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and even physicality (physical ability characteristics).
However, the aim of cultural awareness and identities is not to categorise people into boxes and groups. Individuals should be viewed in relation to their contextualised cultural background, and there are as many within-culture differences as there are between-culture differences for us to consider when we work with athletes and individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
How is cultural competence relevant to sport psychology?
With the advent of globalisation, sports teams and societies in general are increasingly multicultural. As sport and exercise psychologists, you may find yourself working with athletes, coaches and individuals of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. As such, cultural competency is without question becoming more and more important for professional practice.
The influence of cultural variables (i.e. social norms, beliefs and attitudes) on psychological processes and behaviour has been acknowledged in more and more research, including sport and exercise psychology. Past research examining cross-cultural differences in sport psychology has identified differences in areas such as achievement motivation, goal orientation, coping styles, emotion regulation, mental qualities, aggression, attributions to success and competency, attitudes towards sport psychology consultations, and even athletic retirement. Without a doubt, cultural influences and psychological responses are intricately linked. Consequently, athletes from different cultural backgrounds are going to interpret and respond differently to the same intervention. Simply put, one size does not fit all. What works for you may not work for others!
For example, collectivistic societies such as China and Japan value harmony, cooperation, cohesion, and conformity, whereas in individualistic societies such as the United States and Canada, autonomy and the needs of the individual are placed over that of the group. Consequently, success is construed differently, with most collectivistic societies attributing success to group and community related factors, and individualistic societies perceiving success as a result of their own individual efforts. This could in turn influence whether individual or group-based interventions are more effective for different athletes.
Designer Yang Liu’s depiction of Western (blue) and Eastern (red) cultures on self-expression. Here, people from the “West” are depicted as being more direct, while those from the “East” have a more indirect communication style.
Another comparison on problem-solving styles in Western and Eastern cultures. For more of her work on East Meets West, visit http://www.yangliudesign.com/
In another example, the perceived appropriate and comfortable interpersonal space is different among cultures. According to some cultural guidelines the interpersonal space in mainstream North America ranges from 50cm to 1 meter, but this space may be less in some Latin American cultures, and more in some Asian and North African cultures! As sport psychologists, using these culturally appropriate interpersonal zone distances when we meet with our athletes and clients can help create more comfortable and conducive meetings.
It is important to keep in mind that cultures are not monolithic entities. Everyone is a historically, geographically, and socially situated individual with his or her own unique story. For example, social attitudes and beliefs from birthplaces may not be important to acculturated athletes, and not everyone displays “collectivistic characteristics” just because they are from Eastern societies.
How to develop cultural awareness?
To foster cultural competence, the American Psychological Association (APA) and other sport psychology research have identified three general areas of consideration, namely cultural awareness, cultural knowledge, and cultural skills. These aspects are summarised simply for you in the following easy tips:
#1 Know Thyself
As Aristotle once declared, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. Identifying your own beliefs, values, and attitudes, including biases and prejudices, can help you gain a better understanding of your own background and culture. What are some of the values that your culture embraces? How do education, gender, ethnicity, and age (among other factors) influence your style of practice (communication styles, problem-solving, etc.)? How do these compare with other cultures? As you start reflecting on your background, you also gain knowledge and skills towards identifying variations in other cultures.
#2 Know Others
Take the initiative to learn about the contextualised cultural background of your athletes. Understanding their worldviews enhances competent communication.
Refrain from judging other values, beliefs, and attitudes. There is no right or wrong, and each culture and each individual is unique and special.
Be open and respectful
Be open-minded and respectful towards other cultures. Acknowledge that there are things that you don’t know, be humble, and be ready to learn.
#3 Combining Knowledge and Skills
With the awareness and knowledge acquired from self-reflection and learning about others, develop culturally appropriate intervention strategies that encompass consideration for cultural characteristics of your athlete.
There are athletes, coaches, teams, and sport federations craving the expertise of multiculturally competent sport psychologists. As Diane Gill, a prominent supporter of cultural sport psychology, said, “Reviewing sport psychology from a multicultural perspective challenges our worldview, enriches our scholarship and practice, and advances sport psychology in the public interest.” Cultural competency is not a difficult skill to master, and with some patience and self-reflection, you can start becoming more culturally competent today!
Finally, putting theory into practice, check out this great example of cross-cultural sensitivity from the London 2012 Olympics, which was held during the religious fasting period of Ramadan. Read about how the organisers handled it here:
Hayashi, C. T., & Weiss, M.R. (1994). A cross-cultural analysis of achievement motivation in Anglo-American and Japanese Marathon runners. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 25, 187-202.
Ryba T.V, Stambulova, N. B., Si, G. Y., & Schinke, R. (2013) ISSP Position Stand: Culturally competent research and practice in sport and exercise psychology, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11:2, 123-142.
Schinke, R. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.) (2009). Cultural sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Zheng, X., Smith, D., & Adegbola, O. (2004): A cross‐cultural comparison of six mental qualities among Singaporean, North American, Chinese, and Nigerian professional athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2(2), 103-118.
About the Author
Chun Li Kok (郭春利) is a final year master’s student in the EMSEP programme at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU) and the University of Leipzig (Germany). She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the National University of Singapore (NUS), and has worked with the national indoor and beach volleyball teams in Singapore. Her research interests include cultural sport psychology, youth sport, and biofeedback. She can be contacted at kok.chunli (at) gmail.com, or find out more at http://www.strikingly.com/chunli