| Apply cultural awareness to all workplace relationships |  

Apply cultural awareness to all workplace and professional relationships

Apply cultural awareness to all workplace relationships


Show respect for cultural diversity in all communications and interactions with co-workers and clients
Use specific strategies to eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace
Contribute to the development of workplace and professional relationships based on acceptance of cultural diversity


This topic highlights the concept of culture and the importance of culture in all our lives. We will look at cultural and individual needs and preferences and outline the need for cultural competence in cross-cultural care.

We will look at the areas of similarity and difference between cultural groups and learn to understand the risks and effects of stereotyping and prejudice.

When you complete this topic you will know how to:

Show respect for cultural diversity in all communications and interactions with co-workers and clients

The concept of culture

Culture strongly influences our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. It impacts on the way we relate to others, the way we care for ourselves and our loved ones, the way we dress, eat, speak, write and live our lives. For this reason, a little cultural understanding can go a long way when dealing with people from a background different to ours.

Culture: Most simply, culture refers to the way of life and world view of a particular group of people at a particular point in time.

Cultures are constantly changing and developing over time. They are strongly influenced by:

Culture provides people with a blueprint for living, that is, it determines ideas about appropriate values and behaviours.

Our culture may determine when we sleep, how we bathe, what we wear and what we eat. It may tell us what is right and what is wrong, how to bring up our children, how to greet friends and address a stranger, what is polite and what is impolite. It may prescribe ways of grieving, ways to show affection and ways to cure illness.

Some aspects of culture are readily visible to the observer, such as clothing and language. These aspects help to make up the way of life section of our definition. Other aspects of culture are not visible from the outside, such as beliefs and values. These aspects help to make up the world view section of our definition.

The idea of culture being like an iceberg is useful to further exploring and understanding the concepts above.

Drawing of an iceberg with language, food, clothing above the water line and communication style, beliefs, attitudes, values, perceptions, cultural and social norms below the water line

The culture iceberg

The culture iceberg above shows a small number of things visible above the surface—language, food and clothing.

These aspects of culture represent our way of life and are clearly visible. In terms of health care, these aspects represent a client’s:

Whilst it is these visible aspects of culture that we notice first, it is important to remember that the visible aspects:

In order to make sure that we do not place too much importance on the visible aspects of culture, it is necessary to distinguish between cultural needs, universal human needs, and individual, personal needs and preferences.

While universal human needs are shared by all people, cultural aspects are shared by a group of people, and personal needs and preferences are unique to the individual.

The universal needs we all have, such as basic survival needs, must be met. In these needs we are more similar than different. We all need a safe place to live and we need food and clean water. We have the need for knowledge, work to support ourselves and our family and we have spiritual aspirations. The way these needs are met is determined to some extent by the culture in which we live.

Cultural aspects shared by one group of people, such as the way of performing activities of daily living, systems of belief and social code of conduct, may differ greatly from the cultural aspects of another group. No one way of getting ready in the morning, eating dinner at night or bathing oneself is better or worse than any other way of doing the same task.

It is vital that we remember that cultural groups are made up of individuals, with each person being unique in his or her own way.

We all have (or belong to) one or more cultures. For example, a person could identify as being Australian, Australian and Italian, Australian and Christian, Australian and young, Australian and hearing impaired, Australian and gay. Depending on circumstances such as where we are and who we are with, we may present ourselves as belonging more to one culture than another. However, wherever we are and whatever culture or cultures we identify with, we never stop being individuals.

Activity 1


Activity 2

In this activity you will revise the definitions provided of the concept of culture.

Click here for Activity 2

Activity 3

In this activity you will revise universal needs.

Click here for Activity 3

Visible aspects of culture

We have defined culture, identified the many components of culture not readily visible from the outside, raised awareness of the impact of culture on all people, and identified the differences between cultural, individual and universal needs. Now we look more closely at the visible aspects of culture – the way of life shared by a group of people and the impact of culture on daily routines, such as eating and personal care.

As mentioned in the last section, the culture iceberg shows a small number of things visible above the surface:

These aspects of culture represent a way of life and are clearly visible.

We will now explore these concepts further by addressing the things that are visible above the surface.


Different ways of writing (scripts) and different verbal sounds (speech) are obvious signs of different cultures. When we hear people speaking a language different to our own, we are immediately aware that those people may not be from the same background as us.

We may not be able to read writing when it appears in different scripts. Once again, this is an immediate indication that the writing comes from a background or culture different to our own.

Examples of Arabic, Chinese and Russian script

Examples of Arabic, Chinese and Russian script

Language is an important part of communication. We speak to each other all the time to convey even simple messages. A person who is literate in their mother tongue may not be able to read information presented in different languages or scripts.


Familiar, culturally appropriate food is very important to clients’ quality of life because it is a recurrent need.

Food and drink are not only vital to survival, they hold strong meaning in many cultures and are capable of providing both great comfort and great distress. Beyond the essential sustenance function, food and drink contribute to our sense of well-being and are a source of sensory pleasure and comfort.

The way people eat and drink, and what they eat and drink, varies a lot between cultures. The many different cuisines found around the world were originally developed in response to the environment of the place of origin, for example, using ingredients found locally, that grow well in that particular soil and climate.

The strong influence of the environment explains why there are often strong regional differences in ingredients and food preparation within the same country.

In most cultures, food and drink are important parts of religious and social rituals and celebrations. Certain religions forbid certain types of food and may have strict rules about how food is to be prepared. If you are organising a function, be aware of the cultural catering needs of the people you work with.

Cultural differences surrounding food may include how various cultures’ practices or preferences in the following areas:

Providing all clients with the same food is likely to produce different outcomes for different people. The picture below illustrates this point well.

What are the possible consequences of giving the same food to everyone?

Here are examples of various people’s reactions to food:


Drawing of people wearing different clothing such as a burkhas, fezes, skirts, trousers

People and their clothes

Clothing is another very visible cultural difference that can distinguish people belonging to different cultures or performing specific jobs, for example, traditional religious dress and uniforms.

The parts of the body that should be covered, and the manner in which they are covered varies from culture to culture and even within cultures. What should be worn may depend on gender, age, role, situation and other circumstances.

Many cultures have traditional ceremonial costumes that are worn during cultural celebrations. Others have traditional clothes that may be worn all the time to indicate the wearer’s status in the community, their belief system, or as a display of respect.

Drawing of five people: man in a kilt; woman in a kimono; man in turban and trousers; man in shorts and baseball cap; man in loincloth

Traditional costumes

Once again the environment of the country/place of origin can help explain certain clothing traditions. For example, clothing traditions in very cold regions differ greatly from those of tropical regions.

Below is a link to an interactive picture that shows examples of clothing as a very visible cultural difference. What is acceptable clothing in one culture may be inappropriate in another.

Animation - Visible aspects of culture

Less visible aspects of culture

Now that we have looked at the visible aspects of culture: the way of life section shown above the water in the iceberg, it is time to look at those aspects of culture found below the surface, the much less visible world view component of our definition.

The majority of the culture iceberg is found below the surface of the water. Only a very small amount of the iceberg is actually visible.

Below the surface lies a vast mass of very important aspects of culture. These aspects of culture, relating to the world view of a particular group of people, will provide us with the most important information to help us understand a person’s cultural needs or actions, their attitudes and behaviours.

These aspects of culture:

It is the less or invisible aspects of culture that are most likely to give us insight into our client’s wants and needs. A greater understanding of these influences will provide us with a greater understanding of the individual, making our time at work easier, more enjoyable and more rewarding.

The key aspects of culture found below the surface are:

These aspects are very closely intertwined and overlap.

We will now explore each aspect in more detail by addressing them in turn.

Social interaction

Within each culture there is a whole code of conduct that determines how people are expected to relate to each other. We all learn the expected ways of behaving with other people as we grow up. As adults, the code is used so automatically that we forget that our way of interacting is not a natural way of behaving, but the prescribed way of our particular culture.

The code of conduct of a particular culture may prescribe appropriate interactions between:

The code of conduct affects not only what people can say to each other, but also the way they:

All cultures have their own code of conduct. In some cultures the rules can be strict and complex.

Breaking these rules of social interaction can trigger irritation, distrust, and even real distress. It can lead to strong reactions and misunderstandings.

In different cultures, the same action may carry a different message or meaning. The same behaviour is likely to affect different people in different ways.

With social interactions, sometimes the messages we convey may be interpreted in different ways. Mistakes will be made unintentionally, especially when we are first getting to know a new person. Mistakes cannot always be avoided. The important thing is to learn from the mistakes and to ask if unsure.

The first step when interacting with new people from different cultures is to carefully observe reactions to our behaviour to see whether the message has been received the way it was intended.

In any workplace, effective interaction among the people you work with is very important because:

Of particular relevance is the special status given to older people in most cultures.

We will now focus attention on the remaining less visible aspects of culture found below the surface: beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions.

Beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions

Beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions are very closely intertwined. Each one impacts on all the others. These aspects are also very closely related to social interaction and the social code of conduct prescribed by a culture.

As previous examples have illustrated, even with basic needs such as food and clothing hidden aspects of culture can determine what is acceptable and what is not.

It is these hidden aspects that can explain strong reactions when a cultural ‘rule’ is broken. They may be of great assistance to making our work enjoyable and rewarding, and can drastically increase the quality of life of our clients.

Due to the vastness and complexity of cultural differences regarding belief systems, values and attitudes, it is not possible for us to explore all the dimensions here. Instead, let us focus on gaining the awareness and skills needed to integrate and respond to cultural variations in the workplace.

It is very important to remember that individual differences in attitudes, beliefs, values and perceptions exist within cultures. It is not possible to learn about a person by simply learning about their culture.

Making judgements about a person based on superficial information about their cultural background is dangerous, as will be seen later in this resource when we discuss the risk of prejudice and stereotyping. We must always be extremely cautious when trying to understand a person on the basis of their culture. However there are some broad cultural attitudes and values that are relevant to the health care setting.

Broad differences between groups of cultures
Collective Individualistic
Reliance on others

In some societies the focus is on inter-dependence – people rely on each other.

Examples of these societies: Middle Eastern and Eastern societies.

In other societies the emphasis is on independence or self-reliance.

Examples of these societies: Western societies.

Can you think of the positive as well as negative impact of being reliant and of being self-reliant?

Individualistic cultures place an emphasis on individual rights and needs, whereas collective cultures emphasise the needs of the family and community as a whole. This broad cultural attitude/value may have a significant impact on individual clients in health care.

Different world views will influence the reactions of individuals to particular events/circumstances. An understanding of different cultural perspectives will help us understand behaviours that may otherwise appear unreasonable or inconsistent.


This aspect of culture is probably the most complex and the one that may cause some of the strongest reactions and misunderstandings.

A system of belief or religious faith may give meaning and direction to whole communities and individuals.

No one is expected to know about all the complex belief systems of the world, but we all should be aware that a belief system or a person’s faith is a fundamental part of their life that has to be respected, though not necessarily shared or understood.

Beliefs may help determine the way people from a particular culture think, act and react to life events and circumstances. They may help determine attitudes and reactions to health, illness, disability, healing, treatment, death and the dying process and, for many, an after-life.

It is impossible for us to learn about all these different belief systems.

What is important and possible is to know is that these differences exist and that these beliefs strongly impact the life of people.

People’s systems of belief and ways of understanding the meaning of life are ancient and complex.

Within each culture there is a whole code of social conduct that determines how people are expected to relate to each other. It is important to remember that our own ways of behaving are not the natural or only ways of behaving; they are simply the ways our culture taught us to behave. Different cultures have different rules.

Our lives are strongly influenced by cultural and individual codes, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. It is impossible for any person to learn everything about all the cultures of the world.

Even if we did know everything about a particular culture, it is dangerous to make assumptions about a person on the basis of their cultural background.

The first step when interacting with people from different cultures is to carefully observe reactions to our behaviour to see whether the message has been received the way it was intended.

Activity 4

In this activity you will revise both the visible and less visible components of culture according to the iceberg model used throughout this resource.

Click here for Activity 4

Identifying our own cultures

Being aware of our own culture is the first step to becoming a culturally competent worker. This section highlights how difficult it is to describe specific cultures and how inadequate, simple descriptions can lead to inaccurate stereotypes and prejudices. Most of the content of this section is covered in the exercises and resources.

While there may be some characteristics of a culture that could be useful in describing a majority of people from a particular background, they will usually be very general and not particularly useful to understanding individuals.

For example, people may say that Australians tend to be quite informal, that English is the official language of the country and that Australia is a vast island with a small but diverse population. Whilst these observations do represent broad features of Australia, they do not explain the nature of individuals living here.

Activity 5

Imagine yourself in the situation presented and then provide answer to the question posed.

You are a sterilisation services technologist from Australia and you are holidaying in another country. By serendipity, you meet up with some health workers from that country. They have never visited Australia. They know a bit about Australia but it is based mainly on popular clichés and icons (eg kangaroos, koalas, boomerangs, Opera House, Great Barrier Reef, Crocodile Dundee, Kylie Minogue etc). They ask you to tell them about life in Australia.



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Use specific strategies to eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace

Risk of prejudice and stereotyping

This section identifies the risks associated with making judgements about individuals on the basis of their appearance or background and the need to recognise that prejudgements may lead to incorrect assessments.

Of utmost importance is the need to treat people as individuals. No matter what a person’s cultural background is, they are first and foremost an individual, with unique likes, dislikes, needs and preferences. This attitude certainly encourages us to read and learn more about other cultures, but at the same time to always consider the needs of the individual, without pre-judging or applying a stereotypical picture of what a person from a particular background should be like.

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Contribute to the development of workplace and professional relationships based on acceptance of cultural diversity

Work relationships

Reflect on the work relationships you have.

Work relationships may be with your:

Can you think of more types of work relationships? In the workplace, we have to build successful work relationships and interact with people in a positive way to achieve our organisational goals.

Activity 6




Below are guidelines on how we can contribute to the development of workplace and professional relationships based on acceptance of cultural diversity. Note that many of these guidelines are the same for all work relationships.

A positive attitude

This means avoid negative thought and criticisms. Be aware of any prejudices you have about any aspect of your co-workers’ lives, eg culture, religion, customs, lifestyle choices etc. Once you have this self-awareness, you can work towards eliminating your prejudices. Often, prejudices arise out of fear or uncertainty, ie, fear or the unknown. Try as best you can to be non-judgmental and more accepting of others. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt and always try to learn more about other cultures, religions etc.

Work at improving your communication skills

Always listen carefully to the other person. Focus on their message, not on, say, their pronunciation, accent or some other attribute. Listen carefully and you will be able to respond appropriately—and, thus, and avoid misunderstandings. If you are unsure of what the other person had said, check with them—you can do this by reflecting back what you think they had said, eg ‘So, are you saying we should…?’

Resolve conflicts early

Sometimes, it is difficult to avoid misunderstandings. These may be misunderstandings to do with ineffective communication or it may have to do with differences in cross-cultural communication. If you sense a conflict brewing, do not allow it to fester—resolve it early. Be direct and courteous. Develop a plan of action to address the problem with your co-worker and then work together toward resolving it.

Treat all co-workers with respect

It is important to be fair towards all your co-workers, regardless of who they are and how different they may be from you, be this in cultural and linguistic background or some other area (eg, age, gender, lifestyle, disability, position in the organisation).

Treating all workers equally means being inclusive, eg, including them in the conversation. It means being respectful by paying attention, listening carefully, and responding appropriately. It means being courteous and professional and being open and honest about your feelings and giving others the opportunity to do the same.

Share information about cultural practices

You and your co-workers might share aspects of your culture and religion and, if relevant, experiences (eg, growing up in Australia or migrant/refugee experiences). Look for common interests—you might find that you have as many differences as similarities.

Understand and accept cultural differences

If we are going to work harmoniously with people from diverse backgrounds, we need to be tolerant and respectful about values, beliefs and religious practices, which may be very different from our own. The more we learn about other cultures, the more we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes and respect their position. When you and a co-worker do not agree, try looking at things from their perspective.

Additional resources

There are many resources on cross-cultural communication and you might be able to find some in your TAFE library and on the internet. Below we have listed a few of the resources that you might be able to locate.


Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: www.hreoc.gov.au

NSW Anti-Discrimination Board: www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/adb

Australian Health Directory: www.healthdirectory.com.au/Special_care/Culture_specific/search

Queensland Government website. Includes Aboriginal history and cultural information as well as a guide to protocols for community visits: www.atsip.qld.gov.au/resources/cultures.cfm

Aboriginal Benchbook: www.aija.org.au/online/ICABenchbook/BenchbookChapter2.pdf

Aboriginal culture: www.aboriginalculture.com.au/index.shtml

Indigenous Australia, Australian Museum: www.dreamtime.net.au/indigenous/index.cfm

Northern Territory Public Health Bush Book. For those who work in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory: www.nt.gov.au/health/healthdev/health_promotion/bushbook/bushbook_toc.shtml

Department of Immigration and Citizenship: www.immi.gov.au/index.htm

NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS): www.startts.org.au/Default.aspx

Communication with the Deaf community. National Relay Service, including call options and TTY phones: www.relayservice.com.au www.aceinfo.net.au/Services/NRS/index.html

Multicultural, Cross-cultural & Intercultural Games and Activities: http://wilderdom.com/games/MulticulturalExperientialActivities.html


Gudykunst WB (2003) Cross-cultural and Intercultural Communication Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California

Hamston J and Murdoch K (2004) Australia Kaleidoscope, Curriculum Corporation

Hemming P (1990) Cultural Awareness: Cross-cultural communications, Regency College of TAFE, Hotel School, Regency Park, SA

Pauwels A (1991) Cross-cultural Communication in Medical Encounters, Monash University, Community Languages in the Professions Unit, Language and Society Centre, National Languages Institute of Australia, Melbourne

Pauwels A (1995) Cross-cultural Communication in the Health Sciences: Communicating with migrant patients, Macmillan, South Melbourne

Pride JB (1985) Cross-cultural Encounters: Communication and mis-communication, River Seine Publications, Melbourne

Reynolds S (2004) Guide to Cross-cultural Communication, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ

Wajnryb R (1991) Other Voices: A cross-cultural communication workbook, Thomas Nelson, South Melbourne

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