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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 38, #7
May 2010

What Do You Know About Cultural Styles?

By Janine M. Jones

When we think about building cultural competence, one of the key steps is building awareness of others. In the absence of a relationship or unique experiences, many of us never develop a true understanding of other cultures without exerting significant effort. This article presents three unique cultures (see Table 1, page 20) and provides an opportunity for readers to think about the cultures and how\ the variables interact with the process of serving children and families in schools.

Culture Number One

First, we have culture one. These are a people who tend to speak softly and slowly with limited eye contact. When in conversation, they don’t interject very often. In fact, they wait for a natural pause in the dialogue to speak at all. This is considered respectful communication. Encouragement of others in the group is usually done nonverbally with a smile, a nod, or a gesture. In culture one, there is a high regard for privacy and respecting another’s desire for secrecy. When there is a problem, it is preferred that members of this group be patient for the problem to resolve rather than to be quick to act. Of the utmost importance to this group is the sense of community. Sharing is essential to one’s well-being and the sharing includes the praise and blame that are associated with the trials of everyday life. All members take responsibility for the success or failure of the unit—it is part of being a member of the community. This group orientation means that members are noncompetitive and are more focused on the present than the future.

Culture Number Two

By contrast, members of culture two speak quickly and assertively. They prefer direct eye contact in conversation and affectionately address the person in conversation with them by name throughout the conversation. The conversation includes frequent interjections from both parties that do not disrupt the flow of the conversation. Encouragement of members is usually verbal with comments such as “great job” and “way to go!” In culture two, verbal skills are highly prized, so those who are more articulate are interpreted to be more successful. Individual accomplishments are coveted and members of this group manage competitive situations well. In terms of interpersonal communication, self-expression and self-disclosure between members is highly valued. Problems are solved through action and scientific explanations of problems are expected and respected.

Culture Number Three

The third culture includes a group with a speech pattern that includes both volume and pace. Words are communicated with emotion as a way to enhance understanding. There is also a kinesthetic style of communication, learning, and interacting, and nonverbal communication is extremely important. Members of this group pay close attention to social cues and are also very sensitive to the nonverbal communication of others. There is a highly developed skill in understanding and perceiving the affect of other people and situations—albeit nonverbal. The members of this culture adhere to a group orientation rather than an individual orientation, where preservation of the group is a goal of life. Members of culture three believe that success is developed through group unity, freedom, and equality. There is often a multigenerational social network along with informal kinship bonds that are as strong as formal kinship bonds. Finally, in culture three, there is a deep respect for spirituality and human connections through religion.


After reading about these three cultural groups, a process of self-reflection would be an ideal next step. Consider which culture seems the most familiar to you and to your upbringing. Consider which culture is the most different from the one that you resonate with. Do you have an idea of who might belong to each of the described cultures? Do you know anyone that ascribes to the values of one of these cultures?

Once you have taken the time to consider your own cultural values and how they fit (or how they do not fit) one of the aforementioned groups, consider the process of serving children and families. When you were trained to do counseling, were the techniques connecting well with one of the groups above, but not all? For example, when providing counseling, we are trained that the process includes increasing verbalization of feelings and direct communication of feelings. However, what if you have a client that communicates more nonverbally? What if they are from culture one? You would have to revise your expectations for what a successful outcome looks like in order to have true success with that client. It is for this reason that school psychologists should build their knowledge about other cultures. Doing so will enhance their ability to use culturally based knowledge to develop treatment interventions that are appropriate for the culture and to have realistic expectations for what success will look like. The following section offers suggestions for increasing your knowledge about cultural styles.

Tips for Increasing Your Knowledge About Cultural Styles

Learn the cultures of students in your school community. Follow the steps of anthropologists by going into another culture and learning more about its members. Traveling to another country, although it can provide one of the richest approaches to learning another culture, is not required. There are many different cultures embedded within our cities, usually clustered by neighborhoods. The problem is, many choose not to socialize in settings other than their own culture. In my multicultural seminar, students are required to “visit” two cultures alone (not with a classmate, friend, or significant other) and spend time within the community. While this provokes a great deal of anxiety before the visits, in their journals, I find that my students grow personally and professionally after making the effort. In a few cases, students have developed new relationships and even lasting friendships. Two years ago, I received an e-mail from Dave (a fictitious name), a graduate of the program who challenged himself to step into a completely foreign situation for the first time in his own neighborhood. Dave is a white male who entered an African American barbershop for a hair cut. He found himself in the shop for hours and quickly in kinship with the men in the shop. By the end of the haircut, Dave had learned more about the culture than I could have ever taught him in a class. He developed positive relationships and felt so enriched by the experience that he thought to contact me to let me know about it. I was deeply touched and excited to hear about him connecting to “others” in such an unassuming way.

Find out what social graces are important to the community. Do members prefer handshakes to a hug? Is talking in close proximity better? Is expecting direct eye contact unrealistic? These are just a few examples of social manners that could affect your first interaction with a family in either a positive or negative way. In order to increase your knowledge about these values, you can find someone in the community through your friends, family, work, or other social group who can share information. If you find that you do not have this kind of access, you can call a local community center that serves the population.

Read. There are so many resources that one can read to learn more about different cultural groups. There are many texts written (some are listed at the end of this article), but even more important, there are many resources accessible that are designed by and for the cultural group in particular. For example, Ebony, Essence, and Black Enterprise are three of the most commonly read magazines by African Americans. Latino, Latino Perspectives, and Hispanic magazine are read in the Latino community. Subscribing to such magazines can help expose you to the perspectives of people within the community and also enhance the relationships you build with families within that culture.

Attend ethnic festivals and cultural fairs in your community. When attending these events, pay attention to cultural nuances such as the music, art, and attire. In addition, the most important observations you can make are of the members of the community and their social interactions. For example, when members greet each other, is there touch involved? How long do they interact? Do the interactions differ by individual? Can you tell the difference between friends and family?

Build new cross-cultural relationships in your personal life. I often tell my students that you can’t fully learn about another culture in the absence of a relationship. Perhaps this statement has to do with my own personal and professional cultural values where the root of all understanding comes from relationships with others. My personal and professional circles include a wide range of cultural differences while also including very deep and true friendships that have withstood the test of time. We have understandings of other beliefs and we do not have the expectation that they have to match. Nor do we make any efforts to convince the other that our own cultural value is the better one. It is this life experience that has enhanced my ability as a psychologist to serve people from all different cultures and races and to sustain these relationships for the time needed in therapy. Thus, having a person of a different culture in your life not only enriches you personally, but also professionally.

Janine M. Jones, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor in the school psychology program at the University of Washington and the editor of The Psychology of Multiculturalism in the Schools.

Recommended Reading

Ancis, J. R. (2003). Culturally responsive interventions: Innovative approaches to working with diverse populations. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Berry, J. W., Kim, U., Power, S., Young, M., & Bujaki, M. (1989). Acculturation attitudes in plural societies. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 38, 185–206.

Constantine, M. G., & Sue, D. W. (Eds.). (2005). Strategies for building multicultural competence in mental health and educational settings. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Jones, J. M. (Ed.). (2009). The psychology of multiculturalism in schools: A primer for practice, training, and research. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Jones, J. M. (2008). Best practices in multicultural counseling. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best Practices in School Psychology V (pp. 1771–1783). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with children and their families. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Paniagua, F. A. (2005). Assessing and treating culturally diverse clients: A practical guide (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Ponterotto, J. G., Utsey, S. O., & Pedersen, P. B. (2006). Preventing prejudice: A guide for counselors, educators, and parents (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Rogers, M. R., Ingraham, C. L., Bursztyn, A., Cajigas-Segredo, N., Esquivel, G., Hess, R. S., et al. (1999). Best practices in providing psychological services to racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse individuals in the schools. School Psychology International, 20(3), 243–264.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). New York: Wiley.