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Cultural Competence vs. Cultural Humility: Key Differences

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Published on: 02/21/2024
Last Updated: 02/21/2024
9 minute read

Understanding and respecting other cultures is essential to living in a peaceful and productive multicultural society. As America continues to grow and become more ethnically and culturally diverse, cultural understanding is increasingly becoming a professional skill as well.1

There are two important aspects of professional cultural understanding: cultural competence and cultural humility. 

Though, in many ways, both concepts work to foster a higher degree of respect and compassion among diverse populations and cultural backgrounds, they’re inherently different ideas and strategies. Self-awareness in social work can help you identify and correct unknown biases as you work on cases.

So, what is cultural competence vs. cultural humility, and what are the main differences between the two? In this guide, we'll unpack these complex terms and explain why both are essential assets for individuals entering the field of social work. 

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What is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is understood and expressed differently in various settings. In an organizational context, for instance, we might understand cultural competence as sets of behaviors, attitudes, and policies established among professionals to facilitate effective collaboration in multicultural environments.2 These include (but are not limited to):

  • Universal principles, such as compassion and understanding, that all colleagues can champion despite coming from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Valuing and adapting to cultural diversity, viewing it as a strength in the workplace, and managing differences in cultural background in a healthy, productive manner.
  • Continual reassessment and reevaluation of cultural understanding and creating further cultural competency policies to promote increased cultural skill competence when necessary.

On a personal level, however, cultural competence doesn’t need to be rigorously established rules and guidelines steering your own actions. Instead, it can materialize more as a commitment to respectfully understanding and responding to the cultural differences and cultural beliefs of others.

In general, we tend to view our own cultural identity as universally applicable to other people’s experiences.3 People from majority racial, cultural, and linguistic groups can be especially prone to missing the nuanced effects of the cultural variation of diverse populations on everyday life. 

Being culturally competent equips us with the skills and tools necessary to deal with cultural encounters and situations where:

  • Colleagues or associates haven’t had the same educational or cultural experiences 
  • Varying levels of cultural awareness or social norms lead to disagreements 
  • Another person’s cultural identity, traditions, or ways of doing things appear foreign or abnormal 
  • A service, organization, or idea is less accessible to members of a specific, different culture than others

Since we live in an increasingly globalized and multicultural society, adopting cultural competency is not just necessary for social inclusion—it’s at the heart of modern organizational and institutional ethics.

What is Cultural Humility?

Cultural humility is a complementary concept and practice to cultural competence. Rather than creating a set of guidelines for cohesive cultural interaction, cultural humility implores people to question their own cultural upbringing and acknowledge the biases and limitations it may have instilled in them. 

In essence, cultural humility is a process of cultural awareness and self-reflection in which people seek to:4

  • Examine their personal history and social position about ethnicity, gender, profession, socioeconomic status, assumptions, education, values, beliefs, culture, and biases to uncover how these factors influence their social interactions and cultural encounters.
  • Consider how interpersonal relationships are affected by the biases, history, norms, perceptions, and positions of power within the cultural diversity of their professional organization.
  • Gain a more robust understanding of and respect for different cultural practices through inquiry, reflection, inclusion, and a genuine appreciation of their value.
  • Recognize areas where they lack relevant experience or cultural skill and learn to defer to other, more informed individuals whose lived cultural experiences may give them relevant insight into the topic at hand.

In real-world scenarios, practicing cultural humility may be as simple as incorporating new traditions or routines into your work culture. It may also mean larger, more meaningful moves, such as promoting someone to a position of authority based on the relevant cultural knowledge they can provide to your organization. 

The Importance of Cultural Competence and Humility in Social Work

Both cultural competence and cultural humility are key traits to develop for individuals pursuing a career in social work. Social workers engage with a broad range of people from diverse cultural, socio-economic, and educational backgrounds. To successfully and fairly assess each case, they must do their best to overcome the limitations and biases they’ve internalized from their own culture.

Cultivating cultural competence and humility has multiple potential benefits for social workers, including:

Improved Client Relations

The relationships between social workers and their clients are informed by an inherent power hierarchy that goes beyond cultural differentiation. What do social workers do, exactly? They have the authority and duty to provide aid, assistance, and services—meaning they also have the potential to deny these necessities to their clients. 

This power imbalance can already make a social worker’s clients feel anxious or uneasy in professional interactions. When you add in other social structures such as race, socio-economic status, or gender, these anxieties can be compounded even further.

Enacting cultural competence enables you to establish a framework for dealing with diversity across your client pool so that each case is treated equally. Cultural humility, on the other hand, can help keep social workers grounded and remind them:

  • Their internalized assumptions and biases shouldn’t inform their work.
  • Their clients have had different cultural experiences, and this may cause them to see things, including their progress and the types of services they need, from an alternate point of view.
  • That despite their position of authority, social workers are responsible for upholding equitable treatment practices for all, regardless of social differences.

Enhancing Inclusive Practices

To develop fair and equitable practices for dealing with diverse groups of people, social workers must understand how they’ve (even accidentally) been upholding exclusionary practices. 

Unconscious bias is when we subconsciously act in ways that reinforce the cultural stereotypes we’ve been repeatedly exposed to—even if doing so counters our own personal beliefs.5 For social workers, this may emerge as:

  • Assigning a client less aid or services based on their race, gender, or other factors.
  • Not taking someone as seriously if they speak with an accent or exhibit other linguistic idiosyncrasies that you’re not used to.
  • Making assumptions about the types of aid or services a client may need based on your own culture, viewpoints, and socio-economic status rather than theirs.

Cultural humility allows social workers to take a step back and assess if they’re enacting unconscious biases in their work. And, if they find they are, keen self-reflection can help them overcome these internalized assumptions and develop more inclusive practices that better serve all their clientele.

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Cultural Understanding: Challenges and Opportunities

In recent years, some academic circles have called for an end to the practice of cultural competence. They argue that pursuing cultural competence can result in the reinforcement of negative stereotypes for a couple of different reasons:6 

  • Cultural competence training programs vary widely in quality and, while they seek to help people develop a better understanding of minority racial, gender, and linguistic groups, their content may not serve this purpose.
  • Cultural competence training can give some people the sense that they fully understand the intricacies of another culture, causing them to speak authoritatively or for other groups on issues that they’re not well-versed in.

Academics posit cultural humility as a solution to the ill effects of cultural competence. Rather than defining interactions with other cultures, they argue, we should aim to develop an openness toward all people rooted in acknowledging and stripping away our internally held biases.7

Cultural competence and cultural humility, however, both have their time and place. It can not only be welcoming to learn a bit about your clients’ and colleagues’ cultural backgrounds, but also personally rewarding to gain a broader, more informed perspective on the world. 

Nonetheless, maintaining balance is key. Practicing cultural humility and deferring to individuals with lived experiences is important to cultural understanding.

Whether you choose to practice cultural competence, humility, or both, ongoing education and adaptation are crucial. Cultures aren’t static, but constantly shifting concepts that routinely produce new ideas, traditions, and viewpoints to learn. Furthermore, while many people’s experiences and mindsets are informed by their culture, they’re not defined by it—so avoid overgeneralization and see people as individuals first, rather than representatives of their background.

Applying These Concepts in Social Work

There are many practical and useful ways to enact cultural competence and humility in your job as a social worker. First and foremost, cultural competence is often an organizational goal with clear guidelines and principles to follow. You and your colleagues can help your organization by suggesting policies and actions that result in a more equitable, informed version of cultural competence in your workplace.

Likewise, as mentioned above, you can utilize cultural humility to better inform your interactions with your clientele. Doing a self-assessment of your potential biases, learning to avoid them during your duties, and deferring to clients when they may know better about the situation are all techniques that can make a positive impact on your interactions and relationships with your clients. 

Our Approach to Cultural Understanding at Alliant International University

Cultural understanding is an essential concept in our master of social work (MSW) program at Alliant International University. There’s a lot of positive change that you can do with a master’s in social work. We’re committed to educating the next generation of forward-thinking social workers who strive to reduce inequities and disparities in social systems. Thus, cultural competence and humility are key components of our curriculum and our campus life here at Alliant.

Outside of our MSW, we have other social work-related graduate degrees that uphold the same values of cultural competence and humility in our online psychology degree program. Our organizational, clinical psychology, and marriage and family therapy programs acknowledge and celebrate the value of keen cultural understanding.

Cultural competence and humility are key skills to develop for various fields, but they’re of special concern to social workers due to the diversity of their clientele and the influence they hold. If you want to upskill your cultural understanding, enroll at Alliant today!


  1. “2020 U.S. Population More Racially, Ethnically Diverse Than in 2010 .” United States Census Bureau. August 12, 2021.…. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  2. “Cultural Competence In Health and Human Services.” Centers for Disease Control. October 9, 2021. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  3. “Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises to Help Educators Understand and Challenge Bias, Racism, and Privilege.” Vernita Mayfield. 2020.…. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  4. “Principle 1: Embrace cultural humility and community engagement.” Centers for Disease Control. August 8, 2022. Accessed January 10, 2024.
  5. “Actively Addressing Unconscious Bias in Recruiting.” Harvard Business School. June 16, 2023.…. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  6. “Rethinking Cultural Competence: Shifting to Cultural Humility.” National Library of Medicine. December 20, 2020. Accessed January 10, 2024.
  7. “Rethinking Cultural Competence: Shifting to Cultural Humility.” National Library of Medicine. December 20, 2020. Accessed January 10, 2024.

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