Oncology nurses interact with other staff, patients, and families, each of whom have various cultural and personal preferences. A person’s culture encompasses race, ethnicity, spiritual practices, social habits, and so much more. 

Cultural humility has been defined as “a process of self-reflection and discovery in order to build honest and trustworthy relationships.” At its essence, cultural humility is developed by letting go of assumptions about a person based on their culture and creating space for learning who they are as a person—in other words, experience their personal ethos.

The distinction between cultural humility and cultural competence is subtle yet significant (see sidebar). Cultural competence addresses the ability to effectively work with and across different groups of people with similar social practices. Being competent signifies that you have knowledge of cultural commonalities and use that knowledge when caring for patients and families. Rather than an endpoint, cultural humility is an ongoing process recognizing that the person in front of you is the expert, not the textbook.

What Research Tells Us

Research is abundant on the importance of cultural competence in medicine. Although less formally studied under the label of cultural humility, honoring others is a central theme in many religious and spiritual practices. Whereas cultural competence can potentially lead to stereotyping, cultural humility creates awareness of the unique qualities of individuals within a group or culture. Cultural humility begins with self-reflection on one’s own beliefs, biases, and preferences.

How to Practice

Visualization, journaling, or a combination of both activities can help you become mindful of how you see the world and enhance your ability to notice how all humans are similar. From this perspective, you begin to develop a curiosity for and appreciation of peoples’ differences. 

Begin by closing your eyes and noticing your breath moving in and out of your body. After a couple of minutes, visualize yourself as you move through the basic human functions of your day. Notice what influences your food choices, how you dress, what music you listen to, and other personal preferences.

Now, visualize someone from another culture as they experience their day. Notice how from a human perspective, they, like you, wake from sleep, eat, drink, and move. When attitudes, beliefs, and stereotyping are stripped away, the basic human needs remain:

  • Food, water, shelter, sleep, oxygen, and warmth
  • Safety and security
  • Love and belonging  

People’s day-to-day actions may be rooted in culture, but their choices are uniquely their own. 

Consider journaling your reaction to this practice and continue to be mindful of your personal bias and judgement of others as you cultivate cultural humility.