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Stages of Intercultural Sensitivity
Purpose and Need
Our nation has evolved from a period in the 1800's, when racial discrimination was written into our laws, to a period in the 1960's and 1970's in which such discrimination was declared illegal. During the 1960's and 1970's, it may have been acceptable to say: "I treat everyone the same." This was considered a fair and liberal way of treating others. However, this stance has certain limitations; it assumes that sameness equals fairness, an assumption that only holds true if the values and norms of people involved in an interaction are similar. An outline of the process individuals go through to move beyond this assumption of similarity is provided in the work of Milton Bennett, who authored the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. According to his model, such a statement places the speaker in an early stage of intercultural sensitivity (Bennett, 1993).

In the '80's and 90's organizations have attempted to go beyond mere discrimination issues and even to "celebrate diversity." However, celebration of diversity falls far short of what is needed for effective collaboration between mainstream agencies and ethnic minority communities. For organizations or individuals to move beyond "celebration" to a real ability to work appropriately with cultural difference requires a planned sequence of development.

Bennett describes six stages of development in intercultural sensitivity. The stages provide a good framework for determining how to work with and improve the capacity for intercultural sensitivity and collaboration. Some of his stages of "cultural sensitivity" include behaviors or adaptations the authors include under the definition of "cultural competence."

1. Bennett refers to the first stage of the model as "denial." It means that people in this stage are very unaware of cultural difference. If mainstream agency staff are in this stage of intercultural sensitivity, a huge problem can be expected in the delivery of education, health, and social services for ethnic minorities, a gap that does currently exist when these groups are compared to Anglo Americans. The task for staff at this first stage of intercultural sensitivity is to recognize cultural differences that are escaping their notice.

2. Whereas in the first stage we do not "see" cultural differences, in the second stage of cultural competence we do perceive cultural differences; however, differences from ourselves or the norms of our group are labeled very negatively. They are experienced as a threat to the centrality and "rightness" of our own value system. Bennett calls this stage "defense."

If staff of mainstream agencies achieve the second level of intercultural sensitivity, they still fail to communicate effectively with ethnic minorities. If they cannot communicate effectively, they cannot do the more complex task of collaborating effectively. The task in the second level of cultural sensitivity is recognize and to become more tolerant of differences and to see basic similarities among people of different cultures. However, little improvement in services can be expected if staff are below the third level of intercultural sensitivity.

3. In the third stage of intercultural sensitivity, minimization, we try to avoid stereotypes and even appreciate differences in language and culture. However, we still view many of our own values as universal, rather than viewing them simply as part of our own ethnicity. The task at the third level of intercultural sensitivity is to learn more about our own culture and to avoid projecting that culture onto other people's experience.

This stage is particularly difficult to pass through when one cultural group has vast and unrecognized privileges when compared to other groups. This problem is so invisible that persons in mainstream agencies are often mystified when representatives of ethnic minorities consistently withdraw from collaborative activities.

4. A reasonable goal for many mainstream agencies is to ensure that all staff achieve at least the fourth developmental level in intercultural sensitivity. The fourth stage in Bennett's model requires us to be able to shift perspective, while still maintaining our commitments to values. The task in this stage is to understand that the same behavior can have different meanings in different cultures. The comparisons that follow in the Toolkit can be particularly helpful for staff of mainstream agencies to improve their intercultural sensitivity in this stage of development. In order for collaboration to be successful long-term, this stage of intercultural sensitivity must be reached by the participants of the collaborative process. Bennett calls this stage "acceptance."

5. The fifth stage of intercultural sensitivity, adaptation, may allow the person to function in a bicultural capacity. In this stage, a person is able to take the perspective of another culture and operate successfully within that culture. This ability usually develops in a two-part sequence. It requires that the person know enough about his or her own culture and a second culture to allow a mental shift into the value scheme of the other culture, and an evaluation of behavior based on its norms, not the norms of the first individual's culture of origin. This is referred to as "cognitive adaptation." The more advanced form of adaptation is "behavioral adaptation," in which the person can produce behaviors appropriate to the norms of the second culture. Persons serving as liaisons between a mainstream agency and an ethnic minority group need to be at this level of intercultural sensitivity.

6. In the sixth stage, the person can shift perspectives and frames of reference from one culture to another in a natural way. They become adept at evaluating any situation from multiple frames of reference. Some representatives in cross-cultural collaboration may reach this level, but most probably will not.

Stage six requires in-depth knowledge of at least two cultures (one's own and another), and the ability to shift easily into the other cultural frame of reference. The task at this level of development is to handle the identity issues that emerge from this cultural flexibility. Bennett calls this final stage of intercultural sensitivity "integration."

In order for a person to be bicultural and operate as a liaison between cultures, it is not sufficient for him or her to be from an ethnic minority. In fact, if a person who looks like a member of an ethnic minority group has adopted Anglo American values and identifies with the mainstream culture, he or she may be a poor choice to represent their culture of origin in collaborative efforts.

Such persons may not be trusted by the ethnic community that they "represent." In addition, if the representatives are assimilated rather than bicultural, they may also want to "correct" some of the key values or usual behaviors of the ethnic minority culture.

To summarize Bennett's stages of intercultural sensitivity:

Stages of Intercultural Sensitivity

  1. Denial: Does not recognize cultural differences
  2. Defense: Recognizes some differences, but sees them as negative
  3. Minimization: Unaware of projection of own cultural values; sees own values as superior
  4. Acceptance: Shifts perspectives to understand that the same "ordinary" behavior can have different meanings in different cultures
  5. Adaptation: Can evaluate other's behavior from their frame of reference and can adapt behavior to fit the norms of a different culture
  6. Integration: Can shift frame of reference and also deal with resulting identity issues

The primary goal of the following comparisons is to assist staff with stages 4 and 5 of intercultural sensitivity, since development to this level is necessary for successful cross-cultural collaboration.
  • The comparisons should help staff identify themselves on a continuum for each variable, and understand from this that their value system represents one cultural perspective among many. This may help persons with Anglo American values and communication styles to see those values and styles more clearly and in context. Hopefully, it will help Anglo Americans to "see" their own ethnicity.
  • The comparisons will also help to identify arenas of difference that can destroy communication and collaboration, due to misinterpretation of culturally-based behaviors.
  • The comparisons should help to clarify individual differences, as compared to group differences. Anglo Americans and others participating in a collaborative process should go through the summary chart and circle their own positions on each continuum. Virtually everyone who does this evaluation will find they have many behaviors and values similar to those typical of their own ethnic group, and perhaps some that fit more typically in others.

To know that a person comes from a certain ethnic background does not tell us where they fit in terms of values or behaviors; rather, it alerts us to possible arenas of miscommunication. We can then observe more carefully to see where that individual fits on a continuum of values, compared to his or her ethnic group.

Next Chapter
How to Use Comparisons of Cultural Patterns

First Chapter
Executive Summary and List of Chapters

Candia Elliott, Diversity Training Associates
R. Jerry Adams, Ph.D., Evaluation and Development Institute
Suganya Sockalingam, Ph.D., Office of Multicultural Health, Department of Human Resources, Oregon
January 1, 2016

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