Monday, October 1, 2012

A Twist on Cultural Diversity

In the Bay Area, where diversity is the norm, caregivers often represent cultures from all over the world, while the residents they care for may be mostly white, Anglo-Americans whose only language is English.  Perhaps a look at Anglo-American culture will reveal ways to improve interactions between caregivers and residents.

In an ideal world, two people trying to communicate would each reach out to understand the other’s culture.  Realistically, residents may not be capable of learning about the caregiver’s culture to meet the caregiver halfway.  It defaults to the caregiver to bridge the gap.


Although no statement about someone in a particular culture holds true for all members of that culture, we can make useful generalizations that steer us in the right direction.  For example, Anglo-Americans tend to be:

  • Time oriented and more rigid about times: 10:45 means exactly 10:45.
  • Direct, with less socializing before getting down to business.
  • Less formal, speaking and acting casually.
  • In general, Anglo-Americans want to be pain-free and may not be as stoic as some other cultures.  They may ask for pain medication where a person from another culture might “tough it out.” 
Comfort zones

Anglo-Americans may be more open about discussing personal matters, illness, and dying than others. 

If a resident wants to talk about a subject that makes you uncomfortable, you may want to find someone else who might be able to interact with him more directly—perhaps someone from social services, a chaplain, or another caregiver.

Researchers have demonstrated that Anglo-Americans generally require a larger personal space around them—in other words, they don’t stand as close when talking as people of other cultures do.*  For instance, they may become uncomfortable and step back if they feel another person is standing too close.


Anglo-Americans as a whole tend to be more individually oriented and like control. They leave less to fate and want to direct their own lives. American law requiring informed consent is based on the principle of autonomy—freedom of choice for the individual.  In other cultures the family or physician may make decisions for a patient, whereas in the US the individual is considered more important to decision-making than the family. 

Many Anglo-Americans see themselves as having a pioneer spirit and prefer not to be dependent on their children for care or support, while in other cultures it is expected that older people will live with their adult children. 

Best practices

Whenever cultures differ there is plenty of room for misunderstandings.  Usually neither is right or wrong—just different.  The best practice for communicating smoothly is to ASK.  Ask family members or the resident about how things are done in their family.   People are usually grateful that you are asking and appreciate that you are trying to learn about how they like to do things.

*The New York Times, “In Certain Circles, Two Is a Crowd,” Nov. 16, 2006.

This article was originally published in Pathways & Partners Newsletter - Issue 25.  To download this issue in PDF format, or past issues, visit our newsletter archives online at

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