Cultural sensitivity or watered down

Having been in meetings yesterday and today about our next steps regarding counseling training in Rwanda, I’m wrestling with the best way to address cultural differences in whatever training we do. And specifically I’m wrestling with a particular dilemma forming in my mind:

Teach what we know about counseling NOW but be unaware of subtle but important cultural differences vs. listen, learn, and teach LATER what we know (but in culturally relevent terms)

It is not the first time that I have been asked to do something sooner rather than later with these words. “Don’t worry about the cultural relevance. We’ll tell you when something doesn’t work or our students will do the application to their own situations. If you try to be culturally sensitive, it will end up being watered down. We want our students to get the best education, something that the US would recognize.”

Why do I struggle with this request? Well, in my head it sounds like, “hey, come bring your colonialistic methods of evangelism and we’ll handle it.” I struggle with it because I know American counseling culture has significant problems with it. And, I struggle with it because I know that some students (this is a universal truth!) are really good at critical thinking while others blindly ape what we say without much thought at all. AND YET, I know that waiting until I’m culturally aware enough to teach means I wouldn’t do so for a very long time.  

So, part of my struggle is not wanting to look like a culture boob by just assuming that what I teach US students is what Rwandans would need. I suspect the answer is (a) being courageous enough to risk looking like a fool, but (b) flexible enough to change on a dime when I am aware of a disconnect.

Hmmm. I may have a problem with both.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling skills, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology

3 responses to “Cultural sensitivity or watered down

  1. Amy

    I say, do the best you can with the amazing gifts that God has given you. The fact that you’re even considering the issue shows that you’re going to be sensitive enough to His prodding as you teach these precious people. Ultimately, we as humans make plans and God changes them anyway. I think you’ll probably do a better job in five years than you do next year, but that’s how it works. Yet I know the work you do now will be valuable, meaningful, and necessary. Having had you as a teacher myself, I believe you will do your best to adapt counseling skills to the culture. In the meantime, I’ll pray for you and the rest of the team! 🙂

  2. Ginger

    I think American counseling culture does have major problems with it. (So much is secular only.) It is important to be aware of cultural differences, even if they are watered down. It helps you understand on a more broad basis the people you are teaching and living amongst. You will learn first hand about cultural differences (in Rwanda) and will also better teach down the road because of it, even dealing with other cultures. I agree whole-heartedly with Amy.

  3. Phil, I’ve faced the same issue everytime I have taught overseas, particularly teaching Biblical Counseling for Marriage and Family issues in Romania. I tried to learn everything I could about the culture, especially marriage/family life, before I went by interacting with Romanians. Before my first trip, I purposefully arrived one week early (which I know is not always possible). I stayed with Romania families: talked, listened, observed. When I began teaching, I explained (via a translator) that there are universal principles and their are unique cultural applications. I asked the audience to help me to help them work through the universal/unique. They did so gladly. I’ve now taught this same series three times over six years in Romania–the universals stay the same, but my presentation of the particulars is shaped and re-shaped each time. Bob

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