Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 2: Expression – Regional and linguistic, including speech patterns and accents


A contributor’s example of Layer 2:


Shortly after my birth in Durham, North Carolina, my family moved to Richmond, Virginia. We lived in the suburbs of its larger metropolitan area.



As part of the highly-valued etiquette of the South that does not condone blunt or direct statements to others, I learned that indirect or subtle observations were more acceptable than my sometimes more honest feelings. I developed a sense of mistrust when given a compliment, as I could never tell if people were being honest or if what was said was just an insult veiled with a “bless your heart.” I also learned not to ask directly for what was wanted or needed, as it was considered to be rude. I took what was given and said thank you.



Richmond, Virginia, is one of the oldest major cities in the United States. It is steeped in history. It is home to St. James Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech that gave momentum to the American Revolution. Richmond is perhaps best known for its designation as the Capital of the Confederacy during the United States’ Civil War. Its citizens take pride in their history, and there are numerous landmarks detailing its historical past.

There were regular school projects and field trips that exposed me to the deep-rooted history and culture of the region and instilled a sense of pride. Our history classes always had a slant towards the South and its role in the Civil War as a side that was “just trying to protect history and traditions.” The role of the Confederacy in upholding slavery and other hateful and inhumane traditions was often glossed over or romanticized.



This was in direct conflict to the values that I was learning at home, and I could not hold these two conflicting points of view simultaneously.



I have often wondered if being raised in Richmond has impacted my view about diversity of race, culture, religion, etc. Today’s Richmond takes pride in its diversity, while its role in upholding slavery as the Capital of the Confederacy cannot be overlooked. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to racist comments against African-Americans that were cloaked in the context of history, tradition and, often, a “white savior complex.” This being seemingly normalized in this city, it took me longer to recognize just how ingrained and deep-rooted racism is in traditional Southern culture. I once again struggled to hold conflicting points of view between racism and the inclusive values modeled for me at home.


Author’s example of Layer 2:



From a young age, a great sense of pride about what it means to be Mexican was inculcated in me, including learning the history of accomplishments during the approximately 3,000 years of Mexican civilization. I remember how much I enjoyed visiting an impressive exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in the 1990s called “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries.” At the same time, not all is glory and beauty. The Aztecs conquered all the other Mesoamerican nations. Later, they were conquered first by Spain for three centuries, then by France and subsequently by the United States during short periods in the 19th century. My own regional culture carries the echoes of conquering and of being conquered, of 300 years of slavery, of civil war and other wars for independence.



All of these events left Mexico City with a large variety of accents and speech styles that enable those of us who grew up there to learn a lot about a person just by the way they speak.

My ear has become a bit dull after more than 30 years away, but when I lived there, I could tell the socio-economic class, the educational level and, with surprising accuracy, even the neighborhood within the city from which a person came. To the right listener, my own speech patterns and accent clearly place me. When I speak English, I do so with a clear Spanish accent – that one tends to be recognized around the world. When I speak Spanish, other Spanish-speaking people immediately recognize that I come from Mexico. When I am in Mexico, other Mexicans immediately know I am a chilango (i.e., someone from Mexico City), though they tend to say, “You barely sound like a chilango, why?” not knowing I’ve lived abroad for more than 30 years. Once I am there for a few days and my younger-man accent comes forth more clearly, other residents of Mexico City may say, “You come from San Angel, right?” And, they’d be right, as I grew up in that southern neighborhood of the city.



Variations on this theme exist in cities and towns all around the world. What I wrote about myself tends to be true, to different extents, for virtually all people. All the information described above, plus social class, education level, mood and even emotional state, has been transmitted already by the time the first hello has been uttered, whether we are aware of it or not. In my own case, while I’ve been sending (as well as receiving) all this information throughout my life just by opening my mouth, I used to be unaware or at best barely aware of doing so.