Cultivating Cultural Humility in an Indian Context

Erin Burneson, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Erin Burneson)

I will be the first to say that cultivating cultural humility is not easy, especially when coming from a culture, like my own, that has such a high regard for competence. But let me share with you why humility, rather than becoming culturally competent, should be what you strive towards while living and working cross-culturally. I have spent the past 8 years thinking critically about cross-cultural communication in an Indian context and would love to share some of the insights that have helped me gain a sense of belonging and develop lifelong friendships.

Being seen off by dear friends on the first day of my fellowship. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I would like to preface this article by stating that I am eternally grateful for the beautiful friends who have become like my family to laugh, cry, and drink chai with during my 4 years of living in Jaipur. You have shown me patience when I have butchered your language, shown me grace while I have strived to make sense of and love your culture on hard days, and given me permission to discover my most authentic self in this place. Thank you.

Keep Curious

No matter how many Indian weddings I have attended, someone at the next wedding will always assume it is my first. While this grinds hard against my desire to belong, I have learned the value of exchanging being perceived as “culturally competent” for curiosity. If I answer with “No, actually this is my 12th wedding” or even the more seemingly humble “I have attended a few before”, the conversation comes to a rather abrupt end without giving the other person (who is a cultural insider) the opportunity to share and help me to understand things from their perspective. Instead, questions like, “Can you explain to me what is happening?”, “Can you tell me about the significance of walking around the havan?”, “What rituals were most important at your wedding?” can provide a wide-open door to deeper cultural insight.

First wedding of the season back in Jaipur. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Pe)

Making the conscious effort to choose this exchange is rarely easy, but this intentional curiosity is the key to cultural humility. Cultural competence says “Yes, I can make chai!”, while cultural humility says, “How do YOU make chai? Will you show me YOUR way?” The idea of cultural competence implies a fixed mindset and linear path to cultural learning with a defined end point to where you ultimately “arrive”. It leaves little room to consider cultural diversity or cultural change (which within a rapidly developing nation of 1.4 billion people is inevitable). Nurturing cultural humility is a more open-minded and cyclical posture of growth. It accounts for there being more than one way within a cultural context to think or experience things.

If there is one thing I have learned in my 4 years of living here, it is that whatever is true in India, the opposite is also true. Let this idea keep you curious to explore what is true for each individual person you encounter. This posture deepens relationships and will infinitely expand your cultural understanding.

Challenge the Idea That There is Only One Interpretation and Consider Your Bias

“Not better, not worse, just different,” was deeply ingrained into my undergraduate experience where I learned to encounter cultures radically different from my own. While I have learned to hold space for others with different ideas, perspectives, and worldviews…this certainly at times clashes with my clear cultural preferences. While standing in line at a grocery store in India, I found myself offended when a few seemingly bold aunties (respectful term for women your mother’s age or older) cut me in line. I should preface by sharing that in America, even before Covid-19, most Americans allow a significant amount of space between customers at any checkout counter…an amount of space that would likely seem excessive to many Indians. Perhaps it is for privacy, perhaps it is for respecting personal space, regardless, unless there are extenuating circumstances, we keep a notable distance from the person in line in front of us. After being cut in line repeatedly by multiple people in the same interaction, it would have been easy to conclude that these aunties and uncles were rude or selfish. However, observing the cultural context, I found it was myself who was being “rude”. I had neglected to move forward in line, respecting the other customers patiently waiting behind me.

Sometimes it is easy to quickly judge others through our own culture’s lens but doing so can prevent us from truly understanding the culture we are trying to explore. After impulsively jumping to conclusions, instead of judging myself for doing what is both natural and human, I have learned to tell myself “Hmmm?…that is one interpretation.” This validates the feelings that led me to believe I was “wronged”, but leaves space that my own interpretation might not hold true within the cultural context. I have learned to apply this way of thinking not only to my own interpretations, but also to the perspectives and opinions of others. This posture withholds judgement, maintains curiosity, and allows for a variety of interpretations, or even solutions to problems.

Critically Examine How Your Presence Influences People’s Behavior and Check Your Privilege

I know that many, if not most, Indian friends I know eat daal with their hands. I know this, but I have rarely ever witnessed it myself. This sounds strange, but as a foreigner, every time I eat daal at someone’s home they offer me a spoon. Not only that, but they then proceed to eat THEIR daal with a spoon! Only twice in 4 years of living in India do I recall watching an elderly auntie eat daal with her hand completely free of inhibition (which likely was a result of her old age and poor eyesight). I have also watched frustrated children awkwardly navigate eating with the spoon their mother insisted they use in my company.

Delicious thali. Not pictured: the spoon. (Photo courtesy of the author)

When intentionally observing a cultural context different from your own, it is important to acknowledge that your presence can change what people naturally do, and if you don’t pay attention to the influence of your presence, you might falsely conclude that “all Indians eat daal with a spoon”. Now this might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things…who really cares if people eat with a spoon or their hands…right?! But imagine if this applied to more significant cross-cultural contexts.

When asking a good Indian friend of mine about his experience as a tour guide, he explained that he had more than one way of talking about colonialism in India. When speaking with Japanese tourists he shared more freely about the ways colonialization has negatively affected Indian culture and influenced Indian identity, but when sharing with British tourists he found himself talking about the positive impact of the British railroad systems on Indian society. I was a bit mortified by the contradiction in his answers until I realized that the British tourist hanging on to every word he shared was his paying customer. We both laughed and cringed at the thought of this naïve British tourist returning to England boasting of the ways his people have “helped” India.

I almost instantaneously began re-living all the conversations I have had with Indian friends over the years about how they feel about Americans. Upon further introspection, I wondered if they shared a different perspective with me than they did with those from different cultural contexts. This question is especially important to remember when holding a position of power or status that results in some privilege. I have come to realize that being a foreigner in India comes with privilege whether or not I perceive it or even want it . I have found, when working on a cross-cultural team, it is so important to create a safe space for disagreement and dissent; normalize it. Even after you perceive a safe space is created, don’t assume that everyone feels the same freedom to share. They may still be “eating daal with a spoon”.

Contextualize Compassionately and Carefully

A lot of who I am today has been profoundly influenced by Indian culture. Sincerest expressions of my faith, my creativity in storytelling, valuing relationships over valuing time, thinking and living more holistically, my love for traditional art forms and all things handmade are all parts of my life that have been enriched or cultivated by contextualizing my life within an Indian cultural context. Allowing the beauty in another culture to impact or change you by shaping the way you view and experience the world can be a simultaneously beautiful and vulnerable experience. It requires rewiring parts of how you think that have been deeply influenced by your own cultural context, and at times means exchanging parts of your own culture for another.

Playing the harmonium has become one way I love connecting to Indian culture. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Contextualizing my lifestyle in India has brought about depth in relationships with Indian friends, a deeper sense of belonging while living here, and has helped me flourish as things that were once foreign have become some of the truest parts of myself. However, I have also learned the value of having compassion and grace for myself when Indian culture pushes against some of my deeper held American values, boundaries, or preferences. I once heard someone define humility as “recognizing what is true about oneself.” I really like this definition as I think it helps us uncover a new layer of cultural humility.

For the first two years I lived in India, not once did I order a pizza to my house. This was something I had grown up doing in the US and it was something that made me feel at home. I refused, in part out of pride, to order one to my home in my traditional community in Jaipur. I didn’t want to do anything considered “excessive” that would further isolate me from the community I lived in. I so wish that I would have recognized sooner what was true about myself; I am an American who loves to order a Domino’s pizza from time to time, and that that small act plays a significant role in making me feel at home in my own space. I will never fully be a part of Indian culture in all the ways my neighbors and friends expect me to be, or even all the ways I hope that I can be. But freeing myself from those expectations and the pressure I put on myself has helped me posture my heart to more willingly engage with the people and culture around me.

My house is not a home until a pizza has been delivered.(Photo courtesy of the author)

Cultivate a Posture of Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is the idea that everyone has something valuable to share and contribute and that diversity in perspective is actually a community’s biggest strength. This diversity can come from one’s worldview, childhood experiences, socio-economic status, regular day-to-day interactions, area of study, or niche interests. When exploring questions or ideas, you can look to others who admittedly have more or different experience or understanding. Collaborative learning allows for “renting” ideas (trying out someone’s idea for a while to see how it feels without being tied to it), walking in others’ shoes, learning from their experience, and allowing that new information to change or influence what you thought you already knew about the world.

Collaborating to make a Diwali rangoli.(Photo courtesy of the author)

Cope with Looking Like an Idiot and With the Fact that Learning is Continuous

Before I moved to India for the first time, I purchased a skateboard. This might seem like a quarter-life-crisis type of impulse buy or a decision entirely unrelated to shifting overseas, but it was deliberate. While I had deep-down always wanted to learn how to ride a skateboard, I wanted to practice feeling stupid. I knew that I would feel incredibly self-conscious as a twenty-something-year-old cautiously skating slower than most people cautiously walk in the parking lot across the street from my Chicago apartment. But I also knew that I would spend the next two years language learning, and I needed to get used to the idea of making a fool of myself.

My encouragement is to choose your “skateboard” and practice feeling like an idiot! Cultural humility requires courage. It requires admitting that you don’t know everything and that even after learning you still have more room to grow. When cultivating cultural humility, continual learning IS the end goal. After years of studying Hindi with incredibly patient neighbors and friends, I would find myself frustrated that I couldn’t always understand the vocabulary native Hindi speakers were using. It felt like just when I was starting to understand the conversation, it would kick up a notch and the vocabulary would get seemingly more complex. I would quickly find myself overwhelmed and discouraged.

It took me time and an incredibly insightful conversation with a friend who had quite a few more years of Hindi under her belt to realize that this picture I was painting for her was quite accurate. When Hindi speaking friends sensed that I understood them, they consciously or subconsciously started using more colloquial language and vocabulary. As an intermediate language learner, I had to make peace with the fact that this meant I would perpetually feel like a learner. This is now something I strive to be….be it a learner of culture, of language, or of people; a life-long learner.

This blog post and the ideas in it have been inspired by the 8 years I have spent learning alongside Indian community and the co-learning curriculum I have helped develop for Pranām Collaborative Learning Services.

Cooks-Campbell, Allaya. “How Cultural Humility and Cultural Competence Impact Belonging.” BetterUp, 14 Feb. 2022, Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.

About the Author:
Erin graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois with a degree in Global Studies (Developing States) and a minor in Leadership. She has done graduate coursework in World Arts where she explored how local traditional art forms can be used to meet a community’s goals. She spent the past 8 years learning with and from Indian communities both in the U.S. and in India where she has grown as a storyteller, as a harmonium player, and as a student of Hindi and Hindu culture. While navigating the beauty and complexity of culture in India, staying there during COVID-19, she co-founded a collaborative learning program in the U.S. for learners from different religio-cultural communities to learn with and from one another. She loves how collaborative learning requires working together with others who have much different perspectives and experiences than her own. Her role as Learner Engagement Designer focused on making online co-learning opportunities more impactful and holistic. After returning to the U.S., she was deeply stirred by the plight of Afghan refugees when Kabul fell and decided that she wanted to be directly involved in the refugee response. She found that her experience adapting to a culture radically different from her own in South Asia fostered empathy and acutely informed her understanding of some of the challenges faced by those striving to adjust and become self-sufficient in a cross-cultural environment. She used this understanding to influence her work alongside U.S. Mission Operation Allies Welcome where she facilitated Afghan guest teacher workshops and taught English to newly arrived Afghan refugees. Erin focused on developing curriculum to help allies foster confidence, creativity, self-expression, and resilience during their transition to the United States. Working in this context rekindled her passion for development work and for helping women secure a means of livelihood, which ultimately lead her to pursue this fellowship opportunity with AIF. She is honored to be selected as an AIF Banyan Impact Fellow and is excited to see her background as a creative, as a facilitator, and as a co-learner, intersect with India’s Development sector.



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