As a Colombian who emigrated to Canada almost 20 years ago, I have had good and not so good experiences in my acculturation process. Eight years ago, I had the rewarding experience of working for a foreign embassy in Ottawa. I remember just one time when I was providing information over the phone, as an information officer, about options for a Canadian couple to live in the country which I was representing. In the middle of my explanation, one of them interrupted me and said, “politely,” excuse me, can I speak to someone who does not have an accent like yours? Even respectfully replying that I was trained to provide the required information as an information officer, they were not confident in my knowledge and did not want to continue talking to me because of my accent. Without elaborating on how my senior officer handled the situation, I cannot express how frustrating I felt at the time. In the end, I was blessed with the opportunity to experience and learn from situations like that.
As a counsellor, I find that we need a constant self-reflection process and a solid theoretical understanding of the impact of culture on our clients in our clinical practice. Counsellors must recognize that cultures are always changing and never stagnant. What was normative in the past is probably different today or vice versa. A similar situation occurs with our beliefs and prejudices. Even some behaviours that are or were normative in the sense of being shared among the individual members of a group are not necessarily normative in the sense of being culturally valued; such behaviour may be a manifestation of dysfunction (VandeCreek & Knapp, 2007).
For example, in Canada before 2009, it was “normative” that about 57% of Aboriginal women had been victims of sexual abuse (Canada, 2009). This recurring and maladaptive practice did not mean that Canadian culture had tolerated, condoned or valued such sexual abuse. As humans, we feel the need to be accepted. In some cases, people choose to share irrational or dysfunctional behaviours, such as those who sexually abused these Aboriginal women to belong to a particular group. In other words, to feel included as part of what in psychology, we call “ingroup bias.” Counsellors need to increase their competence to work with clients from different cultural backgrounds with other wonderful and/or stressful experiences of inclusion in life. We are responsible for guiding our clients therapeutically and much better if we try to understand them from their cultural roots.
The simple fact that has helped me understand my clients with different cultural roots in this multicultural country is that I do not know what I do not know. If I do not know what I bring to the table, I cannot explain it; if I do not ask my clients about their background and its effect on them, I certainly do not know (although many choose to assume based on stereotypes). If I do not know the theoretical foundations and do not have a solid plan to inquire and learn more about their cultural background that can lead to fruitful conversation, I will be at a disadvantage. In conclusion, working on myself, knowing my approach and the different ways of applying my techniques, and regularly checking my cultural assumptions will lead me to establish a better rapport and, therefore, better therapeutic results. The most powerful resource we have to offer others is our ability to listen, show that we care, and be honest (Warner R. , 2010).