Ethical Behavior Related to Culture
helpers need to be mindful of differences among individuals and use skills that reflect an understanding of the people with whom they are working (see also American Psychological Association, 2003). Beginning helpers should not assume that helping skills transfer across cultures and individuals. One example is the assumption that maintaining eye contact is a sign of openness, interest, and willingness to participate in the session. In some cultures, however, a lack of eye contact signifies respect for an authority figure and thus should not be interpreted according to societal norms that there should be eye contact in sessions.
At times, helpers who are working with clients from a different culture either neglect or attribute too much significance to the culture of their clients when providing interventions. It is important for helpers to realize that helping in the traditional manner may (or may not) be sufficient for these clients. Thus, heterosexual helpers who are working with lesbian or gay clients should investigate the literature about working with these clients and be aware of the special challenges that may be present for these clients, while also understanding that lesbian and gay clients may share many similarities with heterosexual clients. For example, Shawn was depressed and felt hopeless when he sought help at the university counseling center. His helper assumed that because Shawn was a gay man, his depression ensued from the discrimination that gay men experience on
campus. The helper told Shawn that he understood how painful it must be to be a gay man on a predominantly heterosexual college campus. Shawn was stunned and angry at the helper. He had sought assistance because his sister had recently been killed in a car accident and he was having trouble grieving the loss, not because of problems related to his sexual orientation. Thus, it seems critical to be aware of the client’s culture as deeply influencing the client, but never to assume that the client’s cultural background and related experiences are the primary motivators for seeking assistance.
Furthermore, a helper who is working with a client from a different culture should not assume that the client’s goals are to assimilate (or not assimilate) into the majority culture. For example, Mei immigrated to the United States from another country and asked for assistance in selecting a career. She explained to her helper that her parents wanted her to go to medical school, but she was doing poorly in her science courses. The helper incorrectly assumed that Mei did not want to pursue a medical career and directed her to select a different occupation on the basis of her interests, values, and abilities (because making career decisions in terms of individual needs and abilities is a cultural value for many people living in the United States). However, if the helper had listened carefully, he would have discovered that Mei was feeling devastated about her inability to meet her parents’ expectations and dreams in part because of her cultural background, which valued familial harmony and parental approval. In another situation, the client may not even feel as though she or he is from a different culture than that of the helper. For example, a Hispanic client who goes to an all-Black school may feel more comfortable with a Black counselor than a Hispanic one because he does not identify with the Hispanic community. Thus, the helper cannot make assumptions based solely on skin color.
Demonstrating interest in clients’ cultures is important, but helpers should not expect clients to educate them about culture. For example, an African American client who worked in a battered women’s shelter expressed frustration not only with being a member of a group of people who have less power in American society, but also with being asked to train and educate European American helpers about her culture.
Helpers can educate themselves about culture in multiple ways. They can talk with people from different cultures, travel, try food from different places, watch movies, and read novels. Above all, perhaps the best idea is to read relevant professional literature about culture. Several excellent texts provide further information about multicultural counseling and counseling with specific groups (D. R. Atkinson & Hackett, 1998; Helms & Cook, 1999; McGoldrick, 1998; Pedersen, Draguns, Lonner, & Trimble, 2002; D. W. Sue & Sue, 1999). It is always important, however, to remember that much of the description of cultures in the professional literature or popular media perpetuates stereotypes, or generalizations, about groups of people. Although these stereotypes are perhaps accurate in very general terms, they may not apply to individuals within a given culture. Thus, it is important to learn the stereotypes about cultures but also to
listen to the individual client for how he or she has been influenced by the many different cultures to which he or she belongs.
All of us need to engage in serious self-examination to discover our cultural values and beliefs as well as our prejudices and biases. Being aware of our cultural beliefs (e.g., valuing independence, autonomy, religion, and family) is important so that we can recognize what we value; but it is also important so that we do not automatically assume these values are right for everyone else. Understanding our prejudices and biases is important so that we do not hurt the therapeutic relationship or accidentally offend clients who are culturally different from us.
All of us have been socialized to have beliefs about what is good and bad, and these beliefs form our worldviews. We have firm roots in these beliefs, and we are often unaware that these beliefs are actually biases and prejudices and that these biases and prejudices surface when we are least aware of them. Self-awareness is key. How we convey our awareness of these biases often informs our clients of whether they can trust and communicate with us.
Sometimes we are so accustomed to these feelings that we do not even question their validity. Think about your “hot buttons,” or the reactions you might have to different clients. If you have different reactions to different clients (e.g., to working with a male vs. female client), you might want to step back and try to understand these reactions.
It is also important to think about what biases clients might have toward helpers for various reasons (i.e., personal experiences of discrimination or an awareness of this nation’s history of discrimination towards non-White racial groups). For example, an African American client might automatically not trust a White helper. Providing a safe space for clients and being open to explore these biases of clients can be helpful in the strengthening of the therapeutic alliance. On the other hand, the African American client might be very used to being in a White environment and not have an issue with having a White helper. Furthermore, it is important to take the whole person into consideration rather than just one aspect, such as race/ethnicity. An African American person with a middle-class background will likely share many of the values of a White middle-class helper.
In addition, ethical behavior goes beyond having an awareness of individual and cultural differences to embracing a commitment to eliminate bias and discrimination in one’s work. This commitment may involve actively examining our biases, confronting colleagues who act in a discriminatory manner, advocating for those with less power, and working for social change. For example, some helpers facilitate support groups for clients who have been marginalized in society. Another helper might use her experience as a counselor, teacher, and researcher to write a book about empowering clients through the process of counseling (McWhirter, 1994).