1.7.2 - The Four Levels of Cultural Awareness


The Four Levels of Cultural Awareness


As you go through the cycle of adjustment, your awareness of the host country culture naturally increases. This awareness tends to progress through a series of levels, described below.

I. Unconscious incompetence

This has also been called the state of blissful ignorance. At this stage, you are unaware of cultural differences. It does not occur to you that you may be making cultural mistakes or that you may be misinterpreting much of the behavior going on around you. You have no reason not to trust your instincts.

II. Conscious incompetence

You now realize that differences exist between the way you and the local people behave, though you understand very little about what these differences are, how numerous they might be, or how deep they might go. You know there’s a problem here, but you’re not sure about the size of it. You’re not so sure of your instincts anymore, and you realize that there are some things you don’t understand. You may start to worry about how hard it’s going to be to figure these people out.

III. Conscious competence

You know cultural differences exist, you know what some of these differences are, and you try to adjust your own behavior accordingly. It doesn’t come naturally yet—you have to make a conscious effort to behave in culturally appropriate ways—but you are much more aware of how your behavior is coming across to the local people. You are in the process of replacing old instincts with new ones. You know now that you will be able to figure these people out if you can remain objective. 

IV. Unconscious competence

You no longer have to think about what you’re doing in order to do the right thing. Culturally appropriate behavior is now second nature to you; you can trust your instincts because they have been reconditioned by the new culture. It takes little effort now for you to be culturally sensitive.*

This paradigm is based on work by William Howell. 


.. Memories..


...To explore the Four Levels of Cultural Awareness see if you can recognize them...


In each box, select the stages of awareness you think may fit to the person making the observation. Some observations may go in more than one stage.


1. I understand less than I thought I did.
2. These people really aren't so different.
3. There is a logic to how these people behave.
4. Living here is like walking on eggshells.
5. These people have no trouble understanding me.
6. It's possible to figure these people out if you work at it.
7. I wonder what they think of me.
8. I know what they think of me.
9. It's nice to be able to relax and be myself.
10. I'll never figure these people out.
11. Why did people say this would be so difficult?
12. There's hope for me here.

See suggested answers


Can culture shock be avoided altogether? “Probably not,” is the short answer. Can it be minimized? Yes, absolutely! The short list of any Prescription for Culture Shock would probably look like this:

 Prescription for Culture Shock

  1. Understand symptoms and recognize signs of "culture fatigue" and “culture shock.”

  2. Realize that some degree of discomfort and stress is natural in a cross-cultural experience.

  3. Recognize that your reactions are often emotional and not always (or easily) subject to rational control.

  4. Gather information so at least the cultural differences will seem understandable, if not natural. Look below the surface.

  5. Look for the logical reasons behind host culture patterns. They "fit" the culture–discover why!

  6. Relax your grip on your normal culture and try to cheerfully adapt to new rules and roles.

  7. Don't give in to the temptation to disparage what you do not like or understand.  

  8. Identify a support network among host nationals, teachers, fellow students, etc. Use it, but don't rely upon it exclusively. 

  9. Understand that any "cultural clash" will likely be temporary.

  10. Give yourself "quiet time," some private space, and don't be too hard on yourself when things are not going perfectly.