How being culturally competent helped me to be a better nurse

Written by Dr. Ruth Ann Carroll Published on 

Being 1 out of the 3 white kids in high school had paved the way for me to become a better nurse.

In over 22 years of nursing, I have seen it all-new life, death, and life alternating changes. You can’t shake me on most things. Except one thing-people think they know what cultural diversity is and it gets ignored or overlooked every day. We assume that everyone is like us- knowledge and all, but in fact, we are all 100 percent completely different- even people of the same race.

Do nurses stop and think: “this person is in a bad state of health because…”? Nurses are so busy, we do our jobs and keep moving. Did we stop and ask a patient if they could read? Ouch. We take that for granted as well.

People often think they are well versed in cultural diversity and sadly that is only at a superficial level. I have walked many miles others haven’t and it has helped me see what other people are like.

Growing up

I grew up in a poor suburban neighbourhood. I attended a high school that was a majority-minority population. I am white, and while I knew that I was one of the few white students, I never thought that I was different. Yes, there were some upheavals during the teen years about my presence- I see it for what it was then- the unknown. I went on to go to community college and married my high school boyfriend. Of course, his mother (who has now passed away) took me in and showed me another culture I was only familiar with from a social aspect from school.

I definitely thought I knew a lot about other people, but one simple thing has stuck with me to this day. One day, I walked into my mother in law’s house and casually sat down. She looked up and stared at me. I didn’t know what was up but she said, “When you enter someone’s house you are supposed to speak to them first.” Oh wow okay, I thought- makes sense but I didn’t know that.

Incorporating new etiquette in my career has allowed me to be respected. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

I started incorporating this new etiquette in my life and carried it into my career. I did notice that some of my colleagues and employees of other races noticed it and they respected me for it. Later in my career, I found out 2 employees didn’t like each other because of this etiquette. One lady always came to work and never greeted or spoke to the other. They did not like each other because neither realized that there was a cultural norm expected from one lady that the other lady had no clue about. So simple yet not known. This ah-ha moment made me incorporate daily cultural norms in training and gave employees a safe space to discuss- together.

I learned things from my mother in law that I could never learn in the workforce. What she taught me, helped me exceed at the bedside with other races, while some of my white colleagues could not understand or make a difference with their patients or colleagues that were not white. I grew up in a multicultural family and for that, I am more empathetic and truth-seeking.

Becoming more culturally competent

Cultural diversity is not only about understanding what others value and know. You cannot merely interact with someone from a different background and understand them. You must find a connection with others to establish trust and minimize conflict that could arise from different cultural viewpoints. The connections I make in my life are authentic and genuine.

Cultural diversity is more than just understanding what others value or know. Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

So, what can you do to become more culturally competent?

  1. People Watch
    Yes I said it- watch people. Watch how they interact with others. Watch body language. Watch how people talk and greet each other. Watch how people dress. Watch how they interact with people outside their own race. Watch everything. You can learn so much from watching others’ habits, communication, and interactions.
  2. Listen to others
    An easy thing to do, that can be overlooked. Listen to people when they talk to you. When I say listen- I mean undivided “I want to learn” listening. You would be amazed at how this one simple thing can increase a person’s confidence in you and how much you will learn. It also shows people that you care and can build authentic relationships. My patients have often said “ you are the only one that actually heard me and understood what I needed.”
  3. Apply what you learn
    Early in my career, I took care of an older Chinese patient on a travel assignment in California. I brought this sweet woman ice water in her pitcher that she refused (while smiling at me). I educated her about dehydration (because I thought I knew more than her — ha) and she nodded in agreement but still would not drink it. I became more frustrated and could not understand why she wouldn’t do it. Her son came for a visit so I asked him about it. He explained, “My mom only drinks room temperature water”. Ah, I thought, there you go- I had no clue.
  4. Be thoughtful
    I mentioned earlier about inquiring about patients’ literacy level. You do not know what people do and don’t know. Don’t assume that you know what someone else knows or what they have been through in their life. We need to be thoughtful in our interactions with others. To learn more about other people, ask open-ended questions like: “I am curious about ____, can you tell me more?” We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable in growing and learning about people.

Remember, on this life long journey you can make a difference with everyone you interact with- not just the people you relate to culturally. We are all in this together. Make a connection with someone of a different race or cultural background and see how you feel afterwards. Stephen Covey states it best, “Seek first to understand” (Covey, 1989).


Dr. Ruth Carroll, DNP, RN is a Registered Nurse and Writer.  Dr. Carroll hails from Alabama. She enjoys travelling with her husband and reading fiction and loves witty healthcare memes. She has been a nurse for over 22 years and enjoys growing and mentoring people in healthcare. This led her to mentoring clients,  writing resumes and cover letters, and providing and facilitating professional presentations for clients. She has also served as a consultant for medical inquiries from local government officials. She can be reached on LinkedIn or Medium and Patreon as @docruthrn. 

Disclaimer: This article was written by a contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here


Dr. Ruth Ann Carroll


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