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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 1
February 1999

Handling Intolerance in Others

Think back to your childhood days on the playground. You're caught up in a game of tag. You're IT. Children are running all around you, taunting you. "Yoouu cannn't caaatch me! Yooouu can't caaatch me!" And they seem to be right. You CAN'T seem to catch anyone. With each taunt your frustration increases until finally, in a desperate burst of energy and with a hair of success your fingertips brush the shoulder of a child running in front of you. "I got you!!! I got you!!" The tables are turned, and in the moment of awareness the child says to you: "You didn't tag me you <insert painful insult of your choice>."

If you have ever been in a situation such as the one described above, you probably recall the insults flung your way. The questions is, how will you handle those insults now that you are a child welfare social worker?

Although there is not much literature on the subject, most human services workers have been at the receiving end of insulting behavior from the people with whom they are working. Although we cannot control the behavior of others, there are some steps we can take to create a safe, culturally competent work experience. In this case, prevention is key.

Self-Awareness: A Key to Prevention

First, learn about yourself. "Learning about one's own roots is the first step in determining how one's values, beliefs, customs, and behaviors have been shaped by culture" (Lynch, 1998). Americans sometimes think they have no culture, but Hammond and Morrison (1996) describe seven American cultural forces:

  1. Insistence on choice
  2. Pursuit of impossible dreams
  3. Obsession with big and more
  4. Impatience with time
  5. Acceptance of mistakes
  6. Urge to improvise
  7. Fixation with what's new

Even if these traits don't describe you or your idea of the typical American, they can be a starting point for an exploration of how cultural beliefs influence you and your work with clients.

For example, you might place high value on being "on time", where a member of another culture will not share that belief. By being conscious of your own beliefs, and by being aware that others may not share those beliefs, you increase your tolerance of difference.

Educate Yourself

The second step is to learn about the cultures of the people with whom you are working.

Hanson and Lynch (1998) suggest learning about other cultures through books, the arts, and technology; by talking and working with individuals from the culture who can act as cultural guides or mediators; by participating in the daily life of another culture; and by learning the language. Knowing about the values and beliefs of your clients will help avoid miscommunication and bad feelings.

In particular, it could be helpful to gather "specific information related to cultural views of children and child-rearing practices, family roles and structure, views of disability and its causes, health and healing practices, and view of change and intervention" (Lynch, 1998).

The best way to learn about these things may be to ask someone who is part of the culture. This may be superior to learning from books or other resources because, while such sources can be helpful, they may reinforce our stereotypes if not supplemented by more personal cultural education.

Model Behavior

The third step in working with individuals who may not be culturally competent is to model appropriate language and behavior. Behave in a respectful, attentive, open manner. Don't be afraid to ask questions when you are unclear about a client's behavior. Admitting you do not know something is better than offending someone.

Communication Issues

Along with increasing personal knowledge of cultural practices, it is important to develop clear, non-judgmental communication skills.

Hecht, Andersen, and Ribeau (1989) described the difference between "high-context" and "low-context" cultures. "High-context cultures are more attuned to nonverbal cues and messages," while low-context cultures "typically focus on precise, direct, logical, verbal communication" (Lynch, 1998). It is important for practitioners to recognize that basic cues (such as eye contact) have different meanings in different cultures, and to learn and respect those meanings in working with clients from other cultures.

According to Lynch (1998), communication effectiveness is significantly improved when professionals:

  • Respect people from other cultures;

  • Make continued and sincere attempts to understand the world from others' points of view;

  • Are open to new learning;

  • Have a sense of humor;

  • Tolerate ambiguity well; and

  • Approach others with a desire to learn.

Worst Case Scenario

But what do you do when preventive steps do not work and you find yourself at the receiving end of verbal abuse based on your race, physical attributes, beliefs, etc.? The answer depends on the emotional state of the client. If the client is relatively calm (i.e., not escalating towards violence), try explaining how his or her insults make you feel:

Example: "I've heard you describe all <insert group> as being <insert insult/stereotype> and that makes me uncomfortable because I am/know many people of that group and don't find that to be true."

By explaining the effect of the language and/or behavior on you, you may avoid establishing an adversarial relationship.

When the person insulting you is angry and you are concerned that he or she might become violent, a different approach is required. First, use empathy to acknowledge the person's anger and any other underlying feelings you might observe. Do not acknowledge the insults. The person is insulting you in order to get a "rise" out of you and bring you to their level. Although the insults may hurt, you need to focus on calming the client down.

Think about why the client is insulting you. For whatever reason, she may feel defensive, powerless, angry, embarrassed, or a combination of all those feelings. It is important for you to recognize the emotions under the surface of the situation, and to realize that she is not attacking YOU, she is attacking the situation making her feel so uncomfortable.

Make it your goal to share as much power with clients as you can. Involve them in the decision-making process at the start. Give them options whenever possible. Let them know you care about what they want out of the situation, and that you are open to suggestions.

In other words, do anything you can to help them avoid feeling cornered or powerless. Remind them frequently that they have choices and they you can work together towards a positive solution.

You cannot change another's behavior, but you can change your own, model good behavior, develop your communication skills, and use empathy to establish a partnership with your clients.


Anderson, P. A., Hecht, M. L., & Ribeau, S. A. (1989). The cultural dimensions of nonverbal communication. In M. K. Asante & W. B. Gudykunst (Eds.), Handbook of international and intercultural communication (pp. 163-185). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Benson, P. L., Espeland, P., & Galbraith, J. (1995). What kids need to succeed. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

Flick, J. (1996). Defusing potentially violent situations: Keeping yourself and others safe. Unpublished. Presentation for social worker safety trainings.

Hammond, J., & Morrison, J. (1996). The stuff Americans are made of. New York: Macmillan.

Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hodges, V. (1998). Personal communication. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

1999 Jordan Institute for Families