Influence of Client Culture in Counseling and Therapy Session Discussion

Influence of Client Culture in Counseling and Therapy Session Discussion

The “What” of Culture and Culturally Alert Counseling: Key Notions This section explores the key notions of culture and diversity. These two notions are foundational. They pervade all chapters of this book. First, definitions are provided. Then related concepts are discussed, including the pervasiveness and invisibility of culture and the notion of discourse. Defining Culture Culture is defined here as the attitudes, habits, norms, beliefs, customs, rituals, styles, and artifacts that express a group’s adaptation to its environment—that is, ways that are shared by group members and passed on over time. There are two parts to this definition representing internal and external dimensions to culture. Most obvious are the external expressions, the customs, rituals, and styles. But the internalized dimensions of culture are especially important for the work of counseling. They are represented by “attitudes, habits, norms, and beliefs” in the definition described. Those internalized assumptions inform clients’ expectations about relationships, their career aspirations, and their self-esteem, to name just a few impacts of internalized culture. Internal aspects of culture that counselors might encounter include the following. In each case, the counselor needs to be mindful of the cultural dimension and bring it into the work. A middle-class African American teacher is uncertain about how to express herself in a culturally congruent way in the largely European American school in which she teaches. A man is so bottled up emotionally that he drinks, broods, and isolates himself because he doesn’t feel able, as a male, to ask for help or to show sadness. A working-class 20-year-old woman can’t imagine pursuing a medical career because she “doesn’t know where to start” and can’t imagine delaying paid work for school, plus she doesn’t know where the money would come from for her training anyway. A Chinese American daughter of immigrants cannot figure out how to put together family loyalty with her desire to move across the country on her own to try an acting career. A gay 16-year-old boy is infatuated with another boy in the high school but is terrified of being found out. A Southern Anglo American woman would like to express her negative feelings directly but has learned “proper manners” so well that she finds herself being angry at herself for not saying what she feels. In each of these cases, culture can be both an opportunity and a barrier. Either way, culture is a consistent presence in the counseling room. To start the personal journey, you are invited to explore your cultural identities in a beginning way by completing Activity 1.1, Introductory Cultural Self-Awareness. Culture: Pervasive and Invisible Culture is so pervasive in people’s lives that it can be likened to the water that surrounds a fish or the air that humans breathe—in other words, an ambient element outside of their consciousness. Much of what individuals assume to be individual “choice” is instead culturally constructed and automatic. This invisibility can lead to individuals being ignorant about how saturated a dominant culture is in a society. For example, what were once seemingly universal standards in American life are now seen as culturally male, European American, middle class, Christian, and heterosexual. This dominant cultural monolith has been toppled by other communities in U.S. society clamoring to be recognized. However, U.S. society never was so monolithic in a fundamental sense because the nation has always been culturally diverse to a great extent. Women, gay people, non-Christians, Africans, Asians, American Indians, non-English-speaking people, poor persons, and individuals with disabilities have always been a part of American life (Takaki, 1993; Zinn, 2003). However, they are no longer to be background to the dominant culture but are, more and more, foreground on the American cultural landscape in numbers and in public voice. Culture as Discourse Another way to describe the pervasiveness of culture and its importance is to understand culture as an expression of a “discourse.” Discourse is a general term for a system of thought, a network of historically, socially, and institutionally held beliefs, categories, statements, and terms that give meaning to the world. The term discourse comes from linguistics, where it refers to the connection between sentences and their social context. To understand discourse, as it relates to culture, it may be helpful to keep in mind that every sentence a person utters reflects their historical, social, and institutional context, from the words themselves being part of a language to the ideas being a product of a time and place. A discourse is like the lens in a pair of glasses. People actually wear many “discourse lenses.” Cultures are groups of people who share particular discourses. A person is always influenced by many discourses. People’s gender, ethnicity, and religious expression, for example, inform the way they view issues, situations, and other people; they implicitly affect how individuals think and act. The reader might think about fashion in hairstyle and clothing. What is “beautiful” to one group can be unattractive to another. Individuals are caught up in a discourse that automatically affects what they see as attractive. Such discourses set the foundation for the argument that one might make on what is valued in life. That is a dangerous situation for counselors. For example, if a male counselor speaks from within his own gender discourses, he might see an expressive and nurturing female client as emotionally labile and dependent or a working-class client as loud and aggressive instead of being less concerned about respectability and propriety than would a middle-class client. There is a solution to this embeddedness in one’s discourses. Counselors can be aware of the discourses from which they are speaking or acting—or not. In Kegan’s (1998) terms, they can “have” the discourse rather than it “having” them. Indeed, a major aim of this book is to help counselors become aware of how their discourses are influenced by the groups to which they belong, that is, to know the discourses through which they are thinking and acting. It might be some combination of their middle-class discourse, their Christian discourse, their conservative discourse, or their feminist discourse, to name a few sets of assumptions that individuals might speak through. By being alert to the discourse that is informing their thinking, counselors can see their “truths” as perspectives, not monopolies on the one “right” way to view an issue. Counselors can then imagine alternate perspectives, ones that are informed by other gender, ethnic, social class, sexual orientation, and religious viewpoints. History of the Term Culture Culture is an often-used, yet elusive, term. The earliest known use of the word referred to care for the earth (e.g., “culturing the soil”) so that it would produce (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). The extension of the term to human customs is credited to the Roman writer and orator Cicero, who wrote of the “culture of the soul,” that is, taking care to live well in general. Thus, culture came to refer to the human creation of ways to live well through establishing social norms, roles, and customs. Through the years, culture became associated with the notion of “civilization” itself, until in 1871 Edward Tylor, one of the great early anthropologists, offered an inclusive definition of the term: the “capabilities and habits acquired by [a person] as a member of society” (Tylor, 1871/1924, p. 1). For Tylor, “knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, and customs” were expressions of culture. The definition given earlier in this chapter is parallel to Tylor’s concept of culture. Each makes reference to the human creation of ways of living well in community. Those means include rituals, languages, celebrations, and hierarchies in relationships. Culture Broadly Applied The notion of culture, in this book, is used broadly. It is not restricted to the traditional anthropological usage, in which culture is equivalent only to ethnicity. Culture includes the customs, norms, and values of nations, regions, generations, and organizations. For example, in academia there is often a less formal dress code than in retail businesses. And in the military, strict hierarchy and obedience are norms. By contrast, in academia, critiquing the status quo is a norm. Culture also refers to social groups that are identified by gender, class, sexual orientation, generation, organizational affiliation, and religion. Culture in this broad sense can be translated into such notions as “youth culture,” “disability culture,” “school culture,” “male culture,” “gay culture,” “working-class culture,” and “agency culture.” In each case, culture refers to how a group establishes behaviors, and values that help members achieve shared aims, and therefore to live well. The resulting particular expressions of culture, such as accents, dialects, rituals, expressions, and family structures, are human ways of coping, each deserving consideration and respect. This book explores culture as it is expressed through cultural categories—race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. In addition, military culture and refugee/immigrant culture are included. Seven of these cultural groupings are described in Box 1.1. Defining Diversity Diversity is a word that is heard regularly. Diversity is, most simply, the existence of variety in human expression, especially the multiplicity of mores and customs that are manifested in social and cultural life. When used with terms like celebrate and embrace, diversity represents an appreciation of multiple perspectives, a recognition of the contribution that many cultures make to a community. In contrast to much of the United States today, there are places where diversity is minimal. Members of isolated groups are often unaware of alternative cultural expressions and frequently are surprised by and disapproving of them (Kegan, 1998). If group members associate only with their group, they might consider their ways to be “the” ways to think, judge, and act. But even within mono-ethnic societies, there is diversity. For example, all societies have diversity in gender and sexual orientation. When members of a group encounter other groups, they become aware of differences between their way of life and those of others. That encounter might be about religious beliefs, culinary customs, communication styles, or sexual behavior, to name a few possible expressions of diversity. Americans in India become vividly aware of diversity as they walk the colorful, filled streets of Mumbai. African Americans who move to a largely Haitian neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, becomes similarly aware of aspects of their culture that are different from those of their neighbors. Before reading further, readers are invited to check in on their experiences with cultural diversity by completing Activity 1.2, Encounters with Cultural Diversity. This activity is best done privately so that people may be completely honest in their responses. …

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