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18 Sep, 2019   |   

Part 1: What Is Cultural Awareness?

Up with People gap year students performing in Grand Island

Guest Post by Ellen Enebo, Curriculum Manager of Up with People

In Up with People, we develop our cultural awareness through conscious actions and recognition of how our culture influences our perceptions of the world. This includes not just observing the “what” of ways different communities approach tasks, challenges and interactions, but also seeking to understand the “whys” and “hows”. But what exactly is cultural awareness? 

For starters, have you ever:

  • Figured out how to eat an unusual food by watching how those around you ate it?
  • Mirrored your introduction to someone new by greeting them how they greeted you?
  • Heard an accent or a speech pattern of a non-native speaker and adjusted your English to be more clearly understood?
  • Realized that there may be more meaning behind the words of what you are being told than merely what is said out loud?
  • Sought to understand the world around you, and noticed how what is “normal” can be vastly different, depending on where you are, and who you are interacting with?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then you are showing a level of cultural competency, also sometimes referred to as cultural intelligence, cultural awareness, or intercultural competency. It is essentially the ability to communicate, relate and work effectively across cultures.

Gap year students perform in Up with People

Understanding Culture

Culture has been described metaphorically as an iceberg or as a tree with deep roots — that only a small portion of culture is visible above the surface, in the form of food, traditions, language, architecture, and other visual representations, and the majority of cultural norms are actually below the surface.  This shared ideology of a group of people is what binds them together, while being difficult to define with clarity. Because much of what makes up a culture can’t be seen, visitors to that culture might discover these cultural norms through trial and error, or by being told that they had, inadvertently, done something that was viewed as offensive or inappropriate.

Benefits of Traveling

One huge benefit of traveling in Up with People is the continuous opportunity to expand this cultural competency.  Through interactions with fellow cast members from 15+ countries, we make space to recognize and discuss our cultural differences, and also our commonalities and what brings us together. Through staying with host families in 3-5 countries, living under their roof as members of their family for a week, we learn how to get along in a region, what courteousness looks like there, and trying out the “normal” daily tasks that might be completely new to us. 

Some of our cast members have never traveled before out of their home country, and others come to us with degrees in anthropology or intercultural communication. No matter what your cultural competency is when joining UWP, it is our goal, as with all our curriculum efforts, that we cultivate you in this area, so you depart Up with People with expanded understanding of other cultures, and how to effectively get along among them.


Ellen Enebo is Up with People’s Curriculum Manager and has been with Up with People since 2007.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in Intercultural Studies, Leadership and Communication, and has training certifications from the Intercultural Communication Institute and the Institute for Cultural Affairs.


“Here we are
And now the story’s changing
Can we hear
Beyond the words they are saying
Maybe when all sides
Can rise above the noises
We’ll listen to the voices
Of the world.”

Voices © Up with people

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