University of Massachusetts Amherst

It's MORE Than A Meal


Culture & Foods

culturally sensitive interactions

Cultures Have Different Styles of Communication

They may vary in terms of these commonly accepted communication practices:*

  • Interactions with others. Some cultures prefer a non-confrontational style. Others value a more assertive style of interaction.
  • Expression of emotions. Some cultures prefer to directly express their emotions. Others feel that directly expressing emotions is confrontational, and prefer to indirectly express or mask their emotions.
  • Disclosure of information. Some cultures are hesitant to disclose personal or family information to a stranger. Others are more willing to do so.
  • Volume of speech. Some cultures prefer speaking in a soft tone. Others prefer a stronger tone of voice.
  • Silence. Some cultures are comfortable with long periods of silence in a conversation. Others consider it appropriate to speak before another person has finished talking.
  • Eye contact. Some cultures prefer looking people straight in the eye. Others consider this to be rude, disrespectful, or a sign of hostility.
  • Physical space. Some cultures are comfortable with close body space. Others are more comfortable standing or sitting at a greater distance from each other.
  • Body movements. Some cultures perceive vigorous handshaking as aggressive, while others consider it a gesture of goodwill. Some cultures perceive finger-pointing or foot-pointing as disrespectful, while others consider these gestures to be benign.
    Some cultures perceive arm-waving as friendly, while others consider it a sign of contempt.
  • Gender roles. Some cultures have traditional role expectations based on gender. Others are more flexible about gender roles.
  • Perception of time. Some cultures value promptness. Other cultures are less oriented around being “on time.”

Source: Elizabeth Randall-David. Strategies for Working with Culturally Diverse Communities and Clients. Office of Maternal and Child Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989.

Build Communication Bridges with Participants and Families

Culturally sensitive communication skills can allow for more rewarding interactions with participants and their families. Here are some tips to enhance your skills:

Arrange for a Comfortable Meeting

  • Schedule enough time so that no one feels rushed and you can address any communication barriers.
  • Encourage family members to choose seating that provides a comfortable degree of personal space and eye contact.

Use a Personal Approach

  • Smile, show warmth, and be friendly.
  • Learn the greetings and titles of respect used in their languages.
  • Ask the participant and family how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Speak clearly and in a normal volume.
  • When interacting with people with limited English-speaking skills, keep in mind that their limited use of the English language is not a reflection of their intellectual abilities, or of their ability to communicate effectively in their own language.

Prevent Misinterpretations of Your Words or Intentions

  • Avoid using slang, metaphors, and other expressions that may be hard to understand.
  • Instead of judgments about behaviors, make observations.
  • Explain that you have some questions to ask and do not intend to offend them. Ask them to let you know if they prefer not to answer any questions.
  • Follow your intuition if you feel that something you are doing is causing a problem. Ask if this is the case. If so, apologize and say that you did not mean to offend anyone.

Source: Boyle MA, Community Nutrition in Action, 3rd Edition, 2003, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Belmont CA.

Create Open Dialogues about Foods

  • Ask about favorite foods, and discuss how they can be incorporated into meal plans.
  • Ask about foods used for celebrations and special occasions.
  • Use visual aids such as photographs or plastic models of foods when appropriate.
  • Most people will be pleased to educate you about their food preferences and habits, but some may feel that your questions are too probing.

Source: Boyle MA, Community Nutrition in Action, 3rd Edition, 2003, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Belmont CA.


(to Negotiate Solutions in a Culturally Sensitive Way)

You can use the following steps to negotiate solutions with your participants or families in a way that respects cultural values and any differences of opinion.

(L)isten with sympathy and understanding, in a curious and non-judgmental way. Show that what the person has to say is very important to you.

(E)xplain your understanding of what the person is telling you. This will create an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.

“It sounds like you’re saying that…..”
“Am I understanding you correctly?”

(A)cknowledge similarities and differences between you about a given situation.

“You and I both want to make sure that…”
“You feel that…, and our staff members feel that we need to…..”

(R)ecommend culturally relevant and practical options. Offer more than one option from whichto choose.

“You could either try the … or the …”
“There might be a couple of ways to solve this: ….”

(N)egotiate an agreement that allows the person or family to take part in the decision-making process.

“Which of these options would you prefer?”
“Would you rather drink the …. or the …..?”
“What time of day would work best for you?”
“Is there a way to…. while making sure that you still….?”

Adapted from: Berlin EA. & Fowkes WC, Jr.: A Teaching Framework for Cross-Cultural Health Care: Application in Family Practice, Western Journal of Medicine, 1983, 139: 934-938. Also adapted from related guidelines in M.A. Boyle, Community Nutrition in Action, 3rd Edition, 2003, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Belmont CA.

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Developed for the Massachusetts Department of Education Child and Adult Care Food Program by the University of Massachusetts Extension Nutrition Education Program. Permission is hereby granted by the Massachusetts Department of Education to copy any or all parts of this document for non-commercial educational purposes. The Massachusetts Department of Education, an Affirmative Action employer, is committed to ensuring that all of its programs and facilities are accessible to all members of the public. We do not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.