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Respecting and adapting to cultural differences while providing ‘People Safety’ skills for preventing and solving problems with people is both challenging and rewarding. These skills include consent, boundaries, positive communication, emotional safety, abuse and bullying prevention, advocacy, and child protection. The following article is from our Kidpower Child Protection Training Program that has included Safety Leaders from Argentina, Bangladesh, Canada, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, the UK, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe – as well as throughout the United States.

In every culture where I have taught ‘People Safety‘ skills, including my own, sooner or later someone always says, “But in OUR culture, things are different.” And, of course, this person is right! In each culture, many things are different.

The reality is that human bodies are much more the same than they are different. After a career of over 45 years in which I have worked with thousands of people with a beautiful array of differences from a wonderful variety of cultures, I have come to believe that the essentials of teaching people to be safe with people are like breathing – important to the well-being of a human being regardless of culture.

Below are some lessons we have learned in Kidpower about creating cultural awareness to address potential obstacles in teaching people how to advocate for and protect the emotional and physical well-being of themselves and others, especially children and vulnerable adults. The purpose is always to build a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with the people from the cultures you want to serve in order to create an effective learning environment.

The keys are to listen, respect, and adapt to meet people where they are.

Acknowledge that Cultural Differences Exist and Have Value

When teaching personal safety skills to people in societies with strong cultural traditions, we can build trust by learning from people about these traditions and then showing an understanding of their value before suggesting that people change what they are doing. Acknowledge the importance to people of their cultural traditions that show respect, make roles clear so that people know what is expected of them, create community, and observe spiritual practices.

The problem is when certain people in a society – such as women, children, or individuals from different social classes, races, or disabilities – become vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and abuse because of confusion about interpretation of some traditions. Common interpretations of cultural traditions that often conflict with a person’s ability to take charge of their safety and well-being include:

  • Unequal rights. When people are in strict social roles, this can create structure and stability in a society. At the same time, rigid roles can sometimes be unfairly applied so that some people, especially women, children, and anyone considered “lower class” , don’t have the freedom to speak up for their well-being, to get an education, or to get help to escape from unsafe situations.
  • Eye contact. Avoiding eye contact with people in positions of authority can be a way to show respect. At the same time, not being able to look someone in the eyes when communicating about important things can put people in a position of subservience and feeling powerless.
  • Being unable to refuse. Directly saying “No” or “Stop” or “Don’t” can seem impolite or disrespectful – and following many rules is a necessary part of having a healthy family, school, workplace, or community. At the same time, being able to speak up clearly about what you do or don’t want is necessary in order to set powerful and respectful boundaries to stop unsafe behavior or to avoid harmful situations.
  • Being physically close. Standing and sitting very close together can build a sense of connection – AND staying physically close instead of moving out of reach can be dangerous when an individual or group has a destructive intention to dominate, threaten or attack.
  • Demanding displays of affection to show respect and caring. Touch can be a wonderful way of expressing love, of giving attention, or of playing. At the same time, forced affection is not really respectful or caring. Forcing children to put aside their feelings to tolerate unwanted touch for play, teasing, or affection against their wishes -such as hugs, kisses, cheek-pinching, sitting on laps, and roughhousing – makes them more vulnerable to accepting abusive behavior in other situations or of doing the same things to others.
  • Prejudice against specific groups. People within societies or social groups often create a sense of identity by defining themselves as being better than other groups and can feel more trusting of people who seem the same as they are. At the same time, seeing other people as less worthy because of differences in race, religion, economic status, class, sexual orientation or identity, disability, or family situation too often leads to misunderstandings, fear, anger, and suffering.
  • Perceptions of honor and power. Feeling pride about one’s family, friends, sports teams, beliefs, cultures, and possessions can be healthy and feel good. At the same time, too many people have gotten into fights over insults or property that led to preventable injury, death, or legal consequences.
  • Perceptions of propriety. Acting demure and proper can help girls and women be treated as more worthy, accepted, and desirable in some cultures. At the same time, their being able to be forceful verbally and physically is sometimes necessary to avoid or escape from a sexual assault.
  • Beliefs about power and violence. People need to be able to be powerful to protect themselves and their loved ones. Unfortunately, seeing violence as the first and best way to handle a conflict to often leads to more violence and less safety.
  • Valuing communities and relationships more than individual needs. If more people put the good of their communities and relationships ahead of their immediate gratification, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, when people in communities or relationships are doing things that are destructive, then individuals need to be able to speak up for themselves, both for their own well-being and for the longer-term good of their communities and relationships.

Point Out that Societies and Cultures Are Constantly Evolving

In all societies, evolution, change, and growth are sometimes necessary and inevitable, even if they are uncomfortable and can seem strange at first. Our challenge is to keep what is beautiful, caring, and spiritually important in cultural traditions while learning how to adapt in order to promote caring, respect, and safety for all members of a community.

One way to help people gain a wider perspective is to mention some of the changes that have made life better for people in their culture such as medicine, better health practices, more rights, or increased knowledge. Point out ways that leaders they trust are advocating for changes that provide greater safety, hope, and freedom. Find quotes from religious texts that support change and protection of people from harm as well as upholding traditions.

People from different cultures can easily misunderstand each other. For example, looking someone directly in the eyes might be seen as disrespectful in one culture – and looking away might be seen as lacking honesty in another culture. For that reason, individuals need to know how to interact effectively in all the cultures they might be in contact with.

Being direct when disagreeing is considered rude in many cultures – and not being direct might cause someone from another culture to fail to realize that a disagreement exists. For example, a teacher promoting diversity in a science department in a university noticed that many of their students from non-Western cultures and a large percentage of their women students were more likely to communicate their thoughts by asking questions rather than by stating, “I disagree. THIS is what I think.”

These students valued relationships and community above individual achievement. Their paradigm was that direct disagreement would be undermining of relationships, so they asked questions instead. The problem was that, in the competitive graduate school environment, their contributions and creativity were not being recognized.

The solution was to make everyone aware of this style of communicating and for students from more collaborative cultures and women students to realize that there would be times when they might need to change their style or at least to explain, “One of the ways I express my ideas is by asking questions.”

Work with People Your Students Will Accept as Role Models

Consult with people who are either part of the culture you are going to be working with or who are very knowledgeable and seen as allies. Find out what specific personal safety problems people are facing, what the cultural obstacles are likely to be when they are learning the skills, and what solutions people have found for themselves.

When possible, get the support of your role models to help you teach and coach them to be successful in your demonstrations. Encourage them to become teachers for their community. You can also find celebrities your students admire who are modeling the kinds of positive behavior and beliefs that will help your students be safer.

In one community, we were asked by the local police to hold a workshop for youth and their parents because a teenager from a local school had been killed when an argument turned into a knife fight. I asked the Police Chief and his Captain, who are both strong men of Latino heritage and highly respected in their community, to help me demonstrate walking away from an insult.

To start the demonstration, I coached the Police Captain to call his Chief “Stupid!” in Spanish. There was a delighted gasp from our audience as the Police Captain swaggered up to his Chief and yelled, “Estúpido!”

The Chief walked away with calmness, awareness, respect, and confidence. He then told our impressed students, “I do not want to see anyone else die or be arrested for murder because of a few unkind words.” His example did more to communicate with the boys we were teaching than anything anyone could have said to them.

Study the Solutions that Are Working Well to Keep People Safe

We can learn a lot from how problems are solved in different cultures.

In many cultures, people will often use questions, jokes, or positive comments to express their thoughts, boundaries or wishes rather than direct statements- and this is fine if it is done in a way that works. In Tanzania in Eastern Africa, joking relationships are a long-established way to defuse conflict between tribes who used to be at war with each other, but who now exchange jokes instead. In this culture, joking is also used to stop sexual advances instead of direct refusals. Just as with other forms of boundary-setting, some women within the culture are much better at using jokes to stop unwanted behavior than others.

In order to understand how to use the joking technique as a tool to stop unwanted advances, you could first ask women who are good at it to show you exactly what they do and exactly what a sexual advance might look like in their culture.

Sometimes people have trouble explaining behavior like this. If so, you can ask them to show you by setting up a role-play where they use the technique that works for them. Pay attention to their tone of voice, choice of words, facial expressions, gestures, body language, and level of energy. Learn how to do this yourself and add it to the self-protection choices that you offer to all your students.

Meet People where They Are Instead of Expecting Them to Come to Where You Are

People from different cultural and religious backgrounds will have a huge range of differences about what is going to be acceptable to them in how personal safety skills are taught. Instead of creating a barrier that will stop students from having access to skills that can save them from terrible experiences, meet people where they are.

For example, part of building trust in many cultures requires taking the time to get to know each other as people before doing any kind of business together. This might mean saying something about one’s family or personal background in a way that connects to your students before starting to teach or drinking a cup of tea or coffee together.

With martial artists, I always mention that we work with many very high-ranking Black Belts in different disciplines. In one community center serving mostly Chinese elders, I said that my sister-in-law is Chinese-American with two children and that she was sorry that she could not be with us that day. I also stopped the workshop for a little while in the middle so we could serve someone a birthday cake since that was their tradition.

In order to meet people where they are, we have to make adjustments and to separate what is truly essential from what can be changed. For example, suppose you are a man and you are working with a religious group that does not allow men to touch women or to mention anything sexual. With a little flexibility and imagination, you can teach classes that will help women and girls gain self-protection skills to stop sexual assaults where you do not touch students at all and do not make any direct sexual references. In order to accomplish this, you could:

  • Ask women from the group to be your assistants and give them simple clear directions on how to help teach the girls
  • Show girls how to move instead of touching them
  • Touch the air near the girls as if you were about to touch them and have them act out what they could say and do to stop you/li>
  • Discuss potentially sexual assaults in nonsexual terms such as “If someone tries to bother you, you can…” or “If someone tries to say or do something that is unsafe or not appropriate, you can…”

Get Ideas from Your Students About What Will Best Meet Their Needs

‘People Safety’ problems and solutions look different in different cultures. By understanding what the beginnings of common problems look like, we can prepare our students to take preventative action. Like differences in pronunciation being hard to distinguish in different languages, it often takes understanding and practice to recognize the subtle signals that show that someone is starting to get frustrated, test boundaries, or be about to explode.

In any culture, it often takes both understanding and practice to communicate in a way that others will understand. Remember that HOW something is done can make a huge difference in how someone else will respond. A calm look, an aggressive stare, a friendly smile, a nervous glance, a proud strut and a suggestive wiggle are all different ways of letting someone know that you know they are there – and each action is likely to produce a different result.

The key is to listen to your students and to learn from them. Ask people to show you what personal safety problems look like in their culture from their point of view. How do these problems start? What does someone who is causing the problem do or say at the beginning? What is the best solution from their point of view? What is it that they want to happen or not happen? Ask your students to share with you solutions that they have found work for them or that they have seen others use.

Suggest Answers to Objections from Family and Friends

Do you like being told what to do or that someone didn’t like what you did or to change some behavior that you like doing? Most people don’t! Disliking change or feeling unhappy is normal. AND, discomfort about setting boundaries to protect safety is normal. Being prepared for resistance helps people to be better able to advocate for the well-being children, other vulnerable people, and themselves.

We can acknowledge the kinds of resistance that students are likely to face and give them ideas about how to explain about personal safety to the important people in their lives in a way that shows respect for the underlying values of a cultural practice.

For example, students in our parent/caregiver education class often at first worry about the Kidpower safety rule that touch for play, teasing or affection should be the choice of both people, safe and allowed by the adults in charge. They are concerned that giving children permission to choose will somehow make them less loving or that older members of a family will feel rejected.

We offer ways to explain to grandparents or other older relatives such as, “The way the world is nowadays, our children have to understand how to say ‘no’ to being hugged and kissed if they don’t feel like it. If they can do this with people they love and who love them, they will be better prepared to set boundaries in situations where someone might harm them. Anyway, true affection should not have to be forced.”

Instead of requiring children to be smothered and uncomfortable by unwanted hugging, cheek-pinching, and kissing to show caring and respect, adults can find other ways for children to show care and respect for their elders. Children can shake hands, wave, do fist bumps, or blow kisses. For children who do not like physical affection or attention at all, a very positive way to express caring can be through making a present for the older relative such as a drawing, home-made card, cookies, or hand-picked flowers or serving tea or cake.

There is No “One Right Way” – Don’t Argue – SHOW

Instead of arguing that one way is better than another, tell students that you want them to have as many choices as possible. For example, suppose they already know how to fight. If so, this is useful – and it is important that they also know how to walk away from a fight and feel good about themselves, because it is almost always safer to not fight than to fight.

Suppose your students are all very used to being very polite. Politeness often is used to show respect – AND it is important that people also know how to be very firm and even behave in a way that they and others might think is rude, just in case it is unsafe to be polite. In classes, we often tell students, “You already know how to be nice and that’s great. We are going to practice how to be NOT nice because it is safer to make being nice a decision rather than an automatic habit.”

One of my most memorable workshops was at a senior center for elderly Chinese people who were living in Oakland. After practicing awareness skills to avoid trouble, I had come to the part of the workshop where we were going to work on dealing with a more dangerous situation.

“Now we are going to practice yelling, ‘No!’” I told the group through Eva, who was their Activities Director and my Interpreter.

There was a resounding silence. I took a moment to sort through the sea of seventy blank faces to make eye contact with Eva and the other staff members and smiled at them. “I suspect there is going to be a slight cultural problem here.”

All of the staff people looked at me seriously and nodded their heads. No way in the world could they imagine that anyone would yell.

“There’s no word in Cantonese for ‘no,’” Eva explained.

“Is there any word that’s close?” I asked.

“Well, we could say, “’Mmm…ho!’ which means don’t.’”

“Great!” I looked at the room full of seniors and staff and said slowly, so that Eva could translate, “I understand that it is against your culture to yell. However, it’s important to your safety that you are able to yell if you are in danger. Yelling takes away the privacy and control that gives an attacker more power. So Eva is going to help me warm up your voices by playing a game. I’ll start by whispering ‘no’ in English and Eva is going to whisper…’mmm…ho!’ back at me in Cantonese. Then we’ll get louder and louder until we’re shouting. ”

Eva finished translating, registered the meaning of what she had just said, and suddenly stared at me with dismay. “I CAN’T yell!” she gulped.

“Of course you can!” I said firmly. I waved towards the crowd who were watching us with total comprehension and interest, even though the translation had stopped. ‘Eva, they need to have your example. . . . We’ll start softly.”

I faced Eva, microphone in hand so everyone could hear. “no,” I whispered.

“mmm…ho” Eva whispered back in her microphone.

“No!” I said a little louder.

“Mmm…ho,” Eva said back.

“NO!” I shouted.

“Mmm…ho,” Eva muttered softly.

I reached out to Eva, gently touching her arm with my fingertips. “Eva, I know you really care about the people here. It’s not safe for them to be soft and polite if someone is threatening them. I want you to yell as loudly as you would like them to yell if they were truly in danger. Please take a big breath and try again.”

Then I looked at her and shouted, “NO!”

With a tortured grimace as if she were jumping into an ice-cold lake, Eva gasped for air and yelled, ‘MMM…HO!”

A stir of lifted heads, surprised faces and impressed murmurs rippled through the room. As Eva translated, I turned to the crowd and said,” Now, it’s YOUR turn — start softly and get louder and louder.”

“no!” I whispered into my microphone.

“mmm…ho!” All the staff people and most of the seniors whispered along with Eva who was still using her microphone.

“No!” I said a little louder.

“Mmm…ho!” they responded.

I set the microphone down and stepped away from it. With my whole body, I shouted, “NO!”

“MMM….HO!” my students all yelled back. The sound reverberated from the high ornate ceiling to the tall imposing columns of the normally sedate room. There was an instant of startled silence. And then seventy surprised people burst into excited clapping and cheers.

Practicing ‘People Safety’ skills that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable culturally does not take away people’s ability to do what has worked for them in the past or to be true to their cultural values. Instead, having these skills and ideas gives them more choices about what they are going to do when confronted with someone who is showing difficult or dangerous behavior out in the real world.

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Copyright © 2012 - present. All rights reserved.

Published: March 13, 2012   |   Last Updated: October 29, 2021

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.