Interactions in Culturally Diverse Environments: Inclusive Practices and Examples

Kentina R. Smith
Learning Abstracts

Teaching and learning are viewed mainly as cognitive endeavors focused on building content knowledge and technical skills and assessing mastery levels. However, teaching and learning environments also involve social, emotional, and behavioral components rooted in culture. Culture affects how faculty teach and students learn and is reflective of the lens through which we filter information and judge others (Thomas, 2014). Communication and interactive practices that focus on awareness and inclusion of diverse cultures are, therefore, essential to student development. This article highlights practices and examples that apply to environments within and beyond the classroom.

Cultural Diversity

Geneva Gay (2018) described culture as “a system of social values, ways of thinking, and worldviews that influence our thoughts and communication” (p. 8). Faculty and students have diverse ways of teaching, learning, communicating, and behaving (Chávez et al., 2016). Some aspects of culture, such as language, literature, gestures, food, attire, art, and material objects, are discernible. However, most aspects of culture, including habits, values, standards, norms, beliefs, and worldviews, are more complex and not as obvious. Demographics such as racial and ethnic identity, age, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, nationality, education, military status, immigration status, and employment status play a role in how aspects of culture manifest. In addition, peers, family, politics, media, and community influence individuals. It is, therefore, important not to generalize behaviors and beliefs based on perceived cultural or racial group membership; diversity exists between and within groups.

In their book Multicultural Psychology, psychologists Balls Organista, Marin, and Chun (2018) describe the use of socially constructed labels of convenience (i.e., Black, Latinx, Asian, White). They suggest that these groupings help to simplify data collection for educators and researchers but can lead to faulty assumptions that all people within these groups have similar characteristics, beliefs, and practices. Within-group, or intragroup, populations can be quite diverse. For example, individuals labeled as Black may be Kenyan, Haitian, Black European, Jamaican American, or African American and from geographic locations as different as Guyana, United Kingdom, and Dominican Republic. Those labeled as Latinx are also diverse; Columbians, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans have distinct experiences based on a variety of factors.

Intersectionality, or overlapping identities shaped by social structures, makes individuals unique. For example, one is not simply Latinx, but perhaps a 35-year-old married Latinx American male, devout Catholic, father, and veteran who speaks three languages. If we were to add that this individual was blind, it is much easier to see how a person can experience both marginalization and feel empowered based on multiple identities. To understand and respect differences, we must move beyond facial diversity or physical characteristics. Inclusive college environments ensure that everyone feels welcomed, acknowledged, and respected, and experiences a sense of belonging.

Diversity is complex, but inclusive strategies do not have to be. In Race, Equity, and the Learning Environment (2016), Boltizer, Castillo-Montoya, and Williams describe how interactions among diverse communities can inspire growth between and within groups. When diverse groups work together, individuals are more readily able to experience commonalities and recognize unique identities. The authors suggest engagement through hospitality and reflection (Boltizer et al., 2016). Hospitality is engaging with others in a welcoming manner. Reflection should involve individual self-awareness and awareness of others' identities and ideas. Inclusive strategies allow engagement with unique identities to develop a better understanding of the historical, social, political, and economic context from which individuals experience.

Inclusive Environment

An inclusive environment is one in which there is a sense of connectedness and belonging. Stembridge (2020) advises that a focus on building relationships can help develop or enhance inclusive practices. In The Art and Science of Teaching (2007), education researcher Robert Marzano highlights establishing and maintaining effective relationships with students. He suggests the following action steps: communicate care, concern, and cooperation; bring student interests into the content and personalize learning activities; engage in behaviors that communicate interest; use humor when appropriate; and monitor thoughts and feelings to project a sense of emotional objectivity. According to neurological research, connecting with students' lived experiences and tapping into their emotions are part of a foundation for improving learning (Eyler, 2018).

To develop respect and a sense of belonging in my courses at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), I created and implemented a model for communication and interactions focused on the social, emotional, and behavioral components of teaching and learning. I use the model as a foundation for discourse in face-to-face and online courses and email communications. When I created the model in 2016, I referred to the approach as DEEP. Since then, I have expanded the model to include a more explicit reference to equitable practices and social-emotional skills. I call the expanded version DEEPER learning. Strategies used in the classroom fit into one or more of the six themes outlined in the approach. Numerous years of experience, student feedback, and adapting strategies from colleagues, conferences, research, and workshops have contributed to these ideas. For example, some key ideas were adapted using information from organizations such as Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and Carol Dweck’s work regarding fixed and growth mindsets. (Refer to the resource list below.) Most of this model could apply to environments and contexts beyond the classroom.

Being explicit about my values of respecting diversity and inclusion establishes and reinforces a supportive climate. I introduce the basics of the model to students along with my course learner’s guide (syllabus) as a part of my teaching philosophy. When students are engaged in discourse or a topic that elicits difficult conversations, I revisit the model to reiterate expectations and rationale. When it comes to teachable moments, I am cognizant of how my social-emotional skills impact others. Thinking ahead to short- and long-term consequences of my message and message delivery helps shape how I approach teachable moments. The DEEPER learning approach aims to create a respectful environment where interactions and communications are inclusive, culturally sensitive, and adaptable to diversity.

Ineffective communication can make some interactions unpleasant and impact rapport, trust, respect, and engagement. One example is telling someone with a disability that they are brave or an inspiration without getting to know the person or knowing what they may or may not have accomplished beyond simply being present. Depending on the context, words typically meant to be complimentary have the potential to be patronizing. In a nine-minute TEDxSydney Talk, Stella Young described this type of interaction in I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much. Another example is how one shows interest when communicating. For some cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of confidence, truthfulness, attentiveness, or respect; for others, it is rude, flirtatious (Ren, 2014), or aggressive. There are various verbal and nonverbal cultural differences related to communication such as proximity, formal/informal, direct/indirect, and full/limited disclosure. Effective intercultural communication reduces misunderstandings, frustration, and misconceptions.

No one is perfect; mistakes will occur, and most communication and interactions are likely well-intended. Establishing and maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment is an ongoing process that requires continuous growth. The process involves a willingness to be curious; a growth mindset; and the ability to adapt to change, work through discomfort, acknowledge when one does not know, model good communication, and allow room for mistakes to hone practical intercultural skills.

In 110 Experiences for Multicultural Learning, multicultural psychology scholar Paul Pedersen (2004) offers a reflective self-assessment for multicultural awareness. Some of the questions are:

  • When your skills are limited or inappropriate, will you know enough to change?
  • Can you identify ways your cultural background might cause conflict with others?
  • Do you refer to others’ worldviews that are different from your own?
  • Are you able to tell when issues are related to cultural bias? (p. 103)

Students' current and future employers value intercultural skills. Employers highlighted some of these skills in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2021 report on employer views of higher education. Some attributes valued by more than half of employers surveyed were the ability to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds (53 percent) and the ability to work effectively in teams (62 percent) (Finley, 2021). Learning these skills is relevant to all disciplines and trades. In and out of the classrooms, an entire campus community is responsible for modeling and reinforcing desired competencies. An environment managed with inclusive practices can help to eliminate inaccurate assumptions and improve learning.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). SEL: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted?

Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Gullotta, T. P. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice. Guilford Press.


Balls Organista, P., Marin, G., & Chun, K. M. (2018). Multicultural psychology (2nd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.

Chávez, A. F., Longerbeam, S. D., & Chávez, A. F. (2016). Teaching across cultural strengths: A guide to balancing integrated and individuated cultural frameworks in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching (1st ed.). West Virginia University Press.

Finley, A. (2021). How college contributes to workforce success: Employer views on what matters most. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pedersen, P. B. (2004). 110 experiences for multicultural learning: A self-assessment of multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skill. American Psychological Association.

Ren, Z. (2014). Body language in different cultures. US-China Foreign Language, 12(12), 1029-1033.

Smith, K. R. (2016). Teaching and learning “respect” and “acceptance” in the classroom. In Faculty Focus, Diversity and inclusion in the college classroom. Magna Publications.

Stembridge, A. (2020). Culturally responsive education in the classroom: An equity framework for pedagogy. Routledge.

Thomas, C. (Ed.). (2014). Inclusive teaching: Presence in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Lead image: Diverse students at AACC share information with prospective students and parents, mentor current students, and assist with campus events and community service projects.

Kentina Smith, Ph.D., is Department Chair and Associate Professor, Psychology, at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.