June 27

Cultural differences in social work



With today’s Black Lives Matter movement, being aware of cultural differences in social work becomes more pertinent than ever. As a Singaporean, I studied my undergraduate degree for 3 years in the UK. I also worked in China and Peru in various voluntary organisations. Seeing the wide range of cultures in these different countries helped me to be more culturally aware.

I hope these tips can help you to manage cultural differences in social work better.

Ask if in doubt

I remember the first time I went to an English church in Nottingham. Everyone seemed so serious. There was little of the raising of hands that I used to see in Singapore. Was this part of the culture here? When you are in doubt, ask.

Asking if something is culturally appropriate is deeply respectful. When I was working in my last placement in a local authority, I remember my colleague respectfully asking me if drinking was part of my culture before she invited me to the hub.

I deeply appreciated that.

cultural differences in social work

Don’t think we are better, just different

When I went for a global social work conference in Dublin, I met some Singaporean social workers. I asked many questions about what social work was like. Why weren’t things done this way? Also, why didn’t we advocate more? And before you go… why didn’t we pay more attention to the homeless in Singapore?

But it was not until a social worker told me to stop comparing that I realised the futility of trying to find things that were wrong with the Singaporean welfare system.

Instead of accepting that we were different, I had gone in with the lens of the UK having a better social welfare system. This was not necessarily a good way to deal with cultural differences in social work.

Next time, instead of trying to compare cultures, just accept that each culture is unique.

That’s okay.

Listen to hear, not to understand, not to respond

As a social worker, I was always eager to have a witty response after a client had shared. Whether it be reframing the problem, offering a special insight, or giving a solution, I wanted to respond. I wasn’t there to hear.

But it was not until my last day of my placement that I realised how much listening mattered to our clients. ‘John, you listened. And that was so important. I felt listened to.’ I had been asking my client for feedback on the work that I had done with her. Her words showed me how listening was about being, and not necessarily fixing the problem.  

Listening is a key social work tool. It’s an indispensable tool that we can never leave our homes without.

More importantly, it’s about listening to hear, rather than respond.  

Be open

I once worked with a foreigner during my early months of my social work career. She had come from another country to marry a Singaporean man. I was surprised by her hospitality when she invited me to sing karaoke with her in the apartment.

I could have refused, saying that this was not something that I did as a Singaporean. Instead, I realised that being open would help her to feel accepted for her culture. Rather than making her feel like the odd one out, being open helped her to feel part of our Singaporean community.

Being open allows us to overcome cultural differences in social work. Great social workers have this key quality of being open.

Why? It prevents us from becoming closed to new ideas. Instead of asking ‘why’, we ask ‘Why not?’


Cultural differences in social work will always exist. It isn’t about managing them or overcoming them. Rather, it’s about accepting that this world, this society, this life, is not just about ‘me’. It’s about all of us.


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