Interviewing Clients Across Culture

Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD

Course Outline

The interview is a crucial tool for gathering information about a new client, building a strong working relationship, and guiding decision making for interventions. Yet barriers created by cultural differences all too frequently get in the way of these important goals. From leading practitioner and educator Lisa Aronson Fontes, this indispensable guide helps professionals conduct competent, productive interviews with clients from any cultural or linguistic background.

Packed with practical pointers, chapters walk the reader through each stage of a cross-cultural interview, from preparing before the meeting to writing a fair, accurate report at its conclusion. Diverse client populations and interview contexts are reflected in numerous case examples that bring to life a wide variety of problems and solutions. Fontes draws on extensive real-world experience to present clear-cut guidelines and strategies for:

  • Building rapport and putting individuals and families at ease
  • Sending welcoming, respectful nonverbal cues
  • Recognizing and overcoming one’s own cultural biases
  • Minimizing language barriers, including effective use of interpreters
  • Taking culture into account in child and adolescent assessments
  • Steering clear of the most common pitfalls in cross-cultural interviews

The book also explores cultural reasons why a client may be reluctant to confide in an interviewer or to discuss certain topics, and offers tips for handling sensitive matters. Every chapter concludes with thought-provoking discussion questions and suggestions for further reading.

Highly readable and engaging, this book provides invaluable knowledge and skills for professionals who interact with clients in mental health, human service, educational and forensic settings. It is an ideal text and professional development resource for graduate students and practitioners in clinical psychology, social work, counseling, family therapy, psychiatry, nursing, and related fields.

About Authors

Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, is a Core Faculty Member in the PsyD Program in Clinical Psychology at Union Institute and University in Brattleboro, Vermont. She has dedicated almost two decades to making a social service, mental health, criminal justice, and medical systems more responsive to culturally diverse people. Dr. Fontes editedSexual Abuse in the Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention, authored Child Abuse and Culture: Working with Diverse Families, and has written numerous journal articles and book chapters on cultural issue in child maltreatment and violence against women, cross-cultural research, and ethics. She has worked as a family, individual, and group psychotherapist, and has conducted research in Santiago, Chile, and with Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and European Americans in the United States. 

In 2007 Dr. Fontes was awarded a Fulbright Foundation Fellowship, which she completed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she is a popular conference speaking and workshop facilitator.

Learning Objectives

After completing this course you’ll be able to:

  1. State the purpose of the interview.
  2. List the three realities by which interviews are driven.
  3. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having additional people in an interview.
  4. List several steps to observe when interviewing in people’s homes.
  5. List harmful cultural practices common to Western industrialized nations.
  6. List several characteristics to consider in assessing acculturation (figure 2.1).
  7. Define traditionalism, transitional period, marginality, assimilation, and biculturalism.
  8. Compare blended identity and alternation.
  9. Define dissonant acculturation.
  10. Describe the various types of biases.
  11. Discuss the special connections in developing countries and Eastern Europe.
  12. Discuss “attending behaviors.”
  13. Define shame.
  14. Discuss the pace of an interview.
  15. Describe the following types of questions: grand tour, hypothetical, presupposing questions, categorizing questions, and controversial questions.
  16. Define narrative training and free narrative.
  17. List the four functions of nonverbal communication.
  18. Discuss posture and what it reveals.
  19. Compare the walk of Chinese and Caucasian women.
  20. Describe the “knowing glance.”
  21. Describe interpersonal distances as described by Hall.
  22. Define functional bilinguals, compound bilinguals, and coordinate bilinguals.
  23. Describe the “detachment effect” experienced by bilinguals.
  24. Discuss the Executive Order signed by Bill Clinton, August 11, 2000.
  25. Describe the four options for conducting interviews with people whose native language is not English.
  26. Discuss the function of interpreters.
  27. List several reasons not to use an untrained interpreter.
  28. Define a translator,
  29. State the interpreters job during an interview.
  30. Compare simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.
  31. Describe how information is owned collectively rather than individually.
  32. Describe the use of alcohol and drugs in various communities.
  33. Discuss repercussions of substance abuse by people who are not citizens.
  34. State the best methods when inquiring about physical abuse of a child.
  35. List several reasons for sexual assaults.
  36. Discuss methods of increasing your own comfort with sensitive topics.
  37. Compare interviewing children with adults.
  38. Describe the ecological assessment system.
  39. Discuss the adolescent phase in various cultures.
  40. Define affect, labile, flat, and inappropriate to content.
  41. Discuss secondary audiences in regard to use of interview reports.
  42. Discuss recommendations from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001).
  43. Discuss how to make recommendations.
  44. Compare the view of social workers among low-income and upper-middle-class people.
  45. Discuss the bias of diagnosing mental health conditions across cultures, as researched by Del Bello, 2002.
  46. State the goal of First Nations Justice.
  47. Describe the Tuskegee experiments.
  48. Define ethnocentrism.
  49. Define “fictive kin.”
  50. Describe a linear sense of time.
  51. Define “magical thinking.”

Course Contents

1. A Guide to Interviewing Across Cultures
  • A Multicultural Framework
  • How Interviews Differ from Other Kinds of Conversations
  • Orientation to This Book
  • Cultural Competence Is an Ethical Issue
  • Case Examples: Cross-Cultural Interviews that Crashed
  • Concluding Observations
2. Preparing for the Interview
  • Prior Information
  • What Else Do We Need to Prepare?
  • Handling Initial Paperwork
  • Deciding Whom to Interview
  • Setting for the Interview
  • Respecting Value, Negotiating Meanings, and Avoiding Professional Ethnocentrism
  • Who is Coming to See Me?: Background Cultural Information
  • Assessing Culture and Acculturation
  • Concluding Observations
3. Biases and Boundary Issues
  • Biases
  • Unbiased Observing
  • Special Connections and Boundary Issues
  • Ethnic Matching
  • Working with Someone from the “Same” Culture
  • Self-Disclosure
  • Bribes and Gifts
  • Maintaining Boundaries in Crisis Situations
  • Concluding Observations
4. Setting the Right Tone
  • Demeanor
  • Giving Full Attention and Taking Notes
  • Conveying Respect
  • Counteracting Shame
  • Voice Quality, Tone, Speed, and Volume
  • Pace and Time
  • Joining with All Members of the Family
  • What’s in a Name?: Addressing People Appropriately
  • Professional Titles
  • Saving and Losing Face
  • Questions Also Set the Tone
  • Concluding Observations
5. Beyond Words
  • The Nonverbal World
  • Gestures
  • Greeting and Leave Taking
  • Showing Attentiveness
  • Posture
  • Gait
  • Communicating with the Eyes
  • Expressing Emotions
  • Expressing Pain and Distress
  • Touch
  • Smiling and Laughing
  • Communicating about Communicating
  • Nonverbal Signs of Disagreement and Agreement
  • Clothing
  • Tattoos, Piercings, and Other Forms of Body Modification
  • Concluding Observations
6. Language Competence
  • Attitude of Humility and Support
  • Trying to Remember
  • Language and Memory in People Who are Bilingual
  • Language and Personality
  • Language and Abstractions
  • Language and Emotion
  • Operationalizing Language Competence: U.S. Guidelines and Requirements
  • Documents in Diverse Languages
  • Language Preference
  • Choosing a Language for the Interview
  • Alternative Forms of English
  • Concluding Observations
7. The Interpreted Interview
  • The Interpreter’s Power
  • When to Use an Interpreter
  • Finding an Interpreter
  • Informal Interpreters
  • Preparing Interpreters
  • Cultural Asides and Other Reasons to Pause an Interview
  • The Interpreter’s Role
  • The Interpreted Conversation
  • Interpreter Vulnerabilities
  • Concluding Observations
8. Understanding and Addressing Reluctance to Divulge Information
  • Attitudes Toward Speaking Out
  • Silence
  • Who Owns Information?
  • Airing Secrets and Conflicts
  • Taboo Topics
  • Substance Abuse
  • Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Sexual Assault
  • Interviewer Strategies for Addressing Reluctance and Silence
  • Improving Our Own Comfort with Difficult Topics
  • Concluding Observations
9. Interviewing Culturally Diverse Children and Adolescents
  • Special Issues in Interviewing Children
  • Living in Two Worlds
  • Behavioral Observations with Cultural Minority Children
  • Using Assessment Instruments with Cultural Minority Youth and Families
  • Special Issues in Interviewing Adolescents
  • Concluding Observations
10. Interview Reports and Documents
  • Recording Behavioral Observations or Presentation
  • Reporting the Interviewee’s Attitude, Demeanor, and Affect
  • Taking Notes
  • The Audience for Your Report
  • Notational Bias
  • Word Choice
  • Referring to Race, Ethnicity, and Other Identity Groups
  • Giving Your Opinion
  • Your Voice and Choices Around It
  • Cultural Formulation
  • Contributing Factors
  • Recommendations and Prognoses
  • Making Oral Reports
  • Concluding Observations
11. Authority and Trust Issues for Specific Professions
  • Social Work
  • Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Professions
  • Mental Health Clinicians
  • Law Enforcement
  • Educators
  • Attorneys
  • Researchers
  • Potential Employers in the Helping Professions
  • Women’s Crisis Workers
  • Concluding Observations
12. Common Dilemmas and Misunderstandings in Cross-Cultural Interviews
  • Gathering Basic Demographic Information
  • Truth, Lies, and Immigration
  • Promptness and Alternatives
  • Asking People Directly about Their Backgrounds
  • When Your Competence or Appropriateness is Questioned
  • Crossing the Class Divide
  • The Multiple Meanings of “Yes”
  • Magical Thinking
  • The Meaning of Dreams
  • Concluding Observations

Customer Comments

“Absolutely excellent. Every question answered with practical examples and information in a conversational style that was easy to understand without being patronizing or condescending and keeping true to the excellent research. BRAVO!” –– C.Kries, MFT, CA

 “This book is a ‘must read.’… It is important, accessible, and filled with lively case examples. I recommend this book as required for graduate and undergraduate courses and for professionals who work with clients or carry out research in any mental health or human service setting.” — Sandra A. Graham-Bermann, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan

“This work is an essential addition to the library of professionals who conduct nearly any kind of interview. Its careful strategies for respecting and negotiating so many different aspects of cross-cultural interactions are invaluable. Fontes’s reputation in the field is top-notch, and with this book she provides the best, most current interviewing guide I have seen.” — Sharon W. Cooper, MD, FAAP, Department of Pediatrics, University of North Carolina School of Medicine

“No matter what your professional training and background, you will benefit enormously from the rich material and interesting examples in this book. I highly recommend it as a course text for teaching students to conduct a sensitive, effective, and culturally informed interview with clients from all walks of life.” — David A. Wolfe, Ph, Director, Centre for Prevention Science, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, University of Toronto

“This extremely helpful and instructive book has amazing breadth and depth in analyzing the interview process from beginning to end. Fontes provides guidance on all aspects of preparing for, conducting, and documenting interviews, interweaving culturally issues throughout. She shows tremendous sensitivity and good sense in helping readers handle cultural differences and dilemmas.” — Stanley Sue, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis

“Today, helping professionals must think globally; we need tools to interview and assess racially, ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse clients. Fontes’s book is timely and informative. Drawing on the research and practice literature, her personal experience, and that of other professionals who provide culturally sensitive services, she offers much-needed, practical advice.” — Kathleen Coulborn Faller, PhD, ACSW, Director, Family Assessment Clinical, School of Social Work, University of Michigan