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Developing Cultural Intelligence (CQ): Learning To Navigate Our Human Differences

Updated: Jul 5

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What is your "Culture Quotient"? How skilled are you at shifting your perspective and adapting your behavior when dealing with people who are different from you? What is culture, anyways, and why should you care about it in the first place?

Simply put, culture is human nature - no human is without it and it drives who we are and what we do on a daily basis. We humans are born with only a handful of innate abilities - things like sucking, grasping, and "stepping" our baby feet when we are held up. Everything else we think, say, and do, we must first learn, and all that we learn - we learn via culture. Understanding culture in general -- and your own cultural identity in particular -- gives you vast and valuable insight into who you are and how you operate. If I could choose one action that would be the most impactful to my success and happiness as a person, I would choose to know myself better, following the ancient Greek maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: "know thyself." Understanding our own cultural identity is a key aspect of knowing ourselves.

What exactly is culture, then? Social scientists have been bickering over the definition of culture since the 1800s, but we can understand culture simply as the human behavioral operating system. Culture is not a physical entity, rather, it is a process of human being and doing, the result of the interaction between our inner and outer worlds. Inside us are our beliefs and values, or what makes who we are. We can think of this as our being. Outside us is the doing, or our words and actions. Culture is the term we use to describe the interaction of the being and doing, specifically, the way that the being drives the doing.

Think about the contexts in which you have grown up, lived, studied, played, and worked. The nation, region, city, school, type of family, profession, religion, or even the race or gender we belong to are all communities that, due to shared influences and common experiences, have shared values, customs, and behaviors. The key dynamic to pay attention to for understanding culture is the specific way that values are expreased via behaviors. For example, we might have learned to express a value of respect for others by proactively shaking their hand, or, we may have been taught that respect means to wait for the other person to approach you first. There are as many different ways to express respect as there are different cultures. Your cultural identity is a complex, ever-evolving intersection of values expressed via specific behaviors, that you learned in specific communities.

Understanding your own cultural self is a powerful practice not only for self-knowdge but for relationships as well. Since different cultures can express the same value via different behaviors, knowing someone's values alone does not not allow you to accurately predit their behavior, likewise observing someone's behavior out of context tells you very little about their values. On top of that, most of us tend to interpret what other people do through our own cultural lens, often while believing we being neutral. This is another reason why understanding our own cultural lens is so important - so we can be clued into how that lens colors our view of other people. Observing someone's behavior without the context of their values is like looking at the tip of an iceberg. Just like an iceberg, the visible part of culture -- the doing -- is not even half the picture. To understand the full picture requires diving deep to explore the vast area below the waterline that shapes the part of the iceberg we see: the values, beliefs, and worldviews that influence the behavior.

The cultural iceberg diagram from Edward T. Hall, showing an iceberg sticking out of the water, the tip representing the visible aspect of culture (behavior) and the part of the iceberg that is below the waterline representing the invisible part of culture (the values and beliefs).
Edward T. Hall's Cultural Iceberg

Cultural Competence Defined: Each of us has our own unique cultural iceberg, with behavior that is visible to others and hidden, inner values that drive our behavior. We learn our specific combinations of behaviorally expressed values in communities of origin, so we tend to share patterns of culture with those who come from the same communities as us. Cultural competence, also known as cultural intelligence or CQ, is the ability to shift behavior and adapt perspective when confronted with people from different cultural communities. In these situations, values could differ, and/or the same value could be expressed through divergent behaviors. Cultural competence goes beyond mere awareness and appreciation of such differences and involves actively seeking to understand, engage with, and adapt to them. Culturally competent individuals have deliberately cultivated the skill of stepping outside of their received ideas about what is "normal" in any given context, which always starts with the recognition that these norms are not universal. Culturally competent people are able to identify their own cultural biases, suspend judgment, and adapt their communication and behaviors to foster meaningful connections across differences.

The Importance of Cultural Competence: Cultural competence has become an invaluable skill in both personal and professional spheres. Cultural competence helps us to foster inclusivity, strengthen relationships, and harness the power of diversity in any context. Culturally competent individuals are better equipped to overcome barriers, bridge differences, and build collaborative environments where everyone's voices and contributions are valued.

Developing cultural competence is a lifelong journey that requires a genuine willingness to learn, unlearn, and grow. Here are four key strategies to build cultural intelligence:

  1. Self-Reflection: Begin by examining your own cultural background, values, biases, and assumptions. What behaviors typically bring these values to life in your communities of origin? Understanding your own cultural lens will help you see how that lens influences your perceptions of other people. For example, if you have been taught that to be a "good worker" one needs to stay late at the office, you might judge a co-worker who leaves early as a slacker or lazy if you only rely on what you see. Practice recognizing when you are judging someone else by either a behavior you observe (without knowing the context) or by assuming they have a particular value based on some visible aspect of their identity. For example, do you judge coworkers in a particular way because they are late (or early)? What values have you learned about time and how do you express these values via specific behavior? OR, do you "judge a book by its cover," assuming people have certain characteristics because of the way they look? What have you learned about these characteristics in your various communities of origin?

  2. Knowledge Acquisition: There are innumerable resources to learn about culture, both the concept and how culture functions (this is called "culture general" knowledge) and particular cultures (the values and behaviors of specific communities - this is called "culture specific" knowledge). This can involve immersion, reading, going to museums, travel, or engaging in meaningful conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds.

  3. Empathetic Listening: In all situations, practice the art of listening to understand rather than to respond. Make an active effort to suspend judgment while you seek to understand their perspectives, experiences, and challenges. Validate the feelings and opinions of those you are speaking to, even if they differ from your own.

  4. Flexibility and Adaptability: Embrace flexibility in your behaviors, communication styles, and problem-solving approaches when interacting with individuals from different cultures. Recognize that there are multiple valid ways of perceiving and approaching the world, and recognize when you are stuck in the conviction that there is only one right answer.

Building cultural intelligence or CQ is essential for navigating our diverse and interconnected world. By cultivating cultural competence, we can bridge cultural divides, foster inclusivity, and forge meaningful connections with people from all walks of life. The ironic thing about cultural intelligence is that even though we automatically learn our intersecting, complex culture as we grow up, we do NOT automatically become culturally competent. Cultural competence is not something we are born with, or something we absorh or "pick up" from being in diverse environments. Rather, it is a skill that must be developed deliberately. These four tips will gst you started and take you a long way.


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