Cultural Intelligence Paradox

Have you ever been abroad and asked for directions? Did the
person sometimes give directions that you KNEW were wrong or did they try to give directions eventhough it was evident they knew less than you did? This is because in their culture, it is more important to be helpful than to be accurate.
Vice versa, in London or New York, if you ask for directions, a person would think nothing of it to shake their heads and walk on or wave ‘no’, which can come across as being unwilling to assist. This is because they are from an individualistic context, where being factual and accurate is valued more than harmony. Although frustrating at the time, in a travel scenario like this we’re a little more atuned to others’ different way of doing things. In a professional or social environment at home, where we are required to work and live together for longer periods of time, interactions can be more challenging because things aren’t so black and white.

In an article for the, then, Commission for Racial Equality (now Commission fo Equality and Human Rights), I highlighted the likelihood of mixed race becoming more and more common but also that race is a social construct we created to categorise the world. In the biological sense, it’s become a redundant thing – people are shades of pinky-brown, blue-black, olivy-pink, etc. As a social construct it is still very powerful –for example, the impact of Obama’s election. Nonetheless, governments and Human Resources are finding it increasingly difficult to use that information sensibly – as more and more people will tick the box ‘other’… (van Meurs, 2007). Similarly, people nowadays may have dual nationality, or have lived somewhere outside their country of birth for a substantial time. It is almost bizarre that governments are increasingly obsessed with immigration because this mixing, for love or money, can’t be stopped.

That said, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. We’re taught how things are done from an early age and through a process of enculturation (formal and informal education) learn more to the point where it becomes a ‘truthful way’ and we are blind to alternatives.

In class, a group of Chinese students shared that they eat Europen food but with chop sticks. Then one day, I had to call them in as there was an overlap issue with their course work and I needed to know who wrote the original piece and who had copied. They replied that they tended to work together a lot as a group and didn’t care much about individual merit (collectivism) and the bravest of them told me shyly that they could never admit who in their team copy/pasted something (plagiarism). I explained that this meant they’d all risk getting a fail. I could tell from their expressions that they didn’t understand how I’d value the factual truth over maintaining face. I made what’s called a ‘rule based’ decision and their ‘why’ didn’t matter. Perhaps I should have considered a ‘consequence based’ decision if I wanted my teaching in cross cultural awareness to be effective and convincing.

We only see and hear the top of the ‘cultural iceberg’ – we don’t know what
drives behaviour unless we’ve learned through experience (bicultural individuals will be more naturally aware of this). The same goes for non-verbal behaviour such as dress, hand movements and personal distance and verbal behaviour such as communication style, laughter and use of silence. Again, it is impossible to know all of the detail, especially in a multicultural environment. Much misunderstanding can be avoided by just considering how what we communicate could be perceived.

In this time of fast-paced social communication, it pays to pause and be aware that the other will use their values as guiding principles in terms of how they interpret your behaviour. If we don’t want to be categorised and judged, we must consider that the same applies to others and, as confusing as this may seem, we’ll sometimes see them wanting to be part of a multi-cultural mix and sometimes identify themselves as part of a distinct group. We are multitudes.

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