Two Cultures Meet
My husband, a high school English teacher, shared with me about a meeting not long ago he had where his cross-cultural understanding really did make a difference.
It was a 504 plan for a non-native English speaker who was struggling in one of his classes due to a disability.
This student’s ethnic background is Middle Eastern.
The meeting was called and the concerned mother arrived, well covered from head to toe and wearing a hijab, or a head covering.
My husband bowed cordially and remained at a respectful distance.
His well-meaning and energetic vice principal darted forward, introducing himself and putting out his hand to shake hers.
“I’m sorry, but in our religion, we don’t shake hands like that.” (Translate: Conservative Muslim women do not have any physical contact with men outside of their immediate family.)
The vice principal gathered himself and apologized, and the meeting went on after the initial faux pas.
My husband learned the same lesson almost a dozen years ago.
Air Hugs are Great, Too!
We became close to a dear Omani friend, Nameera. We spent so much time together and she became like a member of our family.
When it came her time to leave, we took her and two gigantic suitcases to the airport.
I embraced her long and hard. “This is the tough moment,” I thought.
When it came time for my husband to say goodbye, Nameera spoke from her heart. “Dale, I so want to hug you, but I cannot, you know.” They proceeded to give air hugs, but the warmth that transferred even through the air was palpable.
So, back to our initial question. Why should you care about understanding and connecting well with other cultures? What are some reasons? But even before that, what do we actually mean when we use that word culture?
“Culture is one of those words, like 'love' and 'nature,' that a human being just inherently understands, but, at the same time, cannot define fully,” one friend told me. “It is part of our DNA as human beings.”
True. Evidence shows that people have been making and creating culture since the dawn of time. Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, defines culture as “the fruit of the human quest for meaning in the world.”
While we could be talking about the arts, here we define culture as “the beliefs, values and customs of a particular society, group, place or time.”
Scholars Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne developed the terms "Cultural Intelligence" and "Cultural Quotient" (CQ) as a researched-based way of measuring and predicting intercultural performance. In simplest terms, the way people interact with people from other cultural groups. (Note: This can be extended to racial and ethnic groups, and even socioeconomic groups, in its broadest interpretation.)
One of my favorite authors on the subject, David Livermore, has this to say in his book, Leading Across Cultures: "Cultural Intelligence is the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures." He goes on to emphasize, this ability is something almost anyone can master, with the will and intention.
But the question remains, why does it even matter for us to be able to understand and connect with people of other cultures well?
Seven Good Reasons
(1) We do it all the time.
If you interact with people – anybody – you are interacting with a different culture. Everyone brings their background family culture – good or bad – into their adult life. Be intentional as you interact with others. Your words matter, but across all cultures, actions still have the final say.
(2) We can no longer afford to lead sheltered lives.
Remaining in our own little cultural enclaves, sticking only with people who are just like us, just doesn’t work anymore.
Our world, workplaces and all our spheres of influence demand a new understanding. This is why developing our Cultural Intelligence (CQ) matters. Strong CQ should be our 21st century mindset!
(3) Making an effort to understand others communicates respect.
This is one of our most compelling reasons. Everyone wants to feel respected. Even trying to understand just a bit of another person’s life, language, culture, background and perspective can go a long way towards esteeming them.
Indeed, this respect speaks volumes towards creating and strengthening bonds of peace. Building cross-cultural awareness is like building muscle; it takes time and requires effort. But the rewards are great.
Some time ago I devoted four months to an intensive culture study curriculum with almost 20 women from 12 different cultural backgrounds. Each one of these ladies was enthusiastic to meet with me and share about their lives.
“I learned so much about myself through your questions.”
“I realized that we see more things the same than we do differently.”
“It has meant so much that you’d want to know what my perspective is.”
(4) Your attitude toward the ‘other’ does have influence.
You may not be a UN negotiator, but how you think about and treat others different from you carries weight. For better or for worse. We tend to think that it is only people in the headlines that have influence. Not so. What do you want to be remembered as – a peacemaker or a peace breaker?
(5) If you have children, they are watching you.
Though a cliché, it’s worth repeating here: Values are caught, not taught. If you communicate prejudice towards “the other” in any way, your kids will learn to do the same.
(6) Our world is in desperate need for people who are bridge builders across cultures.
Tackle ethnocentricity – a fancy word for the natural inclination of all humans to think that their way of viewing and living life is the best way.
Appreciate more the incredible creative diversity inherent in the mind of a limitless Creator. Seek for a better way.
(7) Recognize having an intentional peacemaking mindset across cultures matters because it changes hearts.
One Pakistani friend told me, “Before I came to the U.S., I thought that Americans didn’t really care about us. But my involvement with [our local] International Wives Connection has changed my opinion 180 degrees. As a result, I met so many Americans – and friends from other lands – who really care about me!”
Ultimately, I believe it is changed hearts – much more than UN negotiations – that change our world for good.
The world desperately needs your voice. Share with us how you’re pumping up your CQ muscle and making an impact!
Can you think of other reasons why developing strong CQ matters? Share them with us here!
Image Credit: depositphotos