Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why cultural literacy doesn't really help

I've noticed during consulting with several organizations and through a few recent articles that cultural intelligence (CQ) is confused with cultural literacy or intercultural sensitivity. There is a huge missed opportunity here for organizations to improve!

In short, most organizations -- from businesses to humanitarian groups -- that do cross-cultural work seem to have little in the way of structures for educating people before their assignments or debriefing them upon return. But even if every employee with an intercultural role was forced to read my favorite book on the topic (the Art of Crossing Cultures by Storti), or even if the tactics of training and debriefing were done, I'm not sure we'd be better off. Why?

Business people and even humanitarian leaders (who often work on the same principles of delivering goods/services and reducing costs) are missing a foundational truth. In the words of David Hoopes from a 1981 article:
"The critical element in the expansion of intercultural learning is not the fullness with which one knows each culture, but the degree to which the process of cross-cultural learning, communication and human relations [has] been mastered."

In other words, cultural literacy (knowing how a people group eats, sits, etc.) or even intercultural sensitivity (being open to the differences in how people live) is not enough. A good debriefing, for example, shouldn't just measure the knowledge about a new culture. Instead it must assess whether the person is clearly pursuing a cultural learning process which will lead to correct conclusions.

The key is cultural intelligence (CQ) which is embracing the process that allows you to quickly enter any culture and learn accurately what is happening and then adapt. Some others call this intercultural competence or ethnorelativism, but I like CQ better.

A red flag that CQ isn't understood? People comment on the behaviors they see or don't see in another place without asking what motivates this behavior. Or people only talk about the similarities between cultures (i.e. "they love children just like we do"). This African case study caught my attention recently. A classic example of when people think they can blend in but don't realize they are viewed as fundamentally different by the host culture. CQ was low even though specific cultural knowledge was high.

By the way, I'm assuming people see the benefits for pursuing CQ so won't discuss it today, but I continue to discover how it clearly leads to, among other things, savings in money and time due to contracts being signed sooner, deadlines having common agreement, and high-quality deliverables being achieved. Not to mention there is less mental stress!

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