Becoming "culture smart"

How great would it be if we could travel the world like a Bourdain, from Mexico to Paris, Japan to Italy, exploring new cultures, meeting interesting strangers and having open discussions like complete rockstars? It's certainly something we aspire to. Yet, we're very conscious that mastering the level of cultural intelligence that such lifestyle requires takes some serious discipline.

Learning to switch between different cultural environments takes time and constant exposure to a variety of social scenarios outside of our comfort zone. This is what experts call "cultural intelligence" and it's a great skill to nurture. Those who cultivate such adaptive skills are particularly successful at navigating diverse ideas, values, and social or business challenges.

More than learning a new language, cultural intelligence is about developing a unique sensibility and appreciation for what's different. In his article Cultural Chameleons Blend in by Showing True Colors, Winston Sieck explains that cultural intelligence is more commonly seen in people who have a natural curiosity in the "little things" and practical details about a culture.

"Those high in cultural intelligence tend to learn scraps of the language, history, and other facts prior to departure. They then use those facts to show their interest in the culture," says Seick. "This helps them to build social relationships, which then opens avenues for further learning." 

This is not a skill that could more easily be developed by extroverted types or people who travel frequently either. Cultural intelligence can be cultivated by anyone who wants to gain a deeper cultural understanding of a community. Seick explains that cultural immersion is achievable when it becomes personal and interest-based.

"These cultural chameleons are not all trying to learn the same things according to some theory about what's important. Instead, the research indicated that those high in cultural intelligence tend to follow their own personal interests when delving into a new culture for the first time. Whether that interest is art, language, history, religion, technology, or sports seems to matter less than the topic being of real interest to the sojourner."

The concept of cultural intelligence is nothing new, of course. In fact, both business and government have recognized the value of the "cultural quotient" for many years. Soldiers, for example, are expected to develop their cultural intelligence when sent abroad in order to gain appreciation, trust, and acceptance in a foreign country. Executives who travel to Japan or US marketers who are targeting an increasingly multicultural audience are also expected to have a great deal of cultural understanding.

Why does cultural intelligence matter?

Particularly in the United States, given the current multicultural panorama, learning to adapt and feel comfortable within diversity has become a necessity. As first-generation immigrants to this country, Nabol and I agree with the notion that the US is more of a tossed salad than a melting pot. There are a lot of silos and a lot of fear, and not many people are taking advantage of the great benefits and opportunities that come with diversity.

And it's not just a matter of race or nationality. Within this cultural mix, we also have people with different lifestyles, academic and economic status. These are our neighbors, our co-workers, our clients, and yet, we don't always go out of our way to learn more about each other. We tend to interact and make decisions under a lot of assumptions, which is very dangerous and counterproductive to everybody. Businesses will lose money; communities grow segregated, with large chunks of population misrepresented. 

How great would it be, then, if we would all be encouraged to nurture our cultural knowledge? We don't even have to travel far away to interact and learn from new cultures—that's the beauty of it. We are all right here in this wonderfully diverse country.

Need to know where to start? Here are some ideas…

Learn about your personal interests in a different way. If you are a music fan, expand your music knowledge by learning about what others are listening to. Take time to read the lyrics or ask people about what they mean—Google translate if you need to! And make it your new thing. Do the same if you are into literature, sports, fashion, politics or design.

Make an effort to learn more about the people in your community. People watching at the park is a wonderful thing. Listen to other people's conversations. Participate in local discussions or events. Invite people for coffee. (I know it takes a lot of courage, but I guarantee you it's the best thing I got out of J-School.)

Pair up with interesting people at work. Now that companies are more concerned with diversifying the workforce, take advantage by discussing your ideas with people who have different backgrounds. Try to understand their reasoning behind things and ask lots of questions. Although sometimes minorities could be a bit intimidated about opening up, I guarantee you that it is greatly appreciated when others make an effort to hear them out.

Engage in cultural activities and visit ethnic neighborhoods. Have you ever crashed an event at a German club? It's so much fun! Cultural events are the best way to connect with new people. You can also check out the local markets or purchase authentic ingredients at specialty groceries. Ethnic restaurants and festivals are great too! 

Learn more about yourself. Our family history and our personal evolution play a big part in who we are. Take time to investigate where your grandparents came from and think about all the places you've lived and how they have changed you. Think about how your lifestyle and personal beliefs have evolved. Then, compare it with the world around you.

Developing our cultural intelligence will not only help us think differently, but it will keep us grounded. This journey should not be bothersome, but rather a fun opportunity to grow and learn from others and from ourselves. As you become adaptable to your diverse environment, you will develop tolerance and an honest attachment to the things that matter, which is something that we are continuously losing as a country. Only if we are able to work and understand our differences, we will be able to move forward and make better, honest decisions for a brighter future.

Photos: 1. Japanese Festival in Arlington Hights, 2. At a beer garden in Hanau, Germany, 3. Nabol and renowned Spanish Chef Antonio Cosmen "El Antibulli" in Madrid, Chicago's Devon Avenue, Maria at Rainy Day Anime in Colorado Springs, Chicago's Chinatown. 

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