The Olive Way E-Newsletter
The Importance of Cultural Intelligence
A few years ago, an incidence at a Montreal school made news and sparked protest in the Philippines. The Philippine Ambassador to Canada also issued a strong statement of concern. In that school, A seven-year-old boy from the Philippines was punished for his eating habits: eating with a spoon and a fork. He was ridiculed by his schoolmates and teacher. They called him “stupid”, and his eating habits “disgusting”. The boy was depressed and did not want to go back any more.
In Southeast Asia, people eat with a spoon and a fork when eating oriental food from a plate. There is nothing to cut, so there is no need for a knife. With the help of a fork, one can easily get food to the spoon and there is no worry that things will be falling through the cracks of a fork, causing disappointment as it reaches the mouth. Very smart, isn’t it? But such a common practice in Southeast Asia all of sudden became “abnormal” in the eyes of this teacher and deserved rectification and discipline. Had the teacher had this knowledge, or even the slightest sensitivity to culture, she would probably have behaved differently.
The world around us is very multicultural. In many places, it has become a daily reality that we interact with people of other ethnic backgrounds. They have different values, norms and practices of things from our own. Being culturally intelligent could help avoid hurt, embarrassment, misunderstanding and relationship damage. Within an organization, cultural knowledge and awareness among staff will lead to a more effective and productive multicultural team. For a global business, knowing the culture in which business is operating is critical to winning contracts and staying profitable.
The following practical tips can make you a more confident and effective cross-cultural communicator, thus benefitting you, your team and your business:
· There are no right or wrong cultures, but only different ones. Do not use your own culture as a benchmark and make judgement of another culture. At a recent press conference, Chinese foreign minister used a vivid analogy. He said that he liked both oil painting and ink-and-wash painting, and that it was not appropriate to use the criteria for one to critique the other.
· Get knowledgeable about other cultures. You can achieve this through many means. For example, you can attend a cross-cultural communication class, participate in an cultural event, travel, watch a TV program on a particular country/culture, read history books, learn a foreign language, or/and make a multicultural circle of friends and learn from them.
· Learn to be culturally sensitive. Never assume things. Remain curious, but ask questions appropriate to the occasion and ask them in an appropriate way. Sometimes a seemingly simple and innocent question like “where are you from” can cause discomfort to some people. Use common sense and your cultural knowledge to make a judgement call, and engage others in conversation in a sincere way. You may have your answer without even asking it.
· Be open to adapt your perspectives when interacting with people from other cultures. Do not transfer aspects of their cultures to your own frame of reference. Look at things from their perspectives and much of what does not appear to make sense would do.
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