28 February 2019

Cultural Intelligence by Rafael Carvajal

Cultural Intelligence by Rafael Carvajal.


When talking about cultural intelligence, it is important to know what we mean by culture and what we mean by intelligence.  It is necessary to have a clear picture of those two words, to be able to argue if such a thing exists and if it is recommendable. The words, and the concept they create together, seem to be self-evident; however, it is these seemingly simple ideas which tend to create the most confusion, so it would be useful if I define what these terms mean to me.

By culture I understand a very common human endeavor: to regulate the day to day affairs so as to create an appearance of continuity and discipline in what in reality is a mostly chaotic existence. I am speaking of the meaning of “culture” which encompasses human behavior and not the other meaning which has to do with knowledge and artistic aspirations. This “culture” is what decides which actions are appropriate at a given time and which are taboo or despicable. They are set by tradition and passed on from one generation to another in the home and in the schools. They tend to have geographical boundaries, although within a geographical area, there can exist many “cultures” due to religious, economic, idiosyncratic and many other factors like for example migrations. In any case, a “culture” is born when a group of people determine a set of behaviors which they consider exemplify the proper nature of their group conscience and decide to abide by those tenants. Anything outside of those pre-established patterns would be seen as noxious and reprehensible and would be discouraged and punished.

Intelligence is a pregnant word. Everybody thinks they nurture it at their bosom and almost no one will admit to lack its attributes. I think that to understand its nature, it is necessary to see that it has a double edge: knowledge and ability. A person who has accumulated a wide store of information in his lifetime, who has taken the time to know things, either in a singular on in limited fields, or in a plethora of different subject matters, can be said to possess intelligence, if they can apply the things they know to take advantage of the situations that arise in their life. There is also an innate capacity to solve previously unknown problems that some people evidence to a greater extent than others, much as that damages the democratic ideal that we are all equal. Like the pigs in “Animal farm,” some humans are more equal than others. So I would consider intelligence as the ability to solve problems effectively either by relating them to previously known information or by a built in facility to create innovative solutions.

If these previous definitions are accepted, then we could begin to see what could be meant by cultural intelligence and if it is important and desirable. We live in a world which is made small by the information technology, by the facility to travel and by the nature of our global economy. In our time, different “cultures” become aware of each other to an extent that had never been true before and, with much more frequency than ever, individuals and groups are faced with the task of interacting with individuals and groups of alien “cultures.” What is the “intelligent” way to face those challenges?

When deciding what is the “intelligent” approach to a culture difference, the most important factor to consider is the power relation between the two positions. An immigrant who arrives at a foreign country to work is in most cases defenseless against the cultural reality of their host country. In any case, they might have access to small population of compatriots with whom to maintain his cultural ties, but in his workplace and in the majority of his day to day affairs, they will be immersed in a culture which will differ greatly from their own, and it would be prudent and “intelligent” to learn to make the adjustments necessary to stand out as little as possible, given the retaliatory nature of the human nature against those who are perceived as different. The sooner an immigrant learns to assume, or at least feign to assume, the unwritten laws of this culture which is new to them, the sooner they will reap the benefits with which a culture rewards those who adhere to its designs.

The same can be said of a company who wishes to do business in another country with another culture. It behooves the investor to know the cultural nuances of the place where they want to invest their money. It is not feasible nor profitable to try to impose cultural values on would be customers; the people simply will reject the product or the marketing campaign and will not buy. The foreign investor needs to nurture the beliefs of their clients, if they want to achieve financial success. Money does not have an intrinsic culture, it is tabula rasa, someone who wants to increase their profits abroad, needs to forgo his cultural biases in favor of the targeted countries ones, or prepare to fail.

However, it is not always intelligent to acquiesce. The new global reality presents humanity with a cultural crossroad which is unparalleled and rife with possibilities. For the first time in history we are presented with the opportunity to compare and contrast the world’s cultures in a way that had never been available before. The most “intelligent” option would be to measure the different ways that human populations have resolved the problems of living, and choose the ones which are more attractive, feasible or expedite solutions best. We are no longer doomed to wear the cultural straitjacket we were born to; we can shop around for a tailor made culture. Knowing that almost all of the features of a culture are random instead of intrinsic, an individual can fashion their own set of values mirroring or mutating that that they see in their computer screen, in their television or in the movie theaters or other hot points of our globalized culture. Nobody is dumb to the colonization of the world by the information glut, and now is the time to take advantage of the mass culture to construct happier more satisfying lives.

Cultural intelligence is just a matter of weighing your options: knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. Sometimes the only choice is to give in to the dominant reality, but the possibility also exists of creating an individual cultural construct that satisfies you and the people that surround you. It is an eerie and exciting time, this 21st century, where the greatest evils and the greatest goods co-exist and Paradise and Armageddon are almost equally possible. 

Rafael Carvajal.

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