01 March 2019

Cultural Intelligence by Lawrence

Cultural Intelligence by Lawrence

Andrew Nagorski in his book, The Greatest Battle (2007), reported that Winston Churchill said to his personal secretary before Operation Barbarossa, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” With neo-liberal globalisation and mass culture by “Hollywood” I feel obliged to make a favourable reference to behaviourism in the context of Cultural Intelligence.

But first, Cultural Intelligence (cultural quotient) is an academic discipline and the remit is to study how people from different cultures interact with each other and how successful their endeavours can be. An element of the discipline includes an IQ style assessment of candidates. The discipline is used by governments, including the military, and in business and education in their global operations. Indeed, many of us have worked and lived in a number of different “cultures” but everyone today has been exposed to different cultures. So cultural intelligence is not only a modern subject but we all have to have a high score in cultural intelligence.

The scope of our subject must surely focus on the “intelligence” part. One of my reasons for suggesting this is that we might easily be confused or even downright wrong about our culture never mind other cultures. Cultural intelligence is also directly linked to epistemology and the philosophy of action, epistemology because we need to learn about and understand other cultures and philosophy of action because we also need to act on cue.

Culture can mean a lot of things to different people. At first glance we would associate culture with a number of activities: art, literature, festivals, music, dance, food and customs. The key here is that the activity must have a linage (pedigree) and a history. This does not mean that there are no modern day activities that cannot be considered as culture; for example these past 15 years or so the gig economy has made it easy for people to create an activity that becomes a recognised event over the years.

Beyond the obvious we can also delve deeper into the culture of politics, regionalism, social cohesion, family norms, religion, language, doing business and two elements that one wouldn’t associate with culture: beliefs and attitudes. Under attitudes, I would include table manners, etiquette and politeness. We might even include attitudes and belief in a working environment: for example some cultures involve the belief that people should stay late into the evening at the office to show commitment to the company. In other cultures staying late is not only seen as a sign of inefficiency, but more importantly an embarrassment to colleagues who might feel obliged to stay late as well.

In other words, there is more to culture than just what we see in tourist brochures and certainly more than just saying please and thank you. This makes the whole issue of learning about other cultures very complex and a time consuming process activity. I am, therefore, very sceptical about the ability to teach about cultures apart from living in the target culture for a long period of time. On the other hand today we live in a global environment were a new universal culture is developing over and about the tradition cultures: we might call this the hamburger and fries culture. Maybe the ultimate test to show our understanding of other cultures would be to understand local humour, never mind the peculiarities of sense of humour. And knowing when and the type of humour to employ are probably even more difficult and thus a better test.

And it is not enough to know the language; although language has its own culture set (set as in set theory) cultures and language tend to be influenced by local conditions. This makes the process of learning the culture of a place even more demanding. For example, it is very common in mountainous regions to have two villages on opposite sides of the valley each speaking a different dialects; an example this is very common in The Emilia-Romagna Apennine Mountains.

One of the biggest challenges of cultural intelligence is the need for this intelligence in different contexts: are we curious about some other culture from the comfort of home, holidaying in another cultures, settling in another country and of course receiving people from other cultures. As we know immigration and moving to other cultures can have serious consequences, especially tensions can arise that can lead to disquiet, or worse including racism and xenophobia from the host people of a country and victimhood of incoming immigrants.

As I have said the first issue about cultural intelligence is intelligence: specifically are we prepared for our endeavour into the wide world and survive the cultural shock? The first challenge is to distinguish between culture and simply being exploited. Very few places in the world write menus very well in different languages. This is when knowing the local language can be helpful, a menu in a different language can be like blood to sharks, it’s lunch time for predators. Languages, and especially words, do not travel well but lack of self awareness (what are you doing in your surroundings) can create more serious problems. In effect, shouting in our own language won’t make others understand us better; it only demonstrates to others that our Flintstone genes are still alive and kicking in our blood.

But cultural intelligence starts at home, forget the culture by Hollywood we are exposed to everyday and the pretty pictures on social media. Reality is different, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but curiosity can be a good master of positive experiences. But being responsible has nothing to do with cultural intelligence; this is more about our character.

However, it is a pity that many people, and all of us are guilty of this at sometime or other, are too preoccupied with our prejudices and false ideas that we invite others to dislike us from the get go. Clothes are certainly one of the more sensitive issues in cultures. You might be right that maybe the clothes of other cultures are downright awful and oppressive, but sitting season after season of catwalk fashion shows will teach you a thing or two of awfulness. No one is perfect but may people are poor, tolerance can get us a long way. In other words there are as many cultures as there are groups of people. And, of course, in some respects, your culture in certain things might be better, and in others not so good.

I started by saying that cultural intelligence involves epistemology and philosophy of action. Whether we like it or not, other cultures force us to learn new things and sometimes we have to learn these new things otherwise we might end up in trouble. If the jungle chief tells you to eat the worm as a sign of friendship you can eat the worm or if you don’t like worms do not travel to places where they eat worms. Other cultures sometimes force us to do things that we might not like.

And only from knowing as much as possible about our target culture can we interact with the people in that culture. We can say that we are well educated in cultural intelligence when we know what to do (epistemology) and when to act (philosophy of action).

I promised you a favourable reference to behaviourism: be nice, keep your mouth shut, observe with a purpose and avoid being a moron.

Best Lawrence

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