I love chili and don’t get to eat it as often and I like. I remember thinking that I ate chili the normal American way…until I married my wife. Her family made chili -that was different than my family- and ate it with Fritoes chips (gross) while my family had chili over rice (the normal way). Since rice is more accessible then Fritoes, she has learned how to eat chili correctly. Things we define as normal are rarely what others perceive as normal. David Livermore quoted his daughter in his book, Leading with Cultural intelligence, asking at the dinner table on day, “Can we just eat something normal?[then Liverm ore writes how normal is what we do and abnormal is what other do]…Most of us tend to underestimate the degree to which we ourselves are a product of culture. It’s much easier to see it[the abnormality] in others.”1 Working and living in a cross-cultural setting requires one to be open to new ways of thinking and humble enough to recognize when your normal is being stretched to incorporate a new normal as well as new ways of perceiving the world. This is referred to as cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the “capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures.”2 Sometimes we learn and grow in the privacy of our own homes and other time we stick our foot in our mouth publicly for all to see. When our family arrived in China 12 years ago we spoke absolutely no Chinese. We had a familiarity with asian culture from our time living in Hawaii. I realized quickly that I had biases that I had not recognized before. I thought I knew asian culture and was not ready for the culture shock hit me from time to time. I remember we had been in country for a couple of weeks and were watching a Japanese sumo wrestling match on t.v. We at an American friend’s house that spoke fluent Chinese. I turned to our host and asked foolishly, “How can you tell the difference between the Japanese and Chinese language, the sound the same?” You see the sumo match was all in Japanese. The host got a weird look on his face and said, “I can understand Chinese and I can not understand Japanese.” I didn’t have enough Chinese knowledge to know the difference between the 2 cultures let alone the 2 languages. As I look back in context of Livermore’s 4 steps of CQ, I recognize stories that could be told out of each of these steps in my life. Taking that first steps often opens the doors to envisioning cultural answers in our own communities.
“There are also three key experiences that consistently reveal a positive relationship with CQ: cross-cultural experience, educational level, and working in multicultural teams.” I often tell people that they need to get out of their home culture and try traveling. Dipping your toes into the sea of multi-cultural understanding can change your worldview. We love hosting college students that want to come, live and experience the Chinese culture. Through the years many have come to live with us for 2 months. We have found that those that come from multi-cultural backgrounds actually have some of the hardest time adapting. I believe this is because they have the hardest time acknowledging their own cultural biases. Believing that our own CQ is not in need of being stretched limits our growth and sensitivity to other cultures. Just like eating local honey will help your body adapt to the local pollens, walking the streets, trying new foods and humbly needing others to help you will help us understand some of the local ways of thinking.
I do think cultural intelligence and cultural sensitivity go hand in hand. I remember I was in the States a few year ago sharing on what was happening in this part of the world. I was on a week long tour in south Florida hoping from different events sharing in churches. In the course of that week, at east 3 times some older God-loving, but not culturally sensitive person, would come to me and say, “ching chong ching chong, what did I say?” The first time I just stared dumb-founded that they thought that funny. Especially after I had just spoken on what God was doing throughout the country of China. I will admit that when this happened again I might not have been old person sensitive but was a little more prepared. When this same joke was said to me, I looked appalled and told them, “you just cussed me out! Don’t ever say that again.” After a long moment I smiled and told that I was joking but that they should probably never tell that joke again. I do believe a little shock helps drive home the point.
Cultural Intelligence helps us recognize what is important to those we are hanging out with. Whether that is in Texas, Montana, or San Francisco understanding the local culture help build the bridges to a successful relationship. We sometimes have lost the value of being together and sharing a meal. There is an intimacy that is created when we gather around a table laughing, talking and making a memory. For many cultures, meals are only shared with friends because it is special event. Finding moments of connecting with people and seeing value in the differences can change our lives. Livermore said “Life is about things that transcend us”3 When we begin to see beyond ourselves, then the One that transcends can guide to deeper and much fulfilling life.
1Livermore, David. Leading with Cultural Intelligence : The Real Secret to Success (2). Saranac Lake: AMACOM, 2015.