In this paper I argue that awareness of one’s own cultural paradigms – the first step to cultural intelligence – is the new essential component to life success in this modern globalized era, yet is often the most difficult to achieve. Because complex cultural paradigms are prevalent on a mass scale, coaches especially must educate themselves about the impact of culture to better serve clients. Also because coaches must achieve a higher level of self-awareness, cultural self-awareness is therefore an essential practice not just for cross-cultural coaches, but for any coach today.
Introduction: From EQ to CQ
Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, was a term popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestseller, positing that EQ was a greater determinant of life success than IQ. It was a groundbreaking concept at the time – that beyond intellectual smarts, emotional awareness of oneself and others, and from there, the ability to manage relationships with oneself and others, is in fact the key to success in various arenas of life.
Now, ever-increasing global interconnectivity is making a new kind of intelligence essential for life success – Cultural Intelligence (CQ). In a 2004 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Cultural Intelligence”, P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski described the difference between CQ and EQ:
Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence, but it picks up where emotional intelligence leaves off. A person with high emotional intelligence grasps what makes us human and at the same time what makes each of us different from one another. A person with high cultural intelligence can somehow tease out of a person’s or group’s behavior those features that would be true of all people and all groups, those peculiar to this person or this group, and those that are neither universal nor idiosyncratic. The vast realm that lies between those two poles is culture. (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004)
The vast realm, culture, that lies between two poles is well illustrated by this diagram of ‘mental programming’ introduced by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Hofstede defined culture as the “software of the mind” (Hofstede et al., 2010). Unlike the two poles of “universal” and “individual” human characteristics, which are mostly inherited, culture is “software” because it’s malleable: each individual learns thinking and behavior patterns that a group shares to ensure group continuity (Cartus, 2013). (McGuire, 2011)
An individual must learn to behave a certain way so as to remain part of a particular group culture, and begins to see herself and the world through the lens of this group identity.
Each individual may have several such cultural influences upon her, such as:
- National: i.e. America, China, Brazil; or subcultures: Asian-Americans in California, Ainu in Japan, Indonesian workers in Taiwan
- Social status: married vs. single; parents vs. childless; wealthy vs. poor; highly educated vs. practical skill-based workers
- Gender/sexual orientation: male vs. female; homosexual vs. heterosexual
- Race: Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native peoples, etc.
- Sectors: corporate vs. education vs. artistic; for-profit vs. non-profit
- Organizational: Conglomerate vs. small family-owned vs. start-up
- Functions: HR vs. finance vs. sales; administrative vs. content deliverer
- Generation: Grew up in a certain decade, age, grandparents vs. parents vs. children; nowadays even a few years could make a difference
- Religions: Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, new age
- Political: Democrat vs. Republican; green vs. blue party
For each culture or group, there are surface characteristics we recognize, such as the food, language, clothing, gestures, yet 90% of culture is in fact the value systems, beliefs, histories, philosophies, largely unseen, that drive the surface behavior we see.
Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall illustrates this understanding with his famed cultural iceberg model (Hall, 1976).
There is an entire set of histories, values and beliefs behind each group culture, yet too often we only see and judge disapprovingly the surface characteristics that are different from us, without significant understanding of what lies beneath.
Thus, when we speak of ‘cultural intelligence’, we are speaking of awareness of what’s most difficult to see – the values, beliefs and assumptions that drive whatever surface behavior that might be different from our own. For example, the fact that students in Taiwan tend to stay silent rather than engage in active discussion can be frustrating for western teachers. Before judging that behavior as ‘passive’, what do you understand about the history, values and experiences that shape Taiwan culture to manifest itself as silence in a classroom? Even more difficult is, what are the cultural values that drive you to consider proactive participation as ‘the way it should be’ inside a classroom?
This awareness of one’s own cultural paradigms as relative, rather than absolute, is the first step to cultural intelligence – and arguably the most difficult.
Intercultural Sensitivity is not natural, said cross-cultural researcher Milton Bennett, famed for his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) where he maps out the stages of intercultural awareness and competence (Bennett, 1993).
We all begin life in the “ethnocentric” stages of denial, defense, and minimization of differences, because it’s natural for us humans to believe that how we’ve always done things is the right and good way to do them – for everyone else, too. We may even believe ourselves very accepting of difference, until someone else’s behavior challenges a core value we hold – and that’s when we learn about our cultural paradigm!
Moving into the ethnorelative stages requires experiential and emotional learning in a different culture, often going through iterations of frustrations, rejection, and isolation amidst that different culture (culture shock), before it can be achieved. Some even say that only individuals who have been raised with multiple frames of reference and speak the languages of these various cultures can reach the “Integration” stage.
What makes cultural self-awareness so difficult is that starting points for different people are different, and across a lifetime and in different situations, we may shift our relative positions (in the minority or majority) within cultural contexts.
Here I outline three contexts from which we might achieve cultural self-awareness.
Context 1: Monoculturally successful
The people who are socially the most successful among their peers often have the greatest difficulty making sense of, and then being accepted by cultural strangers. Those who fully embody the habits and norms of their native culture may be the most alien when they enter a culture not their own. (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004)
American culture presents an example that many are familiar with, either through personal experience or the big screen. A monoculturally successful young American male would find it very normal to congregate with strangers at happy hours and parties; ask new people ‘what do you do?’ and acquaintances ‘how’s it going?’; ‘pick up’ or even ‘hook up’ with attractive women at ‘networking events’ of various kinds; have lost his virginity by the teenage years; expect that women he dates would sleep with him by the third date; drink quite a bit and smoke a bit of pot; use just the right tenor of sarcastic humor; have an avid interest in football, basketball, and/or baseball; move out of the family home and be independent of his parents after college so as not to be considered a ‘loser’ or ‘mama’s boy’; be able to articulate and announce to the world what his unique interests are, and ideally be manifesting them in his profession and hobbies; to be assertive and state his opinions clearly and compellingly at all times.
With the predominance of American culture around the world, a monoculturally successful young American male may not even be aware that the above mindsets and behavior would not necessarily be considered normal, relevant, or even respectable in many Asian cultures. It is even more difficult for the monoculturally successful young American male to realize such because many young people in Asian cultures want to emulate American culture, on top of the fact that Asian cultures tend to be more group-oriented and accommodating.
Westerners–and perhaps especially Americans–are apt to find Asians hard to read because Asians are likely to assume that their point has been made indirectly and with finesse. Meanwhile the Westerner is in fact very much in the dark. (Nisbett, 2003).
Hence the monoculturally successful young American male might stay in the dark for a long time about how he impacts cultural strangers.
This lack of awareness may not present a problem for the blissfully unaware monoculturally successful American male – at first. However, it becomes a cause for his concern if this man
- is attempting to work or relate in cross-cultural contexts in a meaningful way where the acceptance of the cultural other(s) is important,
- aspires to be a coach or related helping professional,
- wants to become more aware of his impact on cultural others and contribute to reducing exclusion of cultural others.
The monoculturally successful young American male is only one example of an individual who fully and successfully identifies with his own culture, yet precisely thus may have a more difficult time seeing the strong influence of culture upon his own identity and being able to separate from that worldview to see from other perches.
If you consider yourself successful among your cultural peers, then perhaps it would be interesting to ask yourself, what are the cultural values you embody?
Context 2: Cultural Displacement
To gain cultural self-awareness when one is culturally displaced is especially critical for mental and emotional survival through one of life’s greatest challenges.
Ostracism, the group’s way of punishing cultural others for straying from the norm, has been present as long as human groups have existed – from literary representations in “The Lord of the Flies” and “Scarlet Letter”, to stonings and killings that have happened throughout history, to cyberbullying and other forms of modern bullying that have resulted in countless suicides and murders to date. To be condemned by one’s culture as a ‘loser’ – either by bullies, one’s own interpretation, or both – can be equivalent to the death of one’s main source of identity. The amount of misery and torture generated inside the outcast as a result can, at its extreme, become a deadly affair.
It could be argued that the recent spate of tragedies – the celebrated Taiwanese TV anchor’s suicide on May 15, the MRT mass stabbings in Taipei on May 21, the Santa Barbara shootings on May 23 – were examples of the central figure feeling rejected from the mainstream culture. For the anchor, the pressures to conform indefinitely to that notion of success he had achieved – which certainly didn’t include the depression he suffered – proved too great (Apple Daily, 2014); the MRT killer could not face his expulsion from his dream school and fall from the top student he once was, in essence, not achieving ‘success’ as defined by his culture (Ndtv, 2014); and the Santa Barbara shooter Elliott Rodger had been rejected since childhood by the dominant culture that dictated certain notions of masculinity and popularity (Yang, 2014). It could be said that these killings happened in part because the central figures each internalized the dominant culture to such an extreme that it represented to them the whole of reality, and when their self-image could not fit into that dominant culture, it was a metaphysical death sentence by the culture, and led to death sentences in real life.
Most incidents of rejection by or failure to achieve the standards of success as dictated by a group’s culture may not result in death, but can nevertheless have a profound impact on a person’s psyche. These can happen at any phase of life, with a sudden loss of fortune, unemployment, divorce, permanent results of major illness or injury, or other trauma. When that thing that always happens only to other people happens to ourselves, we can experience the same sense of cultural displacement.