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.
When a person crosses into a foreign culture for an extended period of time and mostly lives among the locals from whom she is very different, the experience of being culturally othered and displaced can befall her – what we now call culture shock. When an American friend of mine moved from New York to Taipei to marry into a traditional Taiwanese family, she experienced severe culture shock, with episodes of loneliness, depression, and anger. She was criticized by the mother-in-law, not accepted by her sisters-in-law, could not find friends in Taiwan who shared similar experiences as her, and wondered how she could (and even if she should, culturally, as a wife and mother) establish a career in Taiwan. Everything she thought to be true about life turned upside down. For a long time she strongly questioned herself, her choices, everything she said and did, since everyone else around her questioned her as well. Years later she finally reached an equilibrium, but it was a dangerous spell.
One of the most important steps for the culturally displaced to reach safe mental ground is precisely to become aware of the dominant culture as simply a set of beliefs and practices that are shared by a particular group but not by all, and that one’s identity and self-worth need not be defined by the standards of any single culture.
To be culturally displaced amidst life transition or the crossing of cultures is indeed a precarious emotional process that can generate symptoms akin to mental illness, the jurisdiction of therapists. But with different value systems rubbing against one another increasingly frequently, this potential to feel “different” or “displaced” happens on such a broad scale that it can touch anyone, even coaching clients that are not seeking cross-cultural coaching specifically and seem highly functional otherwise. An understanding of how culture impacts individuals becomes immensely important.
Context 3: Cultural Rootlessness
The third context from which gaining cultural self-awareness is essential – and for coaches to gain awareness of this growing phenomenon – is cultural rootlessness.
First, the emotional repercussions of being away from our roots are graver than one might suspect.
While today we celebrate restless mobility and see it as a central part of our national identity, earlier generations did not, and instead found mobility to be profoundly painful and unnatural, wrote Susan J. Matt, author of “Homesickness: An American History” (Matt, 2012).
During the 1800s Civil War in America, war veterans suffered from “nostalgia”, which back then signified acute homesickness,
a condition widely regarded as a dangerous and often deadly illness. (Matt, 2012)
Although in the postmodern era global mobility seems a virtue, separation from one’s home once caused suffering on the scale of illness and death and must not be taken lightly.
Cultural rootlessness is a result of having experienced two or more cultures so extensively that one can no longer feel at home in any one culture because no single culture can accommodate the whole of this person’s cultural identity. The rise of expatriation, third culture kids (TCKs), and multiculturalism has made cultural rootlessness an ever more common experience.
I feel like a foreigner everywhere I go and I’ve ended up in a murky haze of different cultures, with bits and pieces from everywhere I’ve lived and everyone I’ve met are common sentiments expressed by the culturally rootless. (Smith, 2013)
Cultural rootlessness can beset a person as a child or as an adult. When people cross cultures for the first time as adults, upon repatriation, ‘home’ may no longer feel like home because the person herself has internalized a different cultural frame of reference as part of her identity, and a once-rooted person now experiences ‘cultural rootlessness’. Yet it is important to understand that there are
distinct differences between making a cross-cultural move for the first time as an adult and growing up cross-culturally. People who initially go to another culture as adults undoubtedly experience culture shock and need a period of adjustment. They, too, have lifelong shifts in their worldview after a major cross-cultural move, but their basic value system, sense of identity, and establishment of core relationships with family and friends have already developed in the home culture. (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009)
Indeed, when cultural rootlessness begins during the developmental years due to high mobility between cultures, it creates instability in identity at a more fundamental level. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, the seminal book on the TCK experience, documents the perpetual sense of “simultaneously belonging everywhere and nowhere” in a “neither/nor world” that results when children grow up moving frequently among different cultural worlds during a time when secure identity development is a primary developmental task (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009). This rootlessness results in restlessness, particular relational patterns, uneven maturity, and the symptoms of loneliness, depression, and anger patterns as a result of unresolved grief from multiple traumas of separation and identity displacement (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009). They may develop shame and inferiority around their differences from others as well as core identity conflicts that impact their pursuits of stable careers and relationships.
In addition to TCKs, children who experience different cultures growing up due to educational systems, biracial/bicultural or multiracial/multiracial families, international adoption, or the immigrant, refugee, or minority experience – collectively termed “cross-cultural kids (CCKs)” – can exhibit feelings of exclusion and displacement similar to those experienced by TCKs (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009).
At the same time, the people who experience these cross-cultural childhoods also form a new “multicultural personality”:
What is uniquely new about this emerging human being is a psychocultural style of self-process that transcends the structured image a given culture may impress upon the individual in his or her youth. The navigating image at the core of the multicultural personality is premised on an assumption of many cultural realities. The multicultural person, therefore, is not simply the one who is sensitive to many different cultures. Rather, this person is always in the process of becoming a part of and apart from a given cultural context. (Adler, 1977)
The growing phenomenon of culturally rootless people is important for coaches to grasp – and not only cross-cultural coaches. Whether your niche is career coaching, executive coaching, transformational coaching, life coaching, or any other type of coaching, it’s important to understand that your client could be influenced by a web of cultures that have bearing on the issues she brings forth in coaching and the notions of success she seeks. It is also important to be aware of the influences of your own culture when approaching a client at the crossroads of cultures, for this client may be even more sensitive to cultural paradigms and can sense when you may unintentionally ask questions based on your own cultural norms and assumptions.
Impact of Culture: The Case of Individualist vs. Collectivist Cultures
When speaking of the all-encompassing term ‘culture’, it’s helpful to have real-life examples of how cultural influences affect us and why a deeper awareness and understanding is important, especially in our work as coaches. The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures provides one potent example, and happens to be one I am familiar with as a bicultural Taiwanese and American.
When we don’t fit into a culture, we often feel invalidated as a person. Growing up in the US, I remember wondering what’s wrong with me that I didn’t have ready answers when asked the kind of music I listened to – not because I didn’t like music, but simply because I didn’t identify myself as a unique individual based on a particular genre of music the way my peers did (plus, in Taiwan most people liked ballads, which was very ‘uncool’ to admit in America!). Back in Taiwan as an adult training as a volunteer counselor at a local counseling center, I was conversely considered disruptive of group harmony and disrespectful to authority (the teacher or supervisor) for voicing my opinion in class or in discussions – which had been commonplace and even praised back in the U.S. as proactive participation. In both cases, the dominant individualist or collectivist culture wondered what was wrong with the non-normal ‘cultural other’ side of me, which left me to question myself as a person, before I could fully see these judgments as culturally-based rather than absolute indictments on my personhood.
Zoe, one of my friends and work partners here in Taiwan, is culturally Taiwanese but fluent in English. She also found herself caught between cultures and invalidated in the course of working with our more individualist-cultured team. We expected her to be assertive and interrupt a conversation deftly if she had something important to discuss, but she found it exceedingly difficult to do so from her collectivist sensibilities. She also expected us to be able to read her silences to know when she was unhappy, but it often simply escaped us. These scenarios caused Zoe to question herself – was there something wrong with her that she could not be more assertive? Some of the team members were concerned about her as well – why was she unable to assert herself?
In both mine and Zoe’s cases, neither of us need have felt invalidated as a person if we had a better understanding of the cultural influences at play. According to “Geography of Thought” by Richard Nisbett,
Westerners teach their children to communicate their ideas clearly and to adopt a “transmitter” orientation, that is, the speaker is responsible for uttering sentences that can be clearly understood by the hearer… Asians, in contrast, teach their children a “receiver” orientation, meaning that it is the hearer’s responsibility to understand what is being said. (Nisbett, 2003)
As a result,
there is evidence that Asians are more accurately aware of the feelings and attitudes of others than are Westerners.(Nisbett, 2003)
The focus of attention and what is valued in individualist and collectivist cultures are fundamentally different, and an awareness of these differences can lessen culturally-based invalidation.
Yet these fundamental differences in paradigm are still not widely understood, and those of the dominant culture are often unaware of the ways they invalidate those of the outgroup by judging and questioning their personhood rather than seeing the difference in cultural orientation. Thus it is ever more important for us as individuals, and as coaches, to be aware of cultural influences.
Some of the above issues may seem to be the jurisdiction of counselors or social workers, as they can involve intense emotional repercussions that result from cultural mismatch. However, it is ever more indistinguishable where the line is drawn between positive striving for success – a common realm of coaching – and the strong negative emotions that could result from failure to achieve a culturally based notion of success. As coaches, we enter our clients’ lives precisely when they are in transition from one stage of their awareness to another, and given the growing prevalence of clashing cultures in every corner of society, our cultural awareness – the first step to Cultural Intelligence – is now an essential component in the toolbox of coaches in any niche.
As coaches, we are held to higher standards of self-awareness because the coaching space we create has a great impact on the trust and development of our clients. As such, it’s important for us to reflect on the influences of culture on our own notions of what it means to be a successful, respectable, valuable human being. If we value individuals pursuing their unique passions as the gold standard for healthy high-functioning success, might we question a client who values the approval of family members despite continual frustration with their work lives? If we value attentiveness to family, might we internally frown upon a client who might choose a path without regard for the feelings of family members? In what ways might we unintentionally judge our clients, and the kind of success they should pursue, based on the dominant cultures that we have absorbed? How might we then become concerned for our clients based on our own cultural values and norms, and reflect that concern in leading questions we ask our clients during coaching sessions, rather than truly understanding and appreciating the different cultural values and norms that the client holds? It is thus important for coaches to be particularly self-aware culturally so as not to unintentionally mislead or invalidate the client in the sacred coaching space.
Cultural awareness can also help us as coaches to be more perceptive to the underlying dynamics of a client’s behavior that otherwise might baffle or intimidate us. Aware of the strong emotions that can result from cultural displacement, we might be more able to hold the space for a client when we see strong emotions evoked in the process of transition. If a client has just made some big changes, how might the client’s strong emotions be a reaction to cultural differences, and a resulting sense of invalidation and isolation? These emotions could arise from crossing cultures in the traditional sense of entering different countries, or simply encountering people or environments with a different constellation of values and approaches. If a client has had a highly mobile childhood and/or adulthood resulting in a sense of cultural rootlessness, we might also observe how these experiences might be influencing the client in the coaching issue at present, while demonstrating more empathy for the client’s difficult journey of parsing the cultural influences upon her to make sense of her identity – an important foundation upon which to build an aligned life. If a client is striving for a certain type of success, how might her seeming lack of progress toward that success be a hidden commitment to a different set of values that come from a different set of cultural influences upon her? Cultural awareness therefore equips us as coaches to be more wise about the complex dynamics a client might be experiencing, and therefore be more wise and kind in the coaching space we hold.
Finally, cultural perceptiveness can also help us as coaches better navigate the emotional vicissitudes of our own personal and professional lives. If we are able to see the cultural influences upon others and ourselves, we are able to see conflicts, hurt feelings, and other difficulties in our daily encounters from an attitude of understanding differences, rather than outright blame or invalidation of the other party or ourselves. Since no person is an island and can be free of cultural influence, being culturally aware helps us as coaches calm ourselves more quickly and thus see more clearly – an essential skillset in coaching – and weather the ups and downs inside and outside the coaching space with more wisdom, compassion, and serenity.
It was in 1934 that cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict first suggested in “Patterns of Culture” the idea of ethnorelativism – that “communities with common beliefs and practices” form “integrated patterns of ideas and practices” that were, like “works of art” neither better nor worse than one another, simply different (Benedict, 1934). Yet shortly thereafter, the world wars of the twentieth century proved that differences in worldviews could threaten whole societies so severely as to catalyze the desire of one community to eradicate another. With interdependent global economies and the advent of the internet and other technologies, the meeting of groups of people with different “common beliefs and practices” has become ever more common, yet have we become more accepting of differences?
Culture shock, rootlessness, bullying, midlife crises, suicides and killings, depression, rage, terrorism – the prevalence of these phenomena point to the fact that, like our forebears, we still have potent emotional reactions, and often corresponding rash behavior, toward “the cultural other” that we encounter in others and ourselves. Our environments and the people we associate with become so deeply a part of who we are and how we view the world that it is extraordinarily difficult to extricate their influence from our perceptions of reality. Even for the most intellectually or emotionally intelligent among us, the impact of culture is so tremendous and insidious that we may still refuse to or be unable to conceive that there is a completely different and sometimes contradictory worldview that is equally valid, based on the histories, experiences, values integrated into that worldview. Even if we could conceive of or accept different worldviews conceptually, it is quite another challenge to do so when that cultural other is embodied in another person we work with or relate to closely, and also when that cultural other is ourselves.
Yet it is also precisely because the world is becoming ever more culturally complex, and the impacts of this complexity ever more prevalent and dire, that as enlightened individuals and as coaches working toward more alignment and empowerment in people’s lives, it is imperative that we add cultural intelligence and awareness to our repertoire. Indeed, while emotional intelligence alone may work for a mostly monocultural context, EQ is no longer sufficient in navigating the increasingly complex cultural contexts of this globalized era, because what it takes to be socially aware and manage relationships well is founded on different paradigms according to different cultures. To become culturally intelligent, one must not only understand the cultural contexts in which others are operating from, but often most difficult is for us to step back and become aware of the tapestry of cultural influences that shape our own worldviews, value systems, and behavior. As leaders in cultivating new consciousness, we as coaches in any niche must learn to cross the frontier of culture as a daily and momentary practice, starting with the most difficult – awareness of our own cultural paradigms.
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“Her” and “she” is used throughout this document as a general pronoun to refer to the individual, inclusive of both male, female, and other gender identifications.
According to the Harvard Business Review article “Cultural Intelligence” (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004), there are three aspects of Cultural Intelligence – the ability to see and understand the differences, the ability to adopt behavior of a different culture, and the ability to persevere amidst the disorientation and challenges that come with any encounters with people of a different way of thinking and behaving.
Third culture kids (TCKs) are defined as those who spend a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ home culture, especially characterized by high mobility (frequent moving) between multiple cultural worlds during childhood. (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009)