How To Grow More Culturally Aware
One definition of culture offered by Pallegrino Riccardi, an expert on cross-culture communications is “A system of behaviour that helps us act in an accepted and familiar way”.
What is acceptable to us might not be acceptable in other cultures. For example, in West African countries, hospitality means accepting tourists and visitors into their homes for overnight stays even though they are complete strangers. In Malaysia, there is no way that would happen! We see life through our own ‘Kulturbrille’ or cultural glass, (a concept coined by a founder of cultural anthropology, Franz Boas) that is comprised of our personal experiences and influenced by the communities in which we live and have lived previously. In simpler words, cultural glasses are the judgements and generalisations we make about others and situations.
For seamless interaction with other cultures, we must achieve some level of cultural fluency. That is, the ability to interact with someone from another cultural background and be able to understand the intent of their communication, in the same way someone from their own community would understand it. Why is this important, you may ask? It helps us in being aware of our own identity to better understand our thoughts and behaviours. In doing so, we would unlearn our unconscious biases while we try to understand others better; respecting their perspectives and how they perceive the world.
So, how can we achieve cultural fluency? These are three key steps I would recommend as a starting point:
To understand others, we must first understand ourselves.
Explore your social identity.
This means getting to know the social attributes that make who you are – Are you part of a marginalised group or are you more privileged? Does your religion play a big role where you come from? Are you a special-needs individual and have you paid attention to special-needs individuals before? To help you get thinking about these, you could look at this Social Identity Worksheet. This will help you answer some critical questions about your background that you might have taken for granted and it will help you reflect on it. It only works if you are honest with yourself! Learn more about social identity here.
Identify your communication style.
Communication styles reflect our norms. Understanding the range of communication styles around the world aid in cultural fluency. I became aware of this after coming to London to study because my lecturers come from all around the world, so their ways are distinct.
Communication styles are usually very heavily influenced by cultural background. When you understand this, you will be more observant when you interact with others. As a result, you will be less likely to take things personally, especially when the other person is straightforward. Use this knowledge to adjust your style when speaking to different people for more effective interactions. Find out more about your communication style here.
Self-reflection and evaluation.
Constant self-reflection is necessary for self-improvement. It helps us think about our actions and intentions. While you do your daily or weekly journaling, think about some of these questions:
- Did you say something that might have been insensitive?
- Did you offend someone? If so, was it out of ignorance or out of spite?
- Was there a better way of handling an unfamiliar situation?
- Was any decision you make influenced by any biases you might have?
- Were you offended by someone? Why, and why do you think they acted that way?
Then, evaluate yourself and take one small step each time to become a better version of yourself.
2. Cultural intelligence
Educate yourself about worldviews that differ from your own.
Learning about the general dimensions upon which different cultures tend to vary.
Hofstede pioneered this area with 6 dimensions of culture. One of the dimensions explored is power distance. Essentially, power distance describes how well a community accepts hierarchical systems. In a monarchy, power distance is likely to be high. In more modern countries like the United States where people advocate for more egalitarian culture, power distance is likely to be lower. Read more about this Hofstede’s interview and these insights.
Increasing your knowledge about where specific countries and communities fall on these dimensions.
This is easy! Learn about other countries. Watching movies or documentaries about other cultures is one way to do it. Alternatively, refer to this Culture Crossing Guide that sums up basic facts about cultures in each country. This is very useful when travelling but you could always just browse through them alongside watching a documentary to increase your knowledge and awareness. Another resource you could use is this Guide to 40 Countries.
Educating yourself about historical and cultural events important to that community.
Again, watch documentaries! If you are tight on time, resort to 10 minute-youtube videos. Books are also obviously a good way to educate yourself! Next time around when you go book-shopping, buy something from the history section. Also, if you have a chance to know people from different nationalities, you could gain better and more personal insights into their culture just by asking them simple questions.
3. Interact mindfully
Suspension of judgement.
Our brain is bombarded with 11 million bits of information per second but only 40 bits of information could be processed consciously. The rest are processed in the background – in our unconscious minds. Putting these into context, when interacting with others, our unconscious minds would gather information on the other party and present to us the result, which is what we think of them. Often, these ‘results’ are heavily guided by our biases.
The first step to suspend these judgements is to actively recognise that your first instinct about others would most probably be biased. Then, try your best to switch to your conscious mind and give them a chance to show their true self regardless of our biases. Practice these enough, and you will be much better at being less judgemental! It would open opportunities for you to know people from different backgrounds and create a pleasant experience for everyone involved.
Practice checking understandings rather than jumping to conclusions.
When something seems strange to you, breathe in, and keep an open mind. The best way to interact mindfully is to check your understanding. Look it up on internet forums or ask someone who would know. So, strive to understand, not to judge and to conclude.
Indulging in knowledge about other cultures can be a rich experience if you keep an open mind and an open heart. Smooth communication across culture has become important in the last few decades as the world becomes more interconnected. Those who can master cultural fluency will most likely thrive and seize the opportunities that come their way.