Cultural fluency … beyond international business

From a quick look around the internet, you might think that cultural fluency was a tool wielded largely by international business folks.  I wouldn’t disagree that business success depends in part on cultural fluency, but I am disappointed that cultural fluency might be seen as limited to the business world and a few other realms like human resources offices and diversity organizations.  (Not to mention that “cultural fluency” might be (mis)-interpreted as simply knowing whether to shake hands, make eye contact, be more fluid with time or more respectful of the “big boss” … but that’s another story.)

My angry faceLet’s look at a non-business example —  awhile back, I got pretty angry during a meeting to plan some upcoming events.  First knee-jerk reaction, I blamed “them” for being disorganized and difficult.  Next came blaming myself, wondering what I should be doing better.  And then (and when I’m lucky, this transition is quick!), I move out of the blame realm altogether and can get curious about what’s happening.

On the one hand, this meeting’s participants were individuals, with unique combinations of traits and behaviors and attitudes based on all the individual experiences they’d each personally had.  But thinking about this unsatisfactory meeting with that individual “personality” lens can leave me feeling discouraged … they’re just difficult people, we have a personality clash, it’s just the way that individual is (or was born) … nothing to be done, just grit your teeth and move on.

Lens, curiosityBut what if I considered one of those individuals from the lens of the groups they belong to, their social identities, their cultures?  Let’s imagine that one of the  (fictional) participants was female, about twenty years older than me, an experienced “expert” on the topic at hand, a freelancer, and has spent considerable time living outside of her home country.  Each of those groups (females, people of a certain age, experts in this field, freelancers, expats, etc.) has its own culture, which would give a very particular spin to how this person approached the meeting I was in.

And it might be that given the type of meeting we were in, her freelance culture was near the top of the list of possible influences she might have felt.  And what if I imagine that  her freelancer lens made her value networking in this particular setting?

(This is all supposition, mind you …  without asking, I would have no idea which of the many, many identities and cultural labels I might have been tempted to assign to the people involved would have been ones they embraced at least partially, or ones they thought were prominent that day during the meeting  … and which ones were offensive or completely out to lunch!  But I am certain that whichever cultures were in the room that day, they affected how we conducted our meeting.)

So how does focusing on cultures affect my attitude toward the situation?  For me, one of the first things that happens is that it depersonalizes the situation … oh, this is about culture, a culture is not right or wrong, we’re just each seeing a different part of the elephant (know that story?).

Then I can say, OK, so from her freelancer lens, those troubling detours about connecting with other groups make sense.   We can come up with some ideas about how we might approach getting her networking needs met … and then do the same for me (my technocrat self seeing a long agenda and not much time for the meeting was valuing efficiency and clarity of focus – so how might my needs be met?).

I could have extended curiosity and creativity to this person as an individual, but I might miss out on a piece of who she is (we are at least in part who we associate with, no?) and I personally sometimes need the shift in focus to get past the “difficult personality” obstacle.  And to the degree I have any information about a particular culture, a cultural fluency lens helps me anticipate what attitudes, needs or approaches I’m dealing with.  Even if I’m wrong in my reflections, going through this thinking makes me curious, more open to understanding what is going on for others and for myself.

Group, culture of duckiesIf we think of culture as the shared understandings of a group that shapes who we think we are and how we interpret what happens, then all of us are interacting with lots of different cultures every single day, in every setting.  There’s the culture of our book or social club, the supermarket or church, our work or volunteer place, our family, our socio-economic class, our gender … and the list goes on and on and on, far beyond nationality, ethnicity or color of ducky.

I recently gave a workshop on culture, conflict and identity, inspired in part by Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, and co-authored by Tatsushi Arai, a professor of mine from SIT Graduate Institute.  Their inspiring and practical model of developing “cultural fluency” (greatly simplified, and as I understand it) involves:

  1. Building knowledge and understanding of other cultures,
  2. Recognizing the embedded meanings in our own cultures (and the impact those meanings have),
  3. Learning to express (and assist others in expressing) underlying cultural influences, and then
  4. Negotiating and acting effectively in cross-cultural situations.

I love that this book was written by a culturally diverse team, and that part of the book is grounded in their own experience of learning to work well together.  Just as they had to go through these cultural fluency steps to successfully publish a great book, I could probably improve my next meeting with my group by learning more about, and articulating the impact of, my and other participants’ cultures in relation to the meeting’s agenda topics.

Will I use my cultural fluency all the time with everyone I meet? Of course not.  And yet developing cultural fluency skills is critical to effective collaboration in whatever the setting, and practice helps, no matter whether it’s at a neighborhood gathering, talk with a partner, political meeting … or even in a business negotiation.

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