We should be so much better at working across cultures than we are.
Globalization is something we often associate with the 21st century, but in fact, some scholars place the start of globalization in the third millennium BCE – that’s more than 5000 years old. And we still haven’t got close to working out how to work effectively with people from different cultures after 5000 years of practice!
Difference is not a surprise
Unless you’re sitting in a room by yourself, there is an extremely high chance that you can see someone who was either born in a different country, whose parents were born in a different country or who has lived extensively in other countries from you. We aren’t surprised when we meet a foreigner and one of the first things many of us did when Covid restrictions ended was to try to book a foreign holiday.
So why is cultural difference such a problem?
Before we go any further, I should just mention, that I don’t intend to go through detailed academic research into the reasons why; I’m not going to quote anthropology and psychology texts using Latin phrases I half-recognize. I’m basing my comments here, purely on my observations and the time I’ve spent in the past 30+ years trying to figure out what culture is and how it makes you different from me.
No such thing as a new idea!
The first point is easy. Yes, globalization is 5000 years’ old – some might say ancient. But modern humans (homo sapiens) first appeared 300,000 years ago. That’s 295,000 years of additional evolution that has hard-wired us into being wary of everything that is different.
The author and speaker Marcus Buckingham expands the flight/fight instinct like this: when a cave dweller first met something new, they only had four reactions: run away, fight and defeat it, make friends with it, or get eaten. Those that were eaten didn’t make any impression on evolution as they didn’t leave as many descendants.
Inclusion is not evolutionary
Making friends is always the riskiest option – you don’t have to google too hard to find stories of people mauled by their ‘pet’ tigers, bitten by ‘pet’ snakes or attacked by their ‘pet’ dogs. We are constantly changing friendship groups; relationships break down and friends become bitter enemies. Evolution has conditioned us to run away or fight much more than make friends. So much for being social animals!
Skipping ahead 300 millennia, we have managed to avoid hitting unfamiliar people with clubs (mostly) in business, but we are still a little subconsciously wary when we come across someone who has a different way of thinking, a different perspective, or presents a new challenge to us. We try to surround ourselves with the familiar, people like us – because that’s when we feel safest.
When I hear a different accent, that security begins to melt invisibly. When someone disagrees with me, I become defensive. When someone challenges my sense of ‘normal’, I fight back or run away. And globalization makes this more and more common. To change that defensiveness, we need to take the huge risk of being eaten by a predatory tiger!
Culture and a global identity
In the early 2000’s, there was a serious conversation in intercultural circles about whether the internet and globalization were going to put interculturalists out of a job. Surely, the argument went, we were all becoming more homogenous. Cultures were becoming more and more similar as the internet united us all.
The conversation didn’t last long – it seems to me that across the globe the sense of national or regional identity is getting stronger, rather than weaker. The UK has left the EU, Catalan and Scottish separatists are more vocal, Trumpism dominated the US on the basis of ‘Make America Great Again’ and many more examples around the globe. And moving away from national identity, the last decade has seen an identity explosion. We are seeing an entire generation redefining their identities in ways that our 300,000-year-old ancestors couldn’t even imagine.
Connecting otherness and wellbeing
Difference is much more visible than it’s ever been. And we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. As I said earlier, I’m not coming at this from a research perspective, but I can’t help seeing a connection. Evolution makes us nervous of difference; we are evolving to be more different from our neighbors than we’ve ever been; mental health issues are growing.
To clarify, I’m not saying that that difference or Otherness are causing the decline in mental wellbeing. However, I do believe that the combination of all the stresses of modern life and our pre-historic fear of the Other are a contributing factor.
From a selfish perspective, I am reassured that the need for my narrow specialty is not going anywhere! But if I try not to make this about me and look more widely, I can see a huge gap in our education and life preparation – many high schools and universities are cutting language courses, which are the closest we ever get to a formal approach to cultural difference. As a language graduate myself, it’s not that close to anything useful, but foreign language ability is a better than nothing.
Cultural intelligence as a possible solution
And that’s why cultural intelligence and inclusion are so important. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is inward: it’s the skills I need to make me more capable of managing my reactions to difference. Inclusion looks outward and asks how we can overturn our evolutionary instinct and welcome difference into ‘my group.’
Historically, CQ has been primarily associated with national culture. And that is well and good. But culture is much deeper and more complicated than that. That’s why CQ is the ideal framework. The origin of the difference is irrelevant – whether gender, race, nationality, age or any other characteristic – retuning our brains to be open to other perspectives and consider the impact of culture on behavior and communication in advance will help us have a more effective approach to everything we do, think and say.
Difference is good for us
Difference is good for us
Similarly, inclusive behaviors show that you value the difference and welcome it. You don’t want clones of yourself – after all your customers aren’t like you either. In our personal lives, we enjoy variety – the clichés, ‘a change is as good as a break’ and ‘variety is the spice of life’ are true because we recognize the importance of difference.
If we aren’t inclusive, we become irrelevant strands that evolution will pass by and ironically, we will become excluded ourselves. We can talk about the business case for inclusion – but the heart of the matter is that inclusion is not just the right thing to do, it is a fundamental part of our humanity. We are all different – and it is only random chance that has bound a certain type of difference together into one body to create who we are as individuals.
I deliberately haven’t gone into equity here. Inclusion makes the huge assumption that behavior is equitable, and that everyone comes to inclusion from an equitable place. And it’s clear that is not true. We have a long way to go to re-dress the injustices of the past (and present!). Equity must be addressed by wider society whether through existing mechanisms or creating new ones. And it’s not my place to say what needs to be addressed and how.
Cultural intelligence and inclusion, however, are areas that as individuals we can address right now. We can make a positive difference where we are with the tools we have. I challenge you to spend a few moments digging deeper – find out about cultural intelligence and inclusion. Don’t wait for someone else to change – be the catalyst and change you first.
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN
Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.
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