I was talking recently with a public health colleague who works with First Nations communities in Canada, and the conversation turned to the importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding when working with people of other cultures. As she stated, we need to make sure that our "programs fit the people" rather than making the people fit the program.
Having spent a lot of time outside the borders of the U.S., culture and the impact it has on our lives and the way we see the world is a topic that greatly interests me. From the footpaths of Kalimantan to the dusty village roads of Gujarat to the mountain trails of Yoro to the subways in Singapore, the culture in which we live profoundly affects the way we see the world. And, in this increasingly interconnected world, our ability to effectively talk to each other has a direct impact on the work we do to improve health and protect rights.
Respect for culture and for people of different nations is fundamental to public health and human rights work, but this respect goes far beyond a simple affirmation of differences or the teachings one can receive in a half-day training. More than knowledge, we need to think differently. The relatively new field of cultural intelligence (CQ) provides a helpful framework for understanding the complexity of effective cultural interaction. It is troubling that many excellent organizations send people to other cultures with little to no training, yet the evidence is clear that cultural intelligence is vital for anyone working, or planning to work, in a cross-cultural setting (and, of course, you don’t even need to leave your country to encounter cross-cultural differences).
A person who is culturally intelligence, is able, as an outsider, to interpret unfamiliar gestures and actions as if they were from that culture. The study of cultural intelligence focuses on four key factors:
Knowledge CQ: this is a person’s understanding of the differences between cultures. Knowledge about economics, laws, politics, religious beliefs, values, customs, social norms, and worldview all come under this CQ factor. One example of a question to ask is how well you know the rules for expressing non-verbal behaviors.
Interpretive CQ: this is how a person makes sense of cultural experiences and includes judgments they make about their thoughts and the thoughts of others. A person strong in this area will mentally check their assumptions as they are engaging others and they will adjust if their experience differs from what they expected. One example of a question to ask is how well you check the accuracy of your cultural knowledge when you are with people from other cultures.
Motivational CQ: this is a person’s interest in experiencing other cultures and interacting with people from those cultures. A person strong in this area will put a lot of energy toward learning about another culture and learning how to live in that culture. They also will be able to empathize with others and will want to have a strong desire to connect, even though the differences are great. It has been said that this is the most difficult factor of cultural intelligence, yet the one that can lead to the biggest cultural gains. One example of a question to ask is whether you enjoy interacting with people from other cultures.
Behavioral CQ: this is a person’s ability to adapt their behavior in ways that are culturally appropriate, and this includes both verbal and non-verbal behavior. One example of a question to ask is whether you change your verbal behavior (tone, speed, use of silence and pauses) when talking to people from another culture.
The cultural intelligence framework adds richness to the concept of culture and allows us to be more relationally effective. It brings a sense of humility to our interactions with others as it forces us to realize that we may not be the experts we think we are, and it forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about our beliefs and assumptions. In the end, cultural sensitivity is not simply about being successful in our work. It is about living intentionally and missionally with a focus on others.