In our increasingly global community, Cultural Intelligence is something that we need to cultivate. For many, the journey is just beginning, but even veterans like myself, who have been immersed in other cultures for long periods of time, still make mistakes. Here are the top 5, and what you can do to avoid them.
Mistake 1: Judging by your own standards.
There’s a great quote by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, that goes like this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This pearl of wisdom applies to just about every situation in human life, but it particularly applies to cross-cultural relationships. Unless you make the effort to learn about people and their backgrounds, you will never be able to understand why they behave the way they do. And until then, you’ll be judging every situation you find yourself in by your own limited preconceptions, instead of judging the situation by it’s own standards and merits. Making sweeping generalisations is never helpful. It is just lazy, and more often than not, inaccurate.
Mistake 2: Not clarifying the context.
When we spend time learning about the history, traditions and cultures of other countries, we can begin to see why people behave the way they do. By and large, people are a product of their backgrounds. We might not agree with some of what they do, but knowledge helps us to accept it for what it is. Acknowledging our differences is the basis for tolerance.
Mistake 3: Failing to remember that we all make mistakes.
I made a great faux par recently. I was asked to speak as part of a panel for an Australian-Chinese student council and I made the ultimate mistake of assumed that one of the students on the panel was Chinese, because he looked Chinese. He was, of course, Australian. The moment that I realised my error, I apologised. We all make assumptions – it’s a part of human nature – but when you realise that you have made an error or that you have been inadvertently offensive, own up to it, it’s more disrespectful to ignore it.
Mistake 4: Not taking the time to apologise
Your mother might have told you that “An apology goes a long way.” I’m here to tell you that this is true in any language. In my experience, in every single country I have ever visited or lived in, the locals have been very keen to introduce me to their culture and to help me to learn its quirky traditions. It’s worth remembering that no matter where we are from, we are all human. Accept help and accept advice. And learn from your mistakes.
Mistake 5: Failing to be curious
What you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s that simple. And ignorance breeds racism. On the contrary, curiosity leads to learning. And the world is a wonderful place to learn – about society, culture, history, human nature, and mother nature, too. It’s a melting pot of experiences and if you’re prepared to dive in, then do it with an open mind and an open heart. I promise the rewards are amazing.