Cultural Intelligence


There is only one place in the world where I can walk into the local TV station and get instant coverage just by picking up the mike, smiling into the camera, and announcing myself.

That place is a First Nations reserve in the bush of northern Ontario, a stretch of dusty roads and broken-down trailer houses surrounded by endless strings of untouched lakes and giant dark pines silhouetted against the sky. I will call the place Caribou Hill for the sake of privacy and convenience.

I have gone to Caribou Hill every summer for the past five summers. The small brown faces, the weather-wrinkled faces, the silent smooth faces, the alcohol-pimpled faces have all become mine: my cousins and aunts and uncles and sisters.

My friends from the States who are with me ask questions like, “What time does church start? How long does it last?”

I used to ask those questions, too. Now I know that church starts when it starts and lasts as long as it lasts. It all depends on the weather and the mood of the people and the number of testimonies and the inspiration of the Spirit. Time is not a number here. Things happen when they happen, and presence is something you are, not something you measure off in snipped quantities like a poor man parceling jellybeans.

The first time I visited Caribou Hill, I was frustrated by the lack of schedule, frustrated by the fact that I could never know exactly when something would happen or how long it would last. I hated that someone might tell me they would show up for something—and then never show. I couldn’t understand why people would leave trash littered through the woods, why teens stayed up until the wee hours of the morning and then slept until evening, why children were allowed to scamper up and down aisles during a church service.

That first summer in Caribou Hill, I found myself extra tired as my brain worked hard to process a new way of living. Now when I visit, I adapt without thinking about it and find myself surprised when newcomers don’t fit into the new thinking patterns as naturally as I do.

In college this past winter, I learned about the importance of cultural sensitivity when relating to people from different backgrounds. In an article called “Cultural Intelligence,” P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowsk categorize three components of cultural intelligence: cognitive intelligence (analyzing and understanding cultural differences), physical intelligence (learning acceptable ways to handle oneself and interact with others), and emotional/motivational intelligence (believing that your efforts at cultural adaptation will be successful and that any differences can be bridged). Some people naturally rely more on one component, some on another, but for the best kind of cultural sensitivity and adaptability, all three must be employed.

Earley and Mosakowsk further categorize six types of individuals.

  • The provincial. Deeply immersed in his or her own culture. Can do very well at working with people in that setting, but may run into trouble when moving further afield.
  • The analyst. High on the cognitive component of cultural intelligence. Adapts through learning the needs and expectations of the alternative cultural in a methodical way.
  • The natural. Relies on intuition rather than deciphering cultural expectations analytically. Often does well in new situations, but often can’t explain
  • The ambassador. High on the emotional/motivational component of cultural intelligence. Steps into any situation with confidence and the belief that he will be able to handle it.
  • The mimic. Observes people in varying situations and mimics their actions, their mannerisms, their word choices, and even their tone of voice, finding they respond better to someone they perceive as like them.
  • The chameleon. High in all three components of cultural intelligence and able to blend so well into the new culture its members may not realize the difference. Very few people fit into this category.

Although the insights given by Earley and Mosakowsk are interesting, nothing has helped me in cross-cultural situations as much as what I learned from Norm Miller of Northern Youth Programs before flying into Caribou Hill for the very first time. “Go to learn,” he told us. “Don’t go with the attitude that you have the answers and you are coming to help these poor people who don’t have life figured out. Instead, see what you can learn from them.”

My first summer in Caribou Hill, I remembered that, and because I remembered it, I noticed things. I noticed how easily the people laughed and how genuine their laughter was. I noticed they were fully present in every moment and didn’t spend time worrying how their day would play out or whether they would accomplish everything on their to-do list. I noticed their generosity, their acceptance of others, their gentleness, their ability to endure.

Different cultures don’t always come in the form of different countries and different languages and different ethnic groups. Sometimes they are near us, sitting in our church benches and knocking on our doors, even sharing our last names. All of us have been formed in varying circumstances and, to a large degree, those formative years make up our culture.

Teach your children, teach your students—know yourself—that culture matters. It matters that we be sensitive to different ways of doing things and different ways of understanding life. We can be more effective servants of the kingdom if we are flexible and willing to use our cognitive, physical, and emotional abilities in ways that make us attractive and understandable to others.

The most important part of cultural adaptability, though, is simply this: that we are willing to learn. As you lead your charges to interact with other cultures, remember to tell them that their first and most important task is not to give, but to take, not to teach, but to learn. In any culture, it is only when we value what others have to offer that we ourselves have anything worth giving, and only when we are smart enough to know our way is not the only way that we can call ourselves culturally intelligent.

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