Why Do We Need Cultural Intelligence? Isn’t The World Flat?

Why Do We Need Cultural Intelligence? Isn’t The World Flat?

by Felicity Menzies

Culture is fluid. It changes over time as groups innovate or adopt technological or social solutions from other cultures. Some argue that the forces of globalisation are creating a single global culture. Dress, language,  and business practices are increasingly global. Tangible cultural elements are transferred across borders with speed and ease.

But surface similarities can be problematic. They can mislead us into assuming we are more similar than we really are.

Beyond skin-deep

Evidence suggests that the core elements of culture—values, beliefs and assumptions—are more resistant to change. Relative differences between cultures, with regards to their core values, have remained stable over many decades.

Cultural resistance

Cultural elements do not exist independently of each other. Each element is part of an organised framework for living. Changes at the surface might be resisted because of flow-on effects to core elements. For example, certain cultures reject the legalisation of marriage between homosexuals, arguing that it undermines marriage and family values. The more embedded a cultural element, the more resistant it will be to change.

Case study: the Singapore mother tongue policy

Singapore enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, and the fact that it has adopted many Western practices, is a contributing factor. Yet Singapore has also maintained the cultural traditions of its three main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. These groups make up approximately 75 percent, 13 percent, and 9 percent of the population respectively. Reflecting this diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

To promote domestic harmony among the different ethnic groups, and integration into the international economy, English is the common business language. The constitution, law, and business matters are in English.

Until the late 1980s, Singaporean students had the choice of receiving their education in one of Singapore’s four official languages. Because parents viewed English as a key to success in business, enrolments in English–instructed schools dramatically surpassed those in non–English schools. This raised concerns about the erosion of Asian values and other cultural elements.

Responding to these concerns, the Singaporean education system became bilingual in 1987. English is the first language and, from primary school onwards, over 80 percent of instruction is in English. Local students, however, must take mother tongue lessons in one of the three other official languages. A non–Tamil Indian may choose either Tamil or a non–Tamil Indian language such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, or Urdu. The mother tongue studied depends on the ethnicity of the child.

Maths and science are taught in English, while the mother tongue is used for classes in moral education and for the transmission of cultural values. The bilingual policy ensures a balance between retaining cultural values and traditions and developing English competency for success in global business.

Defending the social glue: cultural backlash

Cultural values form an integral part of an individual’s self-identity. Groups will defend their core values if those values are threatened. This might lead to protests or even violent conflict.

Cultural conflict is a main concern in a large percentage of the world’s geopolitical hot spots. But conflicts over values can occur at any level of culture—national, regional, ethnic, organisational or subcultural. Examples evident in the modern Western world include the passionate and sometimes violent debates over abortion and same-sex marriage; the high failure rates in corporate mergers and acquisitions, even domestically; objections to immigration; and intergenerational criticism.

Nope, the world is still round!

The theory of cultural convergence is not supported by research. Core differences remain intact, and, it can be said with confidence, will persist. Increasing integration will expose these differences to an even greater extent. Cultural Intelligence helps to manage this complexity by preventing cultural myopia—even when a surface likeness suggests similarity.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.