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Building Cultural Intellegence

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    In a cultural diverse society, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to interact effectively with others. Our ability to communicate and interact with each other plays an integral role in the successful development of our relationships for personal and social prosperity. Building cultural intelligence requires active awareness of self, others, and context (Bucher 2008). Self-awareness requires an understanding of our cultural identity including intrinsic or extrinsic bias we have about others and social categories of people. Cultural background greatly influences perception and understanding, and how we identify ourselves reflects on how we communicate and get along with others. It is easier to adjust and change our interactions if we are able to recognize our own uniqueness, broaden our percepts, and respect others (Bucher 2008). We must be aware of our cultural identity including any multiple or changing identities we take on in different contexts as well as those we keep hidden or hide to avoid marginalization or recognition.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Man Looking in Front of Mirror. (CC BY 4.0; Min An)

    Active awareness of others requires us to use new cultural lenses. We must learn to recognize and appreciate commonalities in our culture not just differences. This practice evelops understanding of each other’s divergent needs, values, behaviors, interactions, and approach to teamwork (Bucher 2008). Understanding others involves evaluating assumptions and cultural truths. Cultural lens filter perceptions of others and conditions us to view the world and others in one way blinding us from what we have to offer or complement each other (Bucher 2008). Active awareness of others broadens one’s sociological imagination to see the world and others through a different lens and understand diverse perspectives that ultimately helps us interact and work together effectively.

    Today’s workplace requires us to have a global consciousness that encompasses awareness, understanding, and skills to work with people of diverse cultures (Bucher 2008). orking with diverse groups involves us learning about other cultures to manage complex and uncertain social situations and contexts. What may be culturally appropriate or pecific in one setting may not apply in another. This means we must develop a cultural understanding of not only differences and similarities, but those of cultural significance as well to identify which interactions fit certain situations or settings.


    1. How do you develop collaboration among people with different backgrounds and experiences?
    2. What role does power play in our ability to collaborate with others and develop deep levels of understanding?
    3. How might power structures be created when one group tries to provide aid to another?
    4. Research the Cultural Intelligence Center ( and online videos on the topic of building cultural intelligence such as Cultural Intelligence: A New Way of Thinking by Jeff Thomas ( Describe what information and free services are available online to help people improve their knowledge and communication skills with people of different cultural backgrounds and experiences.
    5. Provide examples of how you will apply the following skills to develop global consciousness:
      • Minimize culture shock
      • Recognize ethnocentrism
      • Practice cultural relativism
      • Develop multiple consciousness
      • Step outside your comfort zone

    As we come into contact with diverse people, one of our greatest challenges will be managing cross-cultural conflict. When people have opposing cultural values, beliefs, norms, or practices, they tend to create a mindset of division or the “us vs. them” perspective. This act of loyalty to one side or another displays tribalism and creates an ethnocentric and scapegoating environment where people judge and blame each other for any issues or problems. Everyone attaches some importance to what one values and believes. As a result, people from different cultures might attach greater or lesser importance to family and work. If people are arguing over the roles and commitment of women and men in the family and workplace, their personal values and beliefs are likely to influence their willingness to compromise or listen to one another. Learning to manage conflict among people from different cultural backgrounds increases our ability to build trust, respect all parties, deal with people’s behaviors, and assess success (Bucher 2008). How we deal with conflict influences productive or destructive results for others and ourselves.

    Self-assessment is key to managing cross-cultural conflicts. Having everyone involved in the conflict assess herself or himself first and recognize their cultural realities (i.e., history and biography) will help individuals see where they may clash or conflict with others. If someone comes from the perspective of men should lead, their interactions with others will display women in low regard or subordinate positions to men. Recognizing our cultural reality will help us identify how we might be stereotyping and treating others and give us cause to adapt and avoid conflict with those with differing realities.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Adult Baby Book Boy. (CC BY 4.0; Rene Asmussen).

    Some form of cultural bias is evident in everyone (Bucher 2008). Whether you have preferences based on gender, sexuality disability, region, social class or all social categories, they affect your thoughts and interactions with others. Many people believe women are nurturers and responsible for child rearing, so they do not believe men should get custody of the children when a family gets a divorce. Bias serves as the foundation for stereotyping and prejudice (Bucher 2008). Many of the ideas we have about others are ingrained, and we have to unlearn what we know to reduce or manage bias. Removing bias perspectives requires resocialization through an ongoing conscious effort in recognizing our bias then making a diligent effort to learn about others to dispel fiction from fact. Dealing with bias commands personal growth and the biggest obstacles are our fears and complacency to change.

    Additionally, power structures and stratification emerge in cross-cultural conflicts. The dynamics of power impact each of us (Bucher 2008). Our assumptions and interactions with each other is a result of our position and power in a particular context or setting. The social roles and categories we each fall into effect how and when we respond to each other. A Hispanic, female, college professor has the position and authority to speak and control conflict of people in her classroom but may have to show deference and humility when conflict arises at the Catholic Church she attends. The professor’s position in society is contextual and in some situations, she has the privileges of power, but in others, she may be marginalized or disregarded.

    Power effects how others view, relate, and interact with us (Bucher 2008). Power comes with the ability to change, and when you have power, you are able to invoke change. For example, the racial majority in the United States holds more economic, political, and social power than other groups in the nation. The dominant group’s power in the United States allows the group to define social and cultural norms as well as condemn or contest opposing views and perspectives. This group has consistently argued the reality of “reverse racism” even though racism is the practice of the dominant race benefitting off the oppression of others. Because the dominant group has felt prejudice and discrimination by others, they want to control the narrative and use their power to create a reality that further benefits their race by calling thoughts and actions against the group as “reverse racism.”

    However, when you are powerless, you may not have or be given the opportunity to participate or have a voice. Think about when you are communicating with someone who has more power than you. What do your tone, word choice, and body language project? So now imagine you are the person in a position of power because of your age, gender, race, or other social category what privilege does your position give you? Power implies authority, respect, significance, and value so those of us who do not have a social position of power in a time of conflict may feel and receive treatment that reinforces our lack of authority, disrespect, insignificance, and devalued. Therefore, power reinforces social exclusion of some inflating cross-cultural conflict (Ryle 2008). We must assess our cultural and social power as well as those of others we interact with to develop an inclusive environment that builds on respect and understanding to deal with conflicts more effectively.

    Communication is essential when confronted with cross-cultural conflict (Bucher 2008). Conflicts escalate from our inability to express our cultural realities or interact appropriately in diverse settings. In order to relate to each other with empathy and understanding, we must learn to employ use of positive words, phrases, and body language. Rather than engaging in negative words to take sides (e.g., “Tell your side of the problem” or “How did that effect you?”), use positive words that describe an experience or feeling. Use open-ended questions that focus on the situation or concern (e.g., “Could you explain to be sure everyone understands?” or “Explain how this is important and what needs to be different”) in your communications with others (Ryle 2008). In addition, our body language expresses our emotions and feelings to others. People are able to recognize sadness, fear, and disgust through the expressions and movements we make. It is important to project expressions, postures, and positions that are open and inviting even when we feel difference or uncomfortable around others. Remember, words and body language have meaning and set the tone or atmosphere in our interactions with others. The words and physical expressions we choose either inflate or deescalate cross-cultural conflicts.

    The act of reframing or rephrasing communications is also helpful in managing conflicts between diverse people. Reframing requires active listening skills and patience to translate negative and value-laden statements into neutral statements that focus on the actual issue or concern. This form of transformative mediation integrates neutral language that focuses on changing the message delivery, syntax or working, meaning, and context or situation to resolve destructive conflict. For example, reframe “That’s a stupid idea” to “I hear you would like to consider all possible options.” Conversely, reframe a direct verbal attack, “She lied! Why do you want to be friends with her?” to “I’m hearing that confidentiality and trust are important to you.” There are four steps to reframing: 1) actively listen to the statement; 2) identify the feelings, message, and interests in communications; 3) remove toxic language; and 4) re-state the issue or concern (Ryle 2008). These tips for resolving conflict helps people hear the underlying interests and cultural realities.


    PART 1

    1. Interview another student in class. Record the student’s responses to the following:


    • What are typical foods served in the culture?
    • Are there any typical styles of dress?
    • What do people do for recreation?
    • How is space used (e.g., How close should two people who are social acquaintances stand next to one another when they are having a conversation?)
    • How is public space used? For example, do people tend to “hang out” on the street, or are they in public because they are going from one place to the next?


    • How do people greet one another?
    • Describe how a significant holiday is celebrated.
    • How would a visitor be welcomed into a family member’s home?
    • What are the norms around weddings? Births? Deaths?


    • How important is hierarchy or social status?
    • How are gender roles perceived?
    • How do people view obligations toward one another?
    • What personal activities are seen as public? What activities are seen as private?
    • What are the cultural attitudes toward aging and the elderly?


    • How important is the individual in the culture? How important is the group?
    • How is time understood and measured? (e.g., How late can you be to class, work, family event, or appointment before you are considered rude?)
    • Is change considered positive or negative?
    • What are the criteria for individual success?
    • What is the relationship between humans and nature? (e.g., Do humans dominate nature? does nature dominate humans? Do the two live in harmony?)
    • What is considered humorous or funny?
    • How do individuals “know” things? (e.g., Are people encouraged to question things? Are they encouraged to master accepted wisdom?)
    • Are people encouraged to be more action-oriented (i.e., doers) or to be contemplative (i.e., thinkers)?
    • What is the role of luck in people’s lives?
    • How is divine power or spirituality viewed?

    PART 2

    1. Exchange the photos each of you took in the exercise.
    2. Next visit the website Dollar Street (
    3. Compare the visual ethnography photos with other people throughout the world.
    4. In complete sentences, explain the differences and similarities based on income and country. Specifically, describe what the poorest conditions are for each item as well as the richest conditions and what similarities and/or differences exist in comparison to the student photos.

    PART 3

    Write a paper summarizing the ethnographic data you collected and examined. Your paper must include a description and analysis of the following:

    • Thesis statement and introductory paragraph (3-5 sentences) about the student you studied and learned about for this project and methods used to gather data.
    • A summary of the ethnography interview containing a minimum of five paragraphs (3-5 sentences each) with first level headings entitled cultural expressions, standard behaviors, specific beliefs, and entrenched ideologies.
    • A comparison of visual ethnography photos with other people throughout the world using the Dollar Street website ( Write a minimum of 10 paragraphs (3-5 sentences each) discussing the poorest and richest conditions of the archived photos on the website, and explain the similarities and/or differences to the 22 photos shared by your study subject.
    • Concluding paragraph (3-5 sentences) telling what you learned by completing an ethnography project and the significance to understanding cultural sociology.

    Type and double-space project papers with paragraphs comprised of three to five sentences in length and first level headers (left justified, all caps) as appropriate. Do not write your paper in one block paragraph. Include parenthetical and complete reference citations in ASA format as appropriate.

    This page titled Building Cultural Intellegence is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.