The absolute imperative of understanding other people’s cultures

I have just been dipping in again to Erin Meyer’s very readable book ‘The Culture Map’, which I do from time to time, just to remind myself of the urgent imperative of developing cultural understanding in a globalised world – the world in which our young people are growing up, and in which they will have to work and live. To the initiated, the terms ‘intercultural sensitivity’, ‘intercultural understanding’ and ‘intercultural fluency’ – all of which I group together under the encompassing term ‘global mobility’ – are without any shadow of a doubt essential for our young people to be able to flourish and thrive in today’s world; what is deeply concerning, however, is that so many people are as yet uninitiated into this concept …

Perhaps Erin Meyer’s words will help … in her conclusion, after several chapters of (fascinating, thought-provoking and enjoyable) examples of how diverse cultural teams have learned to work with one another by understanding better where they stand on various different scales of interaction and philosophy, and by exploring the preconceptions with which they have been brought up, she reminds the reader that while every individual is of course different in their own human right,

‘Yet the culture in which we are brought up has a profound impact on how we see the world. In any given culture, members are conditioned to understand the world in a particular way, to see certain communication patterns as effective or undesirable, to find certain arguments persuasive or lacking merit, to consider certain ways of making decisions or measuring time “natural” or “strange”.’

Leaders who are armed with this appreciation are, she points out, far better prepared to be able to understand and work effectively with people from around the world, and, as she points out,

When we worked in offices surrounded by others from our own tribe, awareness of basic human psychological needs and motivations, as well as a sensitivity to individual differences was enough. But as globalization transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers, and colleagues around the world’.

For adults already enmeshed in the world of work – or wishing to extend their sphere of influence and their success – then The Culture Map makes an excellent starting point; school leaders should absolutely read it too, because the beauty of school is that it provides an opportunity for children and young people to have time, over several years, to become immersed in an appreciation and working knowledge of the subtle differences of other cultures … provided, of course, that the school really, really commits to a fundamental shift in its priorities and in its primary focus.

In our world today, where our children’s generation face whole-world problems which can only be tackled on a global scale, cross-cultural communication, at a deep and powerful level, is essential. In the schools where I have challenged and worked on global mobility, I have seen how it is possible to make a difference, and my message to schools and their leaders is … act now … and start immediately by educating yourselves … because where you lead, others will follow …

Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

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