Cultural intelligence. It’s not a phrase you might hear often but it’s long past time to change that.
Intelligence as a function of “book smarts,” “rational” and “logical” analysis, and knowledge production and reproduction, has long been the center of societal praise. Emotional intelligence (EI) has also received some limelight in the last twenty years. EI emphasizes the importance of observing and comprehending emotional states and feelings of the self and the other.
Cultural intelligence as a concept has not yet enjoyed the same popular success despite living in a more globalized and accessible world. But what does one mean by cultural intelligence? Like many concepts in social sciences and humanities, the definition is more broad than narrow.
My definition of cultural intelligence is as follows: Cultural intelligence is the ability of an individual to recognize the cultural perspectives of one’s self and another, through a historical comprehension of context and power, in relation to social groups and identity.
While giving a definition to experiences is part of the purpose of being a student or scholar of culture (or any academic discipline, really), many people have lived-experiences or experiences of identity that have not been labelled, or where the definition is unknown to them. For example, one might have been an “emotionally intelligent” person before emotional intelligence became part of the cultural vernacular. The same is true for cultural intelligence.
The following are 14 signs you’re a culturally intelligent person:
1. You understand the importance of the individual. You understand how important their sole choices are, and that they come from somewhere. And you understand that the place – the culture or many cultures they identify with, will always play a role in their perspectives and experiences.
2. You appreciate that people are not the sole function of the culture(s) they identify with. You understand that any individual may be closer to or farther away from the characteristics that are associated with any one culture. And that regardless of their distance to these cultural characteristics, they can still identify with said culture.
3. You know that who people are, is influenced by a multitude of identities. These identities include race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, religion (or lack thereof), political affiliation, etc. You understand that identity is an ongoing dynamic process throughout one’s life.
4. You have an unrelenting curiosity about people’s stories. That is, you seek to understand their past experiences at different stages of their lives in relation to who they are. You appreciate that the more you understand a person’s history and interaction with different groups or lack thereof, the more you understand them.
5. You have a strong desire to learn things in new and different ways. Whether reading alternative histories or personal accounts, traveling for the sake of educating yourself, or challenging yourself to become conversational in a language, you believe in continuous and diverse learning.
6. In your analysis of political, social, cultural, and media events and occurrences, you first begin with context. For you, understanding the factors that affect the beginning of things and the social climate in which phenomenons take place, largely explains why and how they come to fruition.
7. You know how to ask good questions. People often think that asking questions is something that can be done as is – without education or tact. But the difference between a good question and a bad one can be the difference between a good discussion and a bad one. For you, diligence and humility precede questions in important social discussions.
8. You recognize the importance of empathy in human interactions overall. When confronted by a cultural feature that challenges your most fundamental beliefs, no matter how difficult, you will showcase empathy. This doesn’t make you a pushover, it makes you someone people can approach for a listening ear about a contentious topic.
9. You believe in simple things but you don’t believe in oversimplifying things. You know that culture can be simple when approached with the right lens. But you also know that culture and its many facets can be inherently complicated. And in a rush to reach solutions, understanding a feature of culture should not be (over) simplified.
10. You know how to dialogue respectfully. Culturally intelligent people know that mere disagreement does not equate attack. That you can respect an argument and even consider it valid, while also countering it. But you also know that there are facts in the real world and in real experiences that must be respected.
11. You speak when you know, you listen when you don’t. When you understand something, either by education or experience, you’ll always be willing to add to the conversation. But when you don’t understand something, you prefer to sit back, listen, absorb, and try to find out as much as possible.
12. You choose to understand the things you fear or the things that bring you discomfort. Like everyone else, you have your own beliefs and values, but rather than fear things you don’t know, you become curious about them. You do this to lessen your fears and discomforts but also to try to see things from another person’s point of view.
13. You actually listen to people when they express cultural concerns. Rather than get defensive about your actions or words, you try to understand why someone may have the perspective they do. You take their perspective into consideration and navigate how to move forward in a similar context next time.
14. You believe that differences are good things. You know that people, despite their differences, have some fundamental similarities that they can appreciate. But you also believe the differences between people are things to learn from and value; not things that inherently have to cause division. To you, diversity is beautiful, not divisive.
15. You enjoy the grey of life. Culturally intelligent people love the grey – the questions that don’t have easy answers or maybe don’t even have any singular answer. They know that people and things and life are complicated. And they enjoy seeing all the different ways the culture of everything plays a role in everything.