Cultural Intelligence

Posted: February 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

A few weeks ago, there was quite a dust up regarding Pete Hoekstra’s ads employing ridiculous stereotypes and evoking the yellow peril. Eugene Cho, Helen Lee, and myself wrote a joint blog post (which I failed to post). It turns out that the post was actually forwarded to the Hoekstra campaign.  They did pull the ad and changed the website.

What is your Cultural IQ?

Imagine this scenario occurring in your workplace. It’s your company’s annual corporate retreat, and in a misguided attempt to inject humor into the event, your leaders present a skit in which they all pretend to be disabled in some way.

They hobble around with awkward positions, as if paralyzed or unable to use particular limbs; they exaggerate their speech and behavior to grossly characterize those who have communication difficulties, and all these representations are done in a mocking and demeaning way, to garner a few laughs.

How about the Church?

No modern-day corporation would do this. And yet, in the context of Christian organizations and churches, similar situations still occur.

We recently witnessed a sermon video in which the pastor of a large, multi-site church in Minnesota brought an Asian man on stage representing a “samurai” and had him sit before the congregation, stone-faced and silent, while the pastor flailed his arms in a cartoonish imitation of karate moves while yelling random Asian-sounding gibberish, then banged a loud gong in an attempt to rattle the “samurai’s focus.”

As word of the video spread through the Asian American community and beyond, the church took it down but chose to ignore repeated overtures for dialogue from Asian-American Christians. In our fictional scenario above, this would be equivalent to the company leaders hearing rumblings from people who were offended with their dramatic representations and responding:

“It doesn’t matter what you think. We are the leaders, and it’s our choice how and what we want to communicate. If you didn’t like it, it’s not our problem.”

The church’s motivation may have been well intentioned; like many others before them who have co-opted another culture to serve their own purposes, they were aiming to be “relevant,” “engaging,” “creative,” “cool,” “hip.” But this sermon reflected none of those qualities, revealing instead an extreme lack of cultural intelligence.

For those who are passionate about the future of Christian leadership, for those who seek to or who already influence a group of followers, we have a prediction: more so than “emotional intelligence” or cognitive ability, your leadership prowess will be largely affected by how much cultural intelligence you possess and demonstrate.

What is cultural intelligence?

Our nation is moving rapidly towards racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, and American Christianity is bearing witness to these dramatic changes. Workplaces, congregations, conferences, and readerships are all changing to reflect this reality, but Christian leaders are lagging behind in attaining the cultural intelligence they need in order to navigate through this multi-cultural reality.

Cultural intelligence is not merely gaining intellectual knowledge about another culture. Just because you like samurai/ninja culture and have seen Kung Fu movies does not mean that you possess cultural intelligence. Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect.

Without cultural intelligence, a leader runs the risk of caricaturing other cultures, as in the church’s example above. You cannot appropriately represent a culture that you have not taken the time to know or understand. And when you attempt to do so, you not only dishonor those who are a part of the culture you are diminishing, but you also dishonor the One who has created every tongue, tribe, and nation to begin with.

None of us can claim perfect understanding of the wonderful diversity that exists both around the globe and even within our own country. But Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation, and Christian leaders are the ones who need to step forward in the hard work of developing cultural intelligence.

What are steps that leaders can take to increase their cultural IQ?

Here are three simple ways to begin:

  • Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new cultural experiences that you have never tried–foods, styles of worship, entertainment, for example. As you normalize the discomfort of new cultural experiences, your sensitivity for those cultures will increase.
  • Examine your personal relationships: how often do you spend time with those from a different cultural background? If your relationships overly homogeneous, how can you expand your relational horizons?
  • Ask someone from a different culture to mentor you. As you meet leaders who speak into your spiritual and emotional life from a different cultural context, your understanding of our changing world will expand.

Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility.

You can be “relevant” or you can be a reconciler: make the intelligent choice.

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Comments
  1. Reid says:

    This is excellent, prof. I’m encouraged by your challenge and insight.

  2. […] Jesus. No doubt, many of these individuals were well meaning believers, but many seem to lack cultural intelligence and a general respect for God given cultural distinction. Missionaries would recall how […]

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