Cultural blindness, or the belief that color, class and culture make no difference, is often well-intentioned but definitely flawed. It inadvertently alienates people of under-represented groups, marginalizes diverse colleagues and drives clients away. Yet fully 66.8% of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory around the world practice this cultural blindness, or minimization on one another, within their organizations. To attract, retain and promote diverse talent and customers, employees and organizations need cultural intelligence, which has four essential skills….
1. Get to know yourself
Start with yourself. Get to know yourself. Self-knowledge is essential to understanding others. Pay attention to your preferences for working and interacting. Do you prefer a structured day or do you like to go with the flow? Do you like to build consensus before making a decision, or do you prefer to decide without input? How do you build trust? Are you more inclined to trust another because of their accomplishments and timeliness or because of the personal relationship you have with them?
As you notice and name your preferences, you can…
- Appreciate what’s unique and special about you.
- Recognize how your preferences have been formed by your background and cultural surroundings.
- See how your preferences are different from others’ because of how you and they might’ve been brought up.
Our upbringing is so natural and normal to us that we can inadvertently think everyone thinks, feels and reacts the same way we do. This blinds us to recognizing that the people around us have different values, customs and experiences than we do. But as we’re curious about and become more aware of our own cultural preferences (and biases), and how they influence what we think, feel and see, we notice how each of us is unique and uniquely gifted.
It’s important to note that deeply appreciating ourselves, our uniqueness and cultural surroundings is what ultimately gives us the heart and headspace to do the same for others.
2. Contemplate thought, heart and action
When we’re talking with someone who has a perspective or background that’s unfamiliar to us, it can be unsettling – awkward, even. That’s a normal reaction when you’re first overcoming cultural blindness.
When we’re feeling awkward, one normal response is to shy away in silence or find someone to blame and lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation.
To move beyond that win/lose mentality, there’s a third way. A culturally intelligent person has a third option: contemplation and awareness. Contemplation is the opposite of interacting with others mindlessly, or reflexively. In contemplation, we slow down, take a deep breath, observe our internal reaction and how the other person seems to be reacting and then work toward developing a shared understanding with them.
In this crucial moment of observation, we can hold a little more lightly our habitual reactions and snap judgments, and instead gather more information to make sense of the situation. We ask open-ended questions and seek to understand the other person’s point of view, even if their perspective or experience is different from our own. We might ask, “Would you mind telling me the story?” Or, “What has been your experience?” This is the time to practice humility and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
The benefits of contemplation are that we get to…
- Control our reaction
- Get past the awkward part faster
- Notice our impact on the other person
- Make a genuine connection with another person
3. Grow your understanding of others
To overcome cultural blindness, we also need to learn about other cultures — others’ history, customs, beliefs and values. It’s really intriguing to start by tapping into your natural curiosity about another person or group within your experience and focus on their culture. You can read books and articles, watch films and videos and visit new places. Notice how your customs, beliefs and values are the same and different. Before you talk more specifically with another person about their culture, it’s helpful and wise to do your homework and learn as much as possible about your own and their cultural backgrounds.
It’s also helpful to understand that after years of being belittled under our society’s system of cultural blindness (minimization), people from under-represented groups may hesitate to talk with you or speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when they’re asked. As a result, it can take time, compassion and perseverance to build a relationship of mutual trust.
While you’re learning, consider what it might be like to look at the world from another’s perspective. Practice looking at a situation or experience through their cultural lens and experience. Practice compassion and imagine how they might feel and think. Think about how your words and actions might come across to others and check your impact on them. You might say, “What was the impact of my words?”
4. Build bridges across differences
To upend cultural blindness, a culturally intelligent person builds bridges with others and expresses compassion toward them. This can take courage because they don’t wait for the other person to go first; they take responsibility for their words and actions and are proactive.
The opposite of building bridges is blaming others. There’s little point in asking, “Who’s to blame for the problems in our organization or the disparities in our society? A question like that often makes people feel defensive, triggering a desire to protect themselves. Why is this such a common practice in our society?
While protecting individual rights is rightfully cherished in America, the primacy of individualism can inadvertently fixate people’s attention on finger-pointing and blaming. That cuts us off from others and reinforces cultural blindness. It’s what keeps us from doing the dignified courageous work of showing up for one another. Building bridges, we can:
- Express genuine compassion for people who are too-often sidelined or silenced, and
- Ask a question that redirects our attention outward, toward a shared responsibility and common good.
To build a bridge, we can ask a better question than “who’s to blame?” We can ask, “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to ensure everyone feels valued, heard and engaged?” A question like this allows us to stop wasting precious time and energy on self-protection, blame and shame and instead consider how we can make a difference, develop productive relationships and participate in systemic change.
When you develop and practice these four essential skills of cultural intelligence, you’ll see a shift, individually and collectively, from thinking about me to thinking about me and you and us. We are then no longer waiting for the other to change but discovering our own and collective agency for bringing about change.
No matter how fractured things seem to be, there’s always an opportunity to slow down, seek to understand and discover how we can depend on our connectedness. Our collective well-being develops one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees and customers, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. These conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build genuine connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody. The key to greater retention, collaboration, productivity and profit rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued, seen and heard within the organization. It’s a journey that’s empowering, enlightening and fulfilling. -Amy Narishkin, PhD