As a young Hmong American child growing up in two cultures, I played a game where I guessed the cultural background of everyone around me, regardless of their ethnicity or race, gender or class. It was my version of the game “I Spy,” a popular game in the United States that encourages children to be observant of, and learn to identify, objects, places, people, and things. My elementary schoolteacher taught me the game, and because I wanted to be “just like every American child,” I played it every time I had the opportunity. At that time, I did not realize that I was categorizing the things “I spied” into boxes:
I spy a white person who goes to church.
I spy a rich, white man going to work.
I spy a black man running to catch the bus.
I did not know about “labels” and “stereotypes” and how an innocent game of observation can become harmful in creating blind spots, yet be powerful in bringing to the surface one’s assumptions and perceptions.
As an educator and consultant, I use this personal story in my classroom as an example when discussing core elements of identity, culture, diversity, and inclusion. Generally, the conversation starts with a discussion of the physical differences of people and then moves into the invisible differences of culture: rules of engagement, a culture’s relationship to nature, socially acceptable ways of interacting, notions of justice, decision making, working styles, and more. More often than I would like to admit, a large majority of time, conversations about cultural differences (whether in a classroom or organizational setting) focus on physical differences and race and ethnicity as the core of culture. I have to remind managers and leaders that subcultures exist, as well as invisible things they do not see, including individual beliefs and assumptions that contribute to the creation of culture.
It is hard for human beings not to categorize because labels help us relate to the world. Ruth Hubbard, 1 an American scientist, said that language helps us to categorize our feelings and thoughts. In this way, we come to understand what is real in our world. These thoughts and feelings set the context for the ways in which we see the world. They frame our thinking and structure our behaviors. George Lakoff 2 wrote that every word in our thinking “evokes a frame,” which has been embedded in the brain over long periods of time. Speaking or thinking about the words and images strengthens the neural circuit and reinforces the frame. Although much of what we know and what we have learned came from our early childhood, our thinking continues to be shaped through daily verbal and nonverbal communication and interactions. When we see something that disrupts our frame, our reaction is to protect ourselves and our ways of knowing—anything we can do to reinforce our frame.
There have been numerous times when I have stood in line—in a grocery store, a movie theater, a bank, or a retail store—and the person before or after me becomes visibly upset when a person (usually from a different ethnic group) cuts into the line. “Those people! Don’t they know what a line is?” Yet, in other situations, I hear, “That person just cut in line. Oh well.” Depending on one’s frame—in this case, a cultural frame—standing in a line may or may not be a cultural norm. Your response to the disruption (the image of someone cutting in line) reinforces your frame. You can react with any of the following emotions: anger, surprise, disappointment, rage, or impatience. Alternatively, you may simply ignore it.
Cultural frameworks have a significant impact on how we express ourselves. I frequently tell managers and leaders that we need to learn how to shift our paradigms when working with cultural differences. When we shift, we not only see a different perspective, we are transformed in the process. Margaret Wheatley calls this system shift “emergence,” which she describes as “a sudden appearance of a new insight, a new system, and a new capacity.” 3 The process is about “stepping outside” and “standing apart” from our world views. When we emerge, we see our thought patterns and habits that form. In this process, we choose to let go of old, inactive learning. Consciously, we choose to participate in continuously learning by adapting to the changing nature of our environments.
Cultural intelligence (CI) principles help to facilitate awareness for, and understanding of, cultural frames. When applied, they bring our frameworks to a conscious level. At a level where we can see the frames, we can then identify what it will take to learn new patterns of thought—new ways to reframe. Reframing, according to Lakoff, “requires a rewiring of the brain. That may take an investment of time, effort, and money.” 4 To be culturally intelligent is to reframe or rewire your brain. You create new patterns and new frames by suspending your judgments and assumptions, by considering the old patterns in the face of the new or unfamiliar, and by choosing to change your behavior and attitudes based on reflection and new interpretation. Cultural intelligence is the openness to emergence, not just about the unfamiliar and new culture but about you—who you are and who you could become.