Cognition is generally thought of as your ability to process information. As related to culture, you can think about it as the complete knowledge and experience you have gained about cultural situations and your interactions within those situations. Additionally, how you have thought or processed this information is stored in your memory. Your ability to retrieve this stored information is defined as cognitive ability.
For example, I was conducting a workshop on cultural intelligence for educators, and one of the senior managers raised a question about proper etiquette in Southeast Asian cultures, particularly Lao and Hmong, that were present in her school district. She said, “I heard from one of my colleagues that it’s considered rude if you touched or patted a child’s head; that it’s sacred. I tell my staff never to do this. Am I telling them the right cultural information?”
I replied that, yes, in some Southeast Asian cultures, touching or patting someone on the head is considered rude. “But, you have to realize that cultural information may not be true for every Southeast Asian child or parent you meet. Your awareness of this fact and your experiences related to this fact is a good thing to recall, but what if your new situation doesn’t fit into your past experiences and what you know? What do you do?”
What I pointed out to her was that her awareness of this cultural fact was not enough. Earley and Peterson 1 stated that providing training in specific cognitive knowledge for multiple cultures is impractical. What is critical is equipping a manager with metacognitive skills so that, with time and experience, he or she can acquire new information concerning the cultural issues present in his or her team. With cultural intelligence, when the information you have does not fit a new situation, you have to be able to take in new information and reformulate it. Given this new information, you need to be flexible enough to reorganize how you think about the situation and the cultural fact(s) you have stored in your memory.
Throughout my educational and consulting sessions, I meet with people who are most concerned about “getting cultural facts and information correct.” By this I mean they are interested in “what they can and can’t do,” or “making sure they act within the boundaries of proper behaviors.” Some even want a “10 commandments of cultural etiquette.” As a result, most people end up with cultural facts and information that help them understand the culture, but not the ability to work with, and adapt to, the culture.
The reality is, when you are working on a multinational team or supervising and leading a multinational staff, you need to have a higher level of thinking (cognition). This is where cultural strategic thinking really matters and where metacognition becomes important.