Developing Cultural Understanding


Many of us recognize that it is essential to develop our ability to “cross and connect cultures.” Once upon a time, cross-cultural skills might have been perceived as necessary only for the expat manager sent from Boston to Burma, but today nearly everyone encounters some kind of cultural difference in their daily lives, whether at work, at school, in their neighborhoods, or in virtual interactions. Indeed, our lives have become global in a way that my great-grandparents could never have imagined! Surrounded by people more or less like them (fellow Volga Germans in rural western Nebraska), they existed in a monocultural bubble where people spoke the same hybrid language, cooked the same food, enjoyed the same card games, and even had the same weekly rhythm to their chores.

Today, it is hard to take for granted that the people around us will have a similar heritage as ours, let alone share our religious beliefs, viewpoints, and communication styles. This can be jarring when we step outside and see that our world is changing, and it can be even more shocking when we move to a new place and discover that we are the outsider, the one who is “doing it wrong.” These experiences can create a disequilibrium that can thrust individuals into conflict with those around them, not to mention themselves.

One of my roles as an intercultural specialist is to coach people who are going through cross-cultural confusion, and it is my belief (just as in the cliché), that in every crisis there is an opportunity. For if cultural differences cause us to question what we know, how we know it, who we are, what we think, and what we value in life, we can find ourselves in fertile ground for discovering a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we share.

I think it is because of this perspective that I was invited to participate in July’s issue of Lifewide Magazine, which explores the “Ecology of Developing Cultural Understanding.” In the first place, I shared an article that originally appeared on this site, which looks at similarities and differences (p. 49). Secondly, I drafted an original article on “Helping people appreciate, live, and work in other cultures” (p. 108). This piece was a collaborative effort with the UK-based publication’s commissioning editor, as it involved many discussions about the nature of ecological learning as it pertained to crossing cultures, or rather, how crossing cultures affords us a space where ecological learning is possible.

While I was happy to share my two cents, an even greater joy is learning from my fellow contributors’ diverse voices and perspectives. The magazine is quite long, so chew slowly and let the flavor of one piece linger on your palate before you scramble to the next one. Ecological learning – like personal development generally – isn’t something to rush. I hope you enjoy the magazine, and that you’ll consider learning more about this project. And as always, please let me know if there is someway that I can help!

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