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Are You a 'Cultural Learner' or a 'Cultural Critic'?

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

As our world becomes more global, it is becoming more and more important to find ways to break down the walls that divide us and in their place build strong relational bridges. To succeed in culturally diverse environments, you and I need to adopt a posture of curiosity that will allow us to become aware of the perceptions that unintentionally separate. We can then see the people around us for the uniquely wired cultural human beings that they are and adapt our behaviors to connect with them. By adopting this posture of curiosity, we become cultural learners. This article will help you adopt this posture and begin your journey as a lifelong cultural learner.

What is a cultural learner?

The first step in becoming a cultural learner is understanding the perceptions that shape our thinking and behavior. We also need to see that while we fit into larger families, cultures, language groups, and nations, each of us is on a unique cultural journey. Though we have shared history with larger groups, we have also had unique cultural experiences that set us apart from them. There is value in embarking on a journey that makes culture personal without diminishing the weight of our societal groupings.

Becoming a Cultural Learner means:

  • Choosing to rely less on natural, innate perceptions and biases, so that we can continually learn new things about people and their unique culture. Being a cultural learner is a continuous and active process that requires attention, not only now, but on an ongoing basis. We never 'arrive' at being 'cultural experts', but we spend our lives continually learning.

  • Asking questions to understand the reasons people behave the way they do. A cultural learner is willing to expand their worldview, and acknowledge the value of other viewpoints, even when they do not agree with them. A cultural learner challenges their familiar assumptions and perceptions so they can evaluate and eventually eliminate habits that separate others from themselves, with a goal to create genuine, generous relationships with others.

  • Committing to consistently aligning ourselves to a high standard, a course of continuous growth in cultural awareness and cultural agility. A cultural learner recognizes their cultural perceptions and preferences, but is neither limited by them, nor do they allow differences of opinion to polarize them from others.

Why is being a cultural learner so important?

The relational challenges we face in our intercultural environments are linked to our perceptions. How we perceive ourselves and others has an impact on the relationships we form and the effectiveness of our work teams. Our perceptions shape our thoughts and feelings which, in turn, influence how we interpret situations, draw conclusions, and make choices.

Managing our perceptions broadens our thinking and creates more inclusive and healthy work environments. This will, in turn, create an environment of trust, where collaboration and innovation flow freely, creating momentum for future success.

For one team which formed virtually during the pandemic, fostering a cultural learner mindset allowed them to thrive despite spanning six African countries and never meeting face to face. This team attributed their success to each team member’s desire to understand their colleagues’ perspectives and make room for each perspective, creating a positive inclusive team culture.

The good news is there are tools to help you become a cultural learner. At KnowledgeWorkx, we developed the Three Colors of Worldview which allows you to understand the deep beliefs and drivers behind your cultural thinking and understand how your worldview influences your interactions. Another tool is the 12 Dimensions of Culture, which will enable you to identify both your own cultural norms and values and those of others. This tool will guide you in using neutral language so that you can have important conversations about personal cultural preferences. These tools will give you, the cultural learner, the language and skills you need to remain dynamic and relevant in an ever-changing, intercultural world.

What is hindering us from becoming cultural learners?

There is a growing paradox that while our world tends towards diversity in various contexts, we are becoming increasingly polarized by differing views. Our desire for ‘collaborative, cooperative, and communicative advantage’ is stifled by the rift created by differing values and assumptions, which limits our ability to work together successfully.

Polarization would have us focus on our differences, creating a gap between us. When we are tempted to use these categories to divide us, we should instead use the cultural learner mindset to find similarities between people and close the rifts that polarization causes.

Communication in intercultural settings is difficult enough as it is, and in the last year workplace stress has risen considerably. Employees are more fearful, tired, angry, frustrated, and insecure than they have ever been, and these emotions give way to further division in teams. These challenges and stressors keep us stuck in our ways, relying on our limited perceptions instead of being open to new ways of perceiving the world around us. This increased level of stress diminishes our ability to connect and develop meaningful relationships in the workplace which, in turn, negatively affects corporate culture.

Cultural learner behaviors and their impacts

Our innate tendency to make assumptions and judge people is a stumbling block in our path as we become cultural learners. Stress and unconscious bias slow our cultural learning and prevent us from making deeper connections with important people in our lives.

As we journey towards becoming cultural learners, let us consider what happens when we refuse to foster curiosity regarding the people in our lives and the impact this lack of curiosity can have on the people around us.

When we refuse to become cultural learners:

  • We believe that our perspective is the only ‘real’ one, so we collect evidence to prove our perspective instead of truly learning about the views of others.

    • As a result, coworkers are less likely to share information and ideas which limits creativity and business growth.

  • We believe that we are superior and that others are inferior and that everyone else should fall in line with our superior viewpoint.

    • This only breeds fear and distrust, which will, in time, increase staff turnover.

  • We do not listen or try to understand other viewpoints.

    • This will lead to longer problem-solving cycles, with management doing more damage control than leading the organization toward global success.

  • We either trivialize differences and mock them, or see differences as threatening, and eliminate them.

    • This only makes it harder to nurture team spirit and build corporate culture.

In contrast, this will be your impact as you embark on the journey of becoming a cultural learner:

  • You will recognize the many viewpoints in a room and be willing to consider them and expand your own worldview.

    • This will create an environment of trust and lead to an increase in creativity and innovation within the workplace.

  • You will be prepared to explore other perspectives even though you won’t always agree with them.

    • This will allow problems to be identified and solved faster.

  • You will learn how to ask questions and begin to understand the reasons people behave the way they do.

    • This will increase synergy and teamwork and strengthen corporate culture.

  • You will celebrate differences and see them as an opportunity to learn.

    • This will give your company success as it embarks into global markets.

How do I become a cultural learner?

On the journey to becoming a cultural learner, you will need to realize that each person is on a unique cultural journey. Without disregarding the larger groups that we belong to such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, and race, we begin by choosing not to allow these categories to limit our understanding and ability to connect with people.

A group in India committed to open their own perspectives through their cultural learner training. They found that, while they were all Indian and naturally made assumptions about each other, there was a wealth of information to learn once they began to dig deeper and engage each person as individuals with their own self-culture. Lines of race or region can be broken by powerful questions and meaningful conversations that seek to build bridges and break down walls.

When we begin to see people as individuals on a unique cultural journey, we humanize them and personalize their experiences, and close the gap between us. This new understanding is the soil which grows mutual trust and respect. Where people feel respected and validated, rich relationships will form, and the sharing of ideas will allow for greater collaboration with a high potential for tangible increases in company performance.

What’s Next?

What is a cultural learner? A cultural learner is someone who commits to continuous growth in cultural awareness and cultural agility. A cultural learner recognizes their perceptions and preferences, but is not limited by them, nor do they allow differences of opinion to polarize themselves from fellow team members.

Now you are well on your way to becoming a cultural learner. You have begun to slow the process of using biased perceptions to shape your responses. You can become a cultural learner who overcomes negative stereotypes to become a catalyst for change, and an invaluable contributor to the globalized world of the future.

Keep growing as a cultural learner with monthly insights to help you apply these skills:

Signup Here Take your cultural learner journey to the next level by getting certified in Inter-Cultural Intelligence. You will develop your cultural agility with a cohort from around the world and leave equipped to bring cultural agility to any workplace and develop it in those around you.


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