Cultural Intelligence And Cultural Shock

Some theories think of emotions as universal phenomena, although they are affected by the cultural context that we live in. As previously mentioned, some emotions are indeed experienced in similar ways across all cultures but other emotions show considerable cultural differences. Since nobody is the same, different personalities might influence the way we think, perceive and feel things. Emotions are "internal phenomena that can, but do not always, make themselves observable through expression and behaviour". (Niedenthal, P.M et al, 2006).

An individual’s gender, class, family background and other factors may also influence the way emotions are experienced and this within the same culture. Apart from pertaining to the individual, the surrounding society also influences to some degree the way emotions are experienced. Thus the reactions some events provoke and the way they are perceived might differ from one culture to another. This means that whilst sadness is a universal emotion, the way in which we express our sadness or grief may be different. Ways in which culture influences emotions.

Our interaction with others is what brings about our emotions. These interactions happen within the framework of the culture we live in. We learn about emotions from observation, we see how people respond to particular situations, how they express their emotions but also we assess their reaction toward us when we manifest emotions. Lev Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development argues that it “stems from social interaction, from guided learning within the zone of proximal development as children and their parents’ co-construct knowledge.” Therefore the environment in which children grow up and the interaction with their care-givers will influence how they think and what they think. This is a contributing factor to the fact that for example Americans are better at recognizing emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, and sadness than the Japanese. This is attributed to the culture of individualism which is associated with better recognition of anger, fear, and happiness.

The Western culture also prioritizes self-promotion as opposed to the Asian culture of social harmony over individual gain. This results in a different concept of happiness. In a study conducted by Jeanne Tsai, many of the subjects were Stanford students, and when asked about the happiest moment of their lives, they usually mentioned getting into Stanford or winning a big competition or some other once-in-a-lifetime highly emotional moment. On the other hand, Asian research subjects would equate happiness with more everyday moments, like enjoying a good book or going for a walk. Shame is also viewed differently. Whereas the Western culture might catagorise shame as a negative emotion, one which makes us withdraw from others, the Asian culture sees shame as an emotion with leads to reaching out to others and building relationships.

What happens to emotions when people move to other cultures? Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) came up with the term Cultural Shock to describe how people react to strange and unfamiliar places. This term has become widely used and sometimes misused in cross-cultural psychology. However, cultural shock is not a myth and people find it hard to overcome it. In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Marianna Pogosyan (2018) interviews Batja Mesquita, a pioneer in cultural psychology who describes this phenomenon as “feeling inadequate by other culture’s norms.” It is a slow process for emotions to acculturate and this happens when there is enough interaction with people.

We sometimes use the term cultural shock to describe emotions felt when teachers move from one school to another. A personal example of such cultural shock has been experienced locally when migrating from the private to the public/church educational sector. This cultural shock is experienced when we move away from our comfort zone and enter a new school culture which differs from the one we are used to be in. Likewise, we feel inadequate in the new cultural norms we are experiencing. As happens when people migrate between cultures, we also need time to adjust and fit in. Some educators have a hard time doing so and tend to transfer from one school to the next until they find the school which exhibits the nearest culture norms to their own. As educational leaders, we need to strive to reduce teacher stress by improving on school environment and creating a positive school culture for all.

What surprises the most

In our role as educators, our clients are the students and their parents. Our duty is to offer our students the best education possible for our students to be their best, and this regardless of our cultural difference. We have to endeavour to find things that bring us together rather than focus on our differences. During my last year as a classroom teacher, I taught a lovely group of students, one of whom was an Egyptian Muslim boy.

What fascinated me the most was the way he integrated so well with the rest of the students and he was one of the most popular boys in the year. In spite of not joining during religion lessons, he remained in the classroom and he used to participate when the subject led to discussions on topics like values and friendships. He provided vital information and held his fellow students captivated when we discussed different religions. He explained and gave a lot of insight on different traditions such as Ramadan. He even drew parallels between the Catholic and the Muslim Religion.

When it was Ramadan, his friends decided to fast during school break in order to help him. Having students of different cultures in the classroom also provides emergent learning instances. When Philippine twins joined the classroom, they brought with them parts of their culture which Maltese students not always understood. Burping after a meal for them meant ‘a happy tummy’ and that the food was excellent. In our culture, burping at the table is rude. This called for a lesson on different cultures. The children understood and conformed to classroom rules.

On the other hand their fellow Maltese students were positively influenced when the twins took praying very seriously and consequently prayer time was more solemn and respectful. Most importantly as educators we need to be aware that students do pick on differences. Therefore teachers should be knowledgeable about different cultures in order to sensitively tackle and discuss cultural differences rather than dismiss them. Friendship and relationships go beyond colour, culture, traditions and sometimes language. In the experiences mentioned above, there was no bias, no judgement and no fear in these children’s eyes – emotions we often see in adults facing similar situations.

Most of all these children showed a humane side and empathy which are not always present in adults who might be less versatile. Our humane side is what brings us closer together, it is what we have in common – we are all in this together. Showing a humane side and showing empathy is very important when interacting with parents. Language might be a barrier but parents always look out for that familiar friendly face. A reassuring smile puts their mind at rest that their children are well cared for. Batja Mesquita describes emotions as those things people do together. All parents irrespective of their culture, trust their children in educators’ hands. Through our humanity and empathy, we send the correct message to these parents – that we value their children and that we will keep them safe.

What insight do we gain from understanding others’ emotions? Cultural Intelligence is vital to today’s realities of leadership. Changes are not only happening globally but also locally in our communities and we are also experiencing the effect of this shift in our schools. Whilst Emotional Intelligence is the first step in improving the way you work and relate with others, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) allows us to have those same social sensibilities when interacting with people who display emotions in ways that are unfamiliar to us. Understanding others’ emotions gives you a better perspective of your own emotions. Julia Middleton (2014) argues that unless leaders develop their cultural intelligence, collaboration will suffer, resources will be wasted and problems will remain unsolved.

CQ helps leaders move away for their homogenous network, their comfort zone and thus help bring people of different cultural background together rather than further apart. Any relationship should be built on trust. It is more difficult for leaders to establish such trust with people whose reference for trust might be different from that of the leader. CQ is also the tool needed to overcome cross generational divides between young and old. Most importantly leaders need to be prepared to create cultures that allow people to belong whilst still being different.

11 February 2020
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