Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness in Action

Awareness of cultural differences creates the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Note that I didn’t say it will create cultural sensitivity; rather, it will create the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Cultural sensitivity is a choice, and if you want to successfully work and integrate into a foreign culture, it’s a necessary one. Being aware that you are the monkey will enable you to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and actively Accept, Adapt, and Adopt the ways of your host culture, all of which will ease your integration.

Stages of Cultural Awareness

Not everyone is culturally aware.

Some choose not to be, while some are innately oblivious. Others choose cultural sensitivity, and still, others have become so integrated that sensitivity soon becomes natural to them.

There are four stages of cultural awareness:

  • Unconscious incompetence (blissful ignorance)
  • Conscious incompetence (troubling ignorance)
  • Conscious competence (deliberate sensitivity)
  • Unconscious competence (spontaneous sensitivity)

The unconsciously incompetent doesn’t know he’s the monkey. He is not culturally aware.

The consciously incompetent knows she’s the monkey but doesn’t try to integrate. She is culturally aware but is stubborn to change.

The consciously competent makes deliberate efforts to be culturally sensitive. He is culturally aware and is trying to actively integrate.

And, lastly, the unconsciously competent has fully integrated. Cultural sensitivity becomes natural to her, and she no longer must think about how to act or behave around the host culture. She just does it.

Example 1: Awareness Inaction

I once worked with a conscious incompetent. This individual’s foreign integration was being aided through cultural awareness and language training. When he wasn’t grasping the language as quickly as he wanted to, he became frustrated with the language instructor. In fact, he had a shouting match with said instructor and deemed the culture “inept” during cultural awareness lessons.

Two years later, I met this same man as he was finishing his contract. The entire two years he’d been involved in the program, he’d not advanced his language beyond the proficiency of the initial three-month course, nor had he initiated any projects at site. He blamed his hosts for a lack of interest.

In the end, he only had bad things to say about the host country, the program, the community in which he’d lived, and the colleagues with which he’d worked. And I’m sure they didn’t have too many positive things to say about him.

This is conscious incompetence in a nutshell: an awareness of cultural differences, but a refusal to integrate. And the result is zero self-growth and complete inaction regarding project developments and cross-cultural understanding.

Example 2: Awareness in Action

In that same program, I met a woman who came to the host country with no knowledge of the language. She was active in learning during the three-month language training and was adamant about presenting herself with cross-cultural sensitivity.

She faced similar cultural issues at site as the man had. Sometimes there was a general lack of interest in her ideas and lackluster motivation from her colleagues. But utilizing her conscious competence, she rallied her host site around her, wrote a grant, ran a summer camp, put on a cultural afterschool program, and was extremely active in her community. She also continued to work on her language and, by the end of her term, had advanced to intermediate language proficiency.

She had grown personally, had provided great value to her school and community, and had left a positive imprint in the memories of all those who worked with her. And, by the end of her two-year contract, she’d achieved stage 3 in her cultural awareness and was well on her way to stage 4: unconscious competence. Her cultural sensitivity had become natural; she no longer had to think before acting.

This is the difference between awareness inaction and awareness in action. The key to making your awareness active is to Accept, Adapt, and Adopt your host culture.

We’ll take a look at accepting next week.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species?

How would you react to the change in the tide?

You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.

This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.

Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.

The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.

Monkey Moments

What’s a monkey moment?

Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.

Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.

While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.

Making Your Awareness Actionable

When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember:

What seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.

Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.