In uncertain times, human beings tend to seek out the familiar, clinging to what we already know rather than making a leap of faith and filling the gaps in our knowledge.
With 195 different countries in the world and thousands of cultures, it is impossible for us to understand where everybody is coming from, but it is essential in our increasingly global environment to let go of our need for certainty and dispense with stereotypes, developing instead the kind of cultural intelligence that goes hand in hand with emotional intelligence.
While our instincts might tell us to distrust difference, our survival in the 21st century depends on embracing it. Not only is it vital for peaceful co-existence within our communities and between our countries, the culturally intelligent among us can bridge divides in a business context and increase innovation and creativity by taking advantage of a wide range of resources and perspectives, as research by Echo Yuan Liao, from the IESE Business School, indicates.
By exploring and trying to understand cultures that are very different from our own, we are also better able to perceive the individuality that exists within each culture. While culture shapes our lifestyle and views to an extent, it does not define us as individuals – if that were so, each culture would simply produce its own particular set of clones.
Beyond the classroom, cultural intelligence can be cultivated by learning foreign languages, travel and spending time with people from other cultures as well as reading novels and watching movies. Netflix’s A Suitable Boy, for example, can provides a snapshot of middle class Indian culture while author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers insight into Nigerian culture in a way that might enlighten us when dealing, either socially or professionally, with someone from that part of the world.
Becoming culturally intelligent is about having an inquiring mind; being observant, listening and clocking different ways of doing things. Investigating a country’s back story is crucial if we want to understand a culture just as a look into an individual’s family background will shed light on their behaviour.
Even as it started out in the 1970s, King’s College provided the perfect ecosystem for cultivating cultural intelligence among its students. Former pupil Anthony Saez, who now works for the Canadian Government, recalls his classmates coming from Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Britain, Greece, Holland, Italy, Israel, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States.
“For many of us, this mosaic of nationalities provided a broad knowledge of the world and a certain sensitivity to some of its challenges,” he says, while former Head Teacher Dr. Gerry Percy, remarked in the 1990s that the students were gaining an education “in international relations by their very presence in a community where the mixing of races and nationalities takes place in a remarkably peaceful and friendly fashion – adult politicians and statesmen take note!”
Now, almost 30 years later, the King’s community is still made up of a rich tapestry of cultures and its teachers continue to foster a collective mind-set, open to cultural difference and closed to bigotry and racism.
“At King’s College Alicante, we pride ourselves on learning about the world around us and the many wonderful cultures, communities and traditions that exist,” says Sharmila Gandhi, Acting Head of Primary at the school. “We want the children to appreciate diversity and each week we have an assembly which focuses on a specific faith, community, culture or leader that has had an impact on the world. This week for example we are celebrating World Religions Day so children can appreciate the many religions that exist and how important it is for all religions to respect each other and live together, side by side, in harmony.”
Later this year, King’s College Alicante has a One World Week planned with each class representing a different country. Students will be researching the country assigned to them, learning about it’s history, geography and traditions, and the week will culminate in a One World Day with all the class countries coming together to share the knowledge they have acquired.
Other approaches include learning phrases from all different languages while creating a display of celebrities from the countries where they are spoken. According to Carrie Castro, Head of Pastoral at King’s College Alicante, tutor time is an opportunity for smaller groups of pupils to share experiences, anecdotes and images of the country they are from. “We recently had a pupil from Iceland take a lesson from his home near Reykjavik, including a mini guided tour of the surrounding area in a snow storm,” she says.
Meanwhile, at King’s College Murcia, Geography teacher Joanna Browne points out that cultural issues are an integral part of learning about the world. While studying Asia, for example, population policies, such as China’s one child measure, are discussed as well as the cultural barriers that exist in various countries to contraception.
Running parallel to cultural exploration within the classroom, the international character of King’s has long meant that intense political and social discussions have been held between students.
“I recall one specific instance when an Israeli student and an Egyptian student had a heated debate over the conflict in the Middle East,” says Anthony Saez. “Each defended his and her country’s position passionately, making me realise that these issues are never as simple as they appear. But what I really took away from the exchange was that, while they both believed the other to be wrong, they also agreed to disagree and didn’t let their opposing views affect their personal friendship.”
As Sharmila points out, it is essential “to ensure our children grow up to be tolerant people who appreciate the rich and diverse world we live in.”