In the 1980s, urban Chicago was a hub for immigrants from countries like India, Mexico and Poland. My dad, at 17 years old, was working at our family’s hardware store in the city.
At the store, you could buy metal nails in packs of 50. One pack used to cost a dollar. One day, an Indian man came up to the counter with the box, but he insisted on buying only one.
My dad couldn’t help thinking, “What is your problem? Why can’t you buy the entire pack? It’s only a dollar. Why are you being so cheap?”
He proceeded to explain that this is only how we sold them: in packs of 50. What he didn’t know was that this Indian man did not want to spend a penny of his earnings on anything he did not need. The overwhelming population density in India leads people to have cautious, economical lifestyles.
At 17 years old, my dad was immersed in the white-washed world of Chicago’s suburbs. It was only when he worked behind the counter at the hardware store that he was exposed to radically different cultures.
At 17 years old, I worked in a medical clinic in Nigeria. I took the blood pressure of about a thousand patients and recorded each patient’s name, gender and age. When I asked patients for their age, most elderly Nigerians asked me to repeat the question and were not able to produce a number. One man told me to guess his age.
I couldn’t help thinking, “How do we come to a mutual agreement on your age? Am I really deciding how old you are, right now, in this tent?”
I proceeded to guess the age of about a hundred men and women. What is considered obvious in the Western world, knowing your age, is not the case in Nigerian culture. Asking about one’s age directly in any other context is considered disrespectful.
You will be surrounded by unfamiliar people and culture for the rest of your life – at Stanstead, university and the workplace. The rise in globalization will force you to interact with people who don’t look like you and don’t think like you.
Your success in navigating these situations is determined by a skill called cultural intelligence. Differences in language, race, personality, nationality, gender, and education are what divide us. People struggle daily with miscommunication and misunderstanding, which can often cause conflict. These conflicts are what encourage you to find people similar to you… and avoid everybody else.
To put this into perspective:
- Have you ever had a roommate who ate different things?
- Have you ever had a roommate who goes to sleep much later or much earlier than you do?
- Have you ever had a roommate who doesn’t shower as often as you do?
- Have you ever had a roommate who did not respect your personal space?
- Have you ever had a roommate who called home at odd hours of the night?Have you ever been concerned with a roommate who sounded angry on the phone?
But the most important question out of all is: What was your immediate reaction? What was your response?
Cultural intelligence is the ability to relate to people and work across culture. I would define it as the refusal to cringe – the refusal to be embarrassed or disgusted by another person or by another person’s way of life. I encourage you to suspend your initial reaction long enough to form a respectful response. Instead of remaining in silent judgment of others, choose conversation. Choose curiosity.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”