Posted on October 16, 2019

What Is Cultural Fluency? And Why Is It Important?

Kim Fitzsimons, NBC News, October 15, 2019

Unless you’re working in a foreign country, cultural fluency — understanding how to effectively interact with those from different cultures and backgrounds — might not seem like a critical job skill. But as the workplace becomes increasingly diverse, with multicultural teams, clients, and customers now the norm, many say that it is, and is now a business necessity.


When it comes to the workplace, there are many reasons why it’s important. For employers, these include more innovation, an edge over more homogeneous competitors, and ultimately greater profits. For employees, they include more opportunities for personal and professional growth. Experts say that diverse and multicultural teams also often perform better and are more creative, which makes them more valued employees.

For these advantages to be fully realized, though, many of us need to become more culturally fluent and develop what’s known as CQ (cultural intelligence or cultural quotient). Not just by learning the do’s and don’ts of specific cultures, like how to shake hands (or not), but by shifting the way we think and act.

Avoid assumptions

When communicating with someone from a different culture, for instance, it means doing it in a way that the listener prefers, and can understand, which may depend on where he or she is from says Amir Ghannad, corporate consultant on culture and leadership development and author of “The Transformative Leader.” “If you assume that everybody else ought to basically communicate the way you do, I think that’s a really volatile assumption.”


See where differences exist


So how do we become more culturally fluent? By just recognizing that differences exist, and, as noted, adjusting the way we think and act.


Recognize preconceptions

Most of us have these, like it or not. It’s therefore essential to really look at how we view those who are different from us — not only culturally, but in other respects, too — and let go of the idea that our own perceptions are the most valid. This means recognizing that the same issue, story, or conversation can be interpreted in many ways.

This is especially important if we feel we’ve been offended in some way says Jeanne Brett, professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and author of “Negotiating Globally.”

“If you’re interacting with a person from another culture and they do or say something that you find offensive, it’s probably not that they’re trying to be offensive to you personally, it’s that this is the way it’s done in their culture,” she said. “So if you can label the behavior that’s really upsetting you as cultural, then you can begin to say, ‘how do I deal with it,’ as opposed to labeling it as ‘this person is just trying to be difficult … or this person has it in for me.’”

Be curious

To Riccardi, being curious and asking questions is really what matters most when it comes to cross-cultural interactions, as it helps convey empathy and respect.


People often avoid this, he said, because they’re afraid of offending, or of saying or doing the wrong thing, or because they just don’t know. “They think, God, this is such a minefield, I’ll just stay away. But you’ve got to do the opposite, you’ve got to move towards, and be genuinely curious about your colleagues.”

Learning about other cultures can also include simply observing and listening. For instance, how do they express emotion? What do they do if they make a mistake, or think they’ve offended someone? What do they do if they need help?

Consider how to share information

This last bit of advice is probably the simplest. People from different cultures (and all of us in general) prefer to communicate in different ways.

So when it comes to sharing information on the job, it can help to ask what someone prefers. Is it a call, an email, or a face-to-face meeting? If there are any language barriers, for instance, email might be easiest.


Go beyond culture

Much of the above can also apply to understanding and interacting with any person or group we consider different from ourselves, whether it’s due to religion, gender, race, age, neurodiversity, LGBT or socioeconomic status, educational level, politics, etc.