Career and Jobs

The Science Of Working With Different Cultures

Dr. Paula Caligiuri is a D’Amore-McKim School of Business Distinguished Professor of International Business at Northeastern University and president of TASCA Global, a consulting firm specializing in developing culturally agile professionals. She has been a frequent expert on CNN and CNN International, is instructor of the popular LinkedIn Learning course “Managing Globally,” and author of Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals.

I had the opportunity to interview Paula recently. Here are some of the highlights:

Jill Griffin: So, Paula, what is cultural agility?

Paula Caligiuri: It’s the ability to comfortably and effectively work in different countries and with people from different cultures. And that could be any type of culture: national, generational, or professional. It’s needed anytime an individual is working in an environment that feels new and different.

Griffin: Is that something that someone comes to naturally, or is it something to be learned?

Caligiuri: Jill, that’s a really good question. After 30 years of research, I can tell you that there’s a nurture and a nature portion of every competency related to cultural agility.

For instance, some people, because of the way their bodies handle serotonin and dopamine, can handle situations involving novelty without getting nervous or stressed. When you have that natural tendency—when you’re not nervous or stressed in a new environment—your brain automatically allows you to stay in ambiguity longer without trying to figure it out. That’s the nature part of cultural agility.

The nurture part is the fact that each competency can be developed through interactions with people, asking great questions, being curious, investigating, having humility, and understanding the importance of context. There are a number of things people can do to build their cultural agility.

Griffin: Now, you said you’ve studied this for 30 years. What made you curious about it?

Caligiuri: This story is a funny one. I was studying abroad in Italy, and in the fall of 1987, the market crashed. In an instant, all the money I had saved up to live in Europe with the other American kids was gone. But the difference was that all the other American kids at this particular school were quite wealthy. They could call home and say, “Mom, Dad, send money.” I wasn’t in that situation.

Jill Griffin: I get it.

Caligiuri: Right? My parents said, “If you want to stay, get a job.” My reality went from hanging out with other Americans and doing very American things—basically being in Italy but not—to working in Italy because all the Americans were gone. They were traveling. I have relatives down in Southern Italy. So, as a result of that, my experience was very rich and developmental as opposed to superficial.

When I returned to school to finish out my junior and senior years, my psychology professor and mentor said, “Paula, if it had such a profound effect on you, that time you spent in Italy, why don’t you study it?”

So, Jill, I often joke that my application for grad school in 1988 was: I want to study what makes people effective living and working internationally, and I want to know how they change from deep, developmental cross-cultural experiences. However, 30-something years later, I’m still studying it.

Griffin: Now, tell me the difference between cultural agility and unconscious bias. Is there a difference there?

Caligiuri: Yes, quite a bit of one. Many firms right now are using unconscious bias training. Admittedly, I realize it’s being widely used, but I’m not a big fan of it.

Unconscious bias training is useful in that it helps people understand their limbic system. As humans, every time we walk into a new situation (or any situation), we can’t help it: we’re incapable of turning our brains off. The subjective judgments we make happen in one-tenth of a second. You’re not even conscious of this bias. It’s the people who are able to slow it down and not react who tend to be better at it.

My fear about unconscious bias training, Jill, is that we’re making people worried about having natural conversations with people from different cultures. If I’m told I have a bias—and, frankly, we all do because we have functioning brains—now all of a sudden, I’m worried I might use a microaggression. I’m fearful something might come out of my mouth that’s incorrect, so my brain starts saying, “Uh-oh, move to cognitive ease.” I’m not going to want to talk to someone who’s demographically different if my brain is saying I’m biased.

My hope is that we replace unconscious bias training with more cultural agility training, which recognizes that we have functioning limbic systems. We don’t talk about it as bias; we talk about it as the brain’s hardwiring. The best thing we can do for people is to help them lengthen the amount of time it takes to make a judgment by learning how to ask questions.

Griffin: I love that. Lengthening the doorway. Because the more you talk, the more you understand, correct?

Caligiuri: Exactly. And that’s what’s scaring me: I’m seeing so many people say, “Yeah, I sat through unconscious bias training.” They liked it in that it was interesting, but then they say, “I’m really worried. I’m so biased about this and that.”

Instead, we need to breathe through it. Just because your brain reflexively judges something doesn’t mean you are judging it. It means your brain had a first response. Thoughts aren’t reality. Let that go, and allow yourself to spend more time getting to know people, getting to know the context, the situation. Ask questions, be curious, learn. Evaluate with your prefrontal cortex, not your limbic processor.

Griffin: You’re really helping people understand themselves and not get all agitated about how these feelings are coming through.

Caligiuri: You’re so sweet. I think a lot of people need to realize that thoughts aren’t reality. Thoughts are merely thoughts.

Griffin: Isn’t that the truth? We’ve got this self-talk that just comes through all the time, and we shouldn’t listen to it many times, you know?

Caligiuri: That’s why the whole mindfulness movement is so powerful. When I’m coaching executives who will be living abroad or students who are about to study abroad, I try to encourage them to get a mindfulness practice up and running. The more you can be present—fully present and not judging the thoughts that are coming in—the better you can linger in that space more comfortably.

Jill Griffin: So, you have a new book, Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals. Tell us about it.

Caligiuri: The book covers every one of the nine competencies of cultural agility. I go through the nurture and nature side of each, and then I spend some time exploring how you go about building them.

Also, it’s a lot of fun, Jill. The book contains a link to a free app, where you can assess your own cultural agility and values. You don’t need the book to access the app; it’s at

Griffin: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Paula. What a pleasure.

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