Cultural curiosity

| By TMA World


“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

I once showed a list of global leadership attributes I had developed to a Senior Vice President of a global cosmetics company.  He was renowned in the company for his ability to succeed in opening and succeeding in markets around the world.  When I gave him the list, I asked him to identify the one attribute he felt was the most important for a global leader.  Without a moment’s hesitation, he pointed to ‘Curiosity’ and said, “If you don’t have that you’ve got nothing to work with.”  Now, more than ever, a company needs a workforce that is culturally literate and culturally agile, and both of these have their roots in cultural curiosity.

I often read that curiosity is a natural human trait, but sometimes I’m not so sure.  I’m surprised at how many business people I’ve met have little interest in knowing more about the world around them – and that includes some who travel frequently and have global responsibilities.

Without cultural curiosity we are closed to learning about others who are different from ourselves.  This results in a lack of adaptability which is highly damaging to business relationships in our domestic and global multicultural worlds.  It also increases our chances for not noticing differences and thereby misinterpreting situations; this leads to greater misunderstandings and mistrust. 

Different types of curiosity have been identified:
Diversion curiosity: An attraction to new information, things, people, and places – new stimuli.  There is no purposeful method or process involved.  Waiting at the dentist for the novocaine to kick-in, we might check our phones for tweets, news alerts, or Facebook postings.  This type of curiosity is often triggered by moments of inactivity and boredom, and may not result in new learning.   
Targeted curiosity: A deeper quest for knowledge.  During the diversion curiosity flow, something thought-provoking could have gained our attention.  This triggers a purposeful, focused attempt to build understanding.  Targeted curiosity requires effort and can be hard work. 
Empathic curiosity: A desire to know about other people’s thoughts and feelings.  Diversion curiosity might make you wonder what kind of movies a person likes.  Targeted curiosity would lead you toward seeking a deeper understanding of those types of movies.  Empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they like those movies; how do they ‘see’ them through their eyes.

Are you culturally curious?
Ask yourself questions like:
• Am I enthusiastic about working with others who are different from me?
• Am I willing and able to develop greater cultural self-awareness?
• Am I open to continuous learning and adapting across cultures?
• Am I an active listener and observer in cross-cultural situations?
• Do I reach out to others who are more experienced in working across cultures?
• Am I able to avoid the fight or flight response in challenging cross-cultural situations?
• Do I seek to network with colleagues outside of my own country or region?
• Do I enjoy trying to understand how my colleagues are similar or different to me?
• When I experience a ‘cultural bump’ (differences that disrupt my expectations) do I stay calm and seek understanding or do I become defensive?
• Do I actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from other cultures?
• Do I invest time in researching likely differences with my colleagues?
• When I work across cultures, am I comfortable asking questions – questions that are likely to reveal my lack of understanding/knowledge?
I started with a quote from Einstein, and let me end with another one:
“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

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