Cultivating Intercultural Intelligence

by Cindy M. Wu, cofounder, Mosaic Formation

[email protected] 

You’re at the pool and the lifeguard blows the whistle… where do you look? Your reaction will depend on your worldview. If your immediate reaction would be to look at the lifeguard, you likely hold an Innocence/Guilt worldview (Who’s in trouble?). If you would be inclined to look at your friends to see how they are reacting, you likely hold an Honor/Shame worldview (How should I respond?). And if you would check your surroundings to investigate the potential problem, you likely hold a Power/Fear worldview (Where is the danger?).

 We live in a diverse world where one event will evoke wide-ranging responses. Consider the world’s response to COVID or political elections or acts of racialized violence; consider how much division was fomented by merely having differing opinions. How we interpret events and how we react to others’ responses have huge implications for our relationships. What is the key to greater understanding and relational health? I believe it is intercultural intelligence (ICI). ICI is the ability to move with agility between cultures through the understanding of worldview and cultural dynamics.

 When we talk about culture, we tend to think of it along national or ethnic lines. Have you ever noticed, however, how two siblings from the same family can be polar opposites, as if they weren’t related at all? Likewise, do you find it hard to accurately stereotype all the people from one country when you know there are always exceptions to the rule? Human beings are complex, with a spectrum of personalities and experiences. Thus, when we think of culture, we ought to think of culture as personal. Each one of us is defined by a personal culture that is both impacted by our background and also unique to us as individuals.

 The habits and customs embedded in national, ethnic, and familial cultures are only superficial. What’s underneath is worldview. Worldview transcends categories of culture. Sociologists have identified three categories of worldview. and these are the drivers or motivators of our actions and beliefs. We are all a combination of these three worldviews, not just one. The key to navigating different worldviews is developing ICI.

 ICI is fundamental to the formation of servants of God who desire to welcome the nations because it promotes self-awareness. Thomas à Kempis stated, “A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.” Our pursuit of theology, history, or cultural practices does not hold much value when it comes to relationships unless we also possess self-awareness. Knowing ourselves will in turn help us understand others and hopefully cause us to be less reactive to “negative” behaviors. When we know ourselves, our hearts become open and receptive, and we can humbly know God and others more deeply. Without self-awareness, we run the risk of causing harm, even when our intentions are good.

 My husband and I run a ministry called Mosaic Formation, whose mission is to expand access to spiritual formation care and training for leaders in underserved communities. This includes serving and learning from refugees, refugee pastors, and non-profit workers in refugee-focused organizations. It is our conviction that developing ICI is faithful to a Revelation 7 vision of a global Christian family; it is a key component of spiritual formation for servants of God working cross-culturally. The invitation to ICI is to be “more curious, less judgmental”.  In line with our mission to expand access to spiritual formation resources, we invite you to attend a free online “Introduction to Intercultural Intelligence” workshop on March 4th, 9:00-12:00 AM CST. Registration is available on our website. Our hope for the workshop is that you leave feeling more equipped to welcome newcomers.