Something interesting happens at my predominantly white church the Sundays we are slated to worship in the sanctuary of our sister church, a predominantly black congregation. This happens only every other year, with our sister church visiting our sanctuary in the off years. However, there are always a few from my church who shy away from attending the service at our sister church, expecting the service to be too different for their liking. But those who opt to attend church despite their hesitancy often note how enriched they were to experience something very different in terms of music and worship style as compared to our usual Sunday fare. Their openness to experiencing the culture of the black church gives them valuable insight into their neighbors who worship differently. And someone invariably remarks that those who opted to stay home missed something very special. Indeed, they did.
As leaders, it is important to maintain an openness to learning about and even experiencing different cultures as part of our goal to enhance cultural intelligence. According to the experts, the personality trait of openness is generally believed to influence an individual’s ability to deal effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds.
That attitude of openness opens the door to new and different experiences and opportunities to gain an understanding of different cultures. People in other cultures do things differently, have different views, and follow different traditions. To fail to be open to learning about those cultures and, when possible, experiencing them, risks stunting one’s growth in cultural intelligence. The “ugly American” who travels abroad only to spend her time criticizing the different customs and cultures because they aren’t like we do it back home, misses the richness of those customs and cultural traditions. And one doesn’t have to leave the country to be the ugly American and to miss out on fantastic opportunities to connect with those from other cultures in our own backyards.
The good news is we don’t have to leave the country to enhance our knowledge of other cultures. By all means, never miss the chance to visit a new place or to become more at home in a place you’ve visited before, but there are plenty of opportunities even locally. Try the food at the new Ethiopian restaurant, spend a few hours at the Czech festival, visit the Brazilian art exhibit, or even visit the worship service of a different denomination or faith tradition. And talk to the individuals you meet along the way. People are generally happy to share their culture with outsiders who are respectful, non-judgmental, and genuinely curious.
There are certainly plenty of books, blogs, and television shows that provide a glimpse into other cultures, but dare to venture outside your cultural comfort zone, and encourage those who you teach or otherwise influence to do the same. Just as accepting failure as a learning opportunity is a vital component of a growth mindset, embracing uncomfortableness in new environments is a worthwhile endeavor as you open yourself to different cultural experiences. Maybe you’ll like what you experience, maybe not—and that’s okay. It’s the learning, and the openness to learning, that matters.