Some people seem to complain that there is too much hype about cultural intelligence and its significance. But I beg to differ. Here is how I came to see its value.
I served as an airman in the Republic of Korea Air Force between 2012 and 2014. One of my jobs was as an interpreter for the US Air Force that we often worked with. There were quite a few meetings and events that I had to be involved in. In a sense, it was a fun experience. The American soldiers were very nice, and most of them were very respectful of Korean culture. The Korean soldiers appreciated the American presence partly because they were there to protect South Korea from all kinds of military threats. They appeared to get along pretty well.
However, all was not well. Everything seemed smooth at the outset, but gradually complaints arose and each side would confide in me, their translator. The American soldiers would say, “I love the Korean soldiers, but they do not seem to try to understand us better. They never ask us how things should be done, while we constantly try to appreciate their ways.” Whereas the Korean soldiers would tell me that “the American soldiers seem interested in our culture, but they do not really try to act the way they should when they are with us. It’s all talk.”
What was the problem? The soldiers on each side were nice and passionate individuals who were serving their countries with their lives. It was not as though something was seriously wrong, but things could certainly become better. I tried hard to be an effective middleman, but I could not bring them to understand each other’s culture better. I could not understand what was wrong or know how to fix it.
My “ah-ha! moment” came seven years later. In 2021, I applied for and became a recipient of the [All Nations Heritage] Race Relations Scholarship that year. One of the requirements to receive the scholarship was participation in at least one of the numerous insightful workshops that the CRCNA Race Relations team hosts. I was particularly intrigued by the “Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Building” workshop and signed-up.
In this workshop, I reflected on many past experiences (including my time as an interpreter for the Air Force). And in light of my learning, the challenges from those two years began to make sense. What both Korean and American soldiers had needed were cultural intelligence building exercises!
To be more specific, Koreans had to know that acting and reacting appropriately does not come naturally or easily. It takes work! They had to know that they needed to study the American ways. Conversely, while the Americans were eager to please the Koreans and had some basic knowledge about their culture, they did not make conscious and deliberate judgments about their own thinking processes and those of others. I do think that both parties had a genuine passion for understanding and serving one another, but they just did not have an opportunity to learn more about cultural intelligence.
What about us and our church congregation today? We live in a world where cultural intelligence is important, if not essential. But I think it is even more important for Christians who have a duty to love our neighbors as ourselves. Simply worshiping in the same place will not do. Merely knowing a few things about other cultures is not sufficient. If we are to truly love people of other cultures, we should make efforts; we need to aim higher and build our own cultural intelligence.