Developing Cultural Intelligence and Perception

Culture can have a big impact on how we think and behave, especially in situations where the “rules” aren’t explicit.  To see this in action, watch the first 15 to 20 seconds of the following videos and consider the questions below. 

Reflection Questions

  • Are there visible rules, signs, or other signals showing how to navigate each situation? 
  • How do the people using bicycles or motorbikes know what to do?
  • How would you navigate each situation? Would you drive quickly through or wait, watch, and slowly proceed? Is that your culture guiding you to make those choices?

One Object, Multiple Meanings 

Consider the following image of a bicycle. Before moving on, write down a few words describing the purpose of this object. What might it symbolize to the person using it? What might it provide in someone’s life? 

Now consider these images. Do any new purposes or meanings come to mind?

Depending on your culture and background, your initial thoughts on the purpose of a bicycle might have been very different from what it represents in some of these images. For example, you might or might not have initially thought of a bicycle as:

  • a way to get to work
  • a source of independence 
  • a way to earn a living
  • a way to exercise and stay healthy
  • a way to save the planet

Next, consider the following image just as you did with the bicycle photo. What might this object represent to the person using it? 

Now look over the following images. Do any new terms come to mind? 

As you can see, even an everyday object like a rug can have drastically different associations for different people. One person might see it as a way to capture the look of an exotic, far-away place when decorating their home, while someone else might see it as a key part of their religious practices. Others might view the rug from a more utilitarian perspective, focusing on how it helps keep their floor warm and comfortable, while someone else might think of it as a source of income or creative expression. 

With both the image of the bicycle and the rug, you probably noticed that your own culture had some impact on the way you perceived these objects. The first terms that came to mind were likely the ones that you’re most familiar with based on what a bicycle or a rug might mean to you. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the way you see the world. These are just two examples of the many ways our perceptions and interpretations can be influenced and limited based on our own culture. How aware we are of these influences and limitations is a key factor that determines our level of cultural intelligence.