Cultural mindfulness helps connect your spirit with those of people from other cultures
iStock photo/Benjavisa

With cultural diversity come differences in thoughts and actions—a good and necessary outcome for any organization. But the dynamics diversity brings also pose some unique challenges. If someone unintentionally or ignorantly commits some cultural faux pas, misunderstanding and miscommunication can easily arise.

As such, more and more professionals and organizations are investing in cultural training to help them navigate today’s increasingly culturally diverse business spaces. Educating yourself to be culturally intelligent without proper context and frameworks, however, can lead to mindless cultural training. It results in cultural stereotyping, which only serves to exacerbate the original problem of cultural insensitivity.

So what is the solution? I propose cultural mindfulness.

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Cultural Mindfulness: A Definition

Culture is broadly defined as the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. In an organizational setting, culture is the collection of written and unwritten values, philosophies, and practices that govern how members of an organization behave and interact internally and externally.

Mindfulness, meanwhile, is commonly known as the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. In other words, living in the moment and being conscious of our own thoughts and behaviors as we interact with other people or situations.

Combining the above definitions gives us cultural mindfulness, a state of being mindful of, first, your own cultural construct, and second, the cultural constructs of the other person you are interacting with at any given moment. It simply means reacting or responding to the actual stimuli (the other person) without the baggage of cultural stereotyping.

It’s important to stress that the focus of cultural understanding or awareness should first be within (yourself) and then manifest externally by being mindful of other people’s cultural conditioning.

Why Cultural Mindfulness

Why do we need cultural mindfulness? Simple answer: to avoid becoming too ethnocentric.

Ethnocentrism in itself is not bad. We all have and need a certain degree of ethnocentrism in our lives to have a healthy appreciation of our own background, origin, and culture. Such perspective plays a significant role in how we define ourselves, form our belief systems, and identify with others. The challenge is to find the balance between knowing your own culture and being open to understanding the culture of others.

At its worst, an ethnocentric worldview may lead to one (or even all) of the following:

  • A tendency to view our own culture as the “master culture”
  • A mentality or mindset of “us” versus “them”
  • A tendency to become self-focused and self-absorbed
  • A fear of stepping outside our own bubbles of reality and experience
  • A judgmental outlook—or worse, bigotry, hatred, and rage

Another good reason to pursue cultural mindfulness is that it helps us develop an awareness of our own cultural biases. We all have (and sometimes even need) biases. As leading neuroscientist Dr. David Rock says, “If you have a brain, you are biased.” Unfortunately, there are just too many cognitive biases that we, as a species, have learned and accumulated as a result of thousands of years of evolution.

Having awareness of all of our cognitive biases is impossible. However, it’s crucial that we try to be aware of at least our cultural biases. The key is not to deny them, but to recognize that we have them. And through the process of self-awareness (and being open to how other people experience and view their own cultural biases), we can identify cultural lenses and conditioning. In essence, we become culturally mindful.

Cultural mindfulness means considering WHY someone is late, rather than making a snap judgment
Cultural mindfulness means considering why this guy is late, rather than making a snap judgment. | iStock/NanoStockk

Practicing Cultural Mindfulness

In Japan, the concept of being on time is predominantly observed—even expected. In fact, “Japan time” is actually five to ten minutes earlier than the appointed time on the clock. If a Japanese person arrives late, there’s often a quick judgement that they are not being “Japanese.” There’s no real effort made to know the reasons why they were late or even determine if this is a one-time event or a recurring behavior of the individual.

Being culturally mindful in this instance would mean that we first become aware of our own concept of time. Is it several minutes before the appointed time? Exactly on time? Several minutes after the appointed time?

Then, we inquire. We seek understanding of the other person’s concept of time.

Finally, we find out the reason or reasons that contributed to the delay. Was the train late? Did they miscalculate the time needed to get here? Was there an accident? Or were they, in fact, just being lazy?

From there, we can make a more informed reaction based on that incident and act accordingly.

The reverse is also true. If a Filipino arrives on time for an appointment, people may be surprised. There is a prevalent cultural stereotype of “Filipino time,” which is later than the appointed time. Personally, I have always subscribed to the concept of “Filipino time,” but plan my appointments so that I show up at least five to ten minutes in advance. Does that make me less Filipino and more Japanese? Not at all. It’s simply a personal preference. I want to manage my own time while respecting other people. The cultural stereotype dictates that since I was born and raised in the Philippines, I should be following Filipino time. But in reality, I show up on time consistently, following the Japanese cultural stereotype.

And that was true even before I came to live in Japan and learn its cultural norms.

In short, cultural mindfulness teaches us how to understand ourselves first, and then others. When dealing with cultural issues, the first step is to withhold judgment. Be aware of your own cultural biases and conditioning, and then seek to understand the perspectives of the people you encounter.

Abridged from The HR Agenda Magazine with permission.