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July 4th, 2014

Novak Djokovic Serving Up Cultural Intelligence!


Mindfulness will have an important place at Wimbledon this year, but probably out of our awareness. Players may use it to find peak performances, as tennis is a highly mental sport. For example, Novak Djokovic writes about how mindfulness helps him on court in his book Serve To Win. When he is playing a match and gets flashes of self-doubt he says, ‘I acknowledge the negative thoughts and let them slide by, focusing on the moment.’1 Mindfulness as embodied awareness enables him to stop these negative thoughts reducing his performance or energy levels.

However, mindfulness has an even bigger role to play than just enhancing sporting performance – it can also help us deal with the negative thoughts that can impair our ability to relate cross-culturally.

One of the fascinating things about Wimbledon fortnight is observing the cultural interactions, especially the way they are filtered through TV and other media. All sorts of stereotyping, selective perception and categorising of different nationalities can be seen and heard, both positive and negative. This makes the Wimbledon fortnight a great opportunity to observe cultural intelligence (CQ) at work – or not, as the case may be.

What is CQ and why is it important? It is something in multi-ethnic and diverse Britain that we should all cultivate – it should be a British value! And it is something that an event like Wimbledon, with all its ethnic diversity amongst the players and commentators, acts out as a microcosm of CQ at work.

David C. Thomas defines cultural intelligence as, ‘the ability to interact effectively with people who are culturally different.’ 2 This doesn’t happen automatically, as any cursory glance at the history of cultural engagement will show.

There are three important components that enable one to demonstrate CQ. When you bring together knowledge, mindfulness and behaviour, argues Thomas, you get CQ.3

CQ is a relational intelligence that recognises our interconnectedness and differences, and involves knowledge of culture and how to interact cross-culturally in a sensitive and appropriate way. Different cultures have different scripts, norms and values, and recognising this is part of CQ because these cultural scripts and norms become internalised and automatic, usually out of our awareness. However, cultural knowledge by itself is not enough; it needs to be translated into culturally intelligent behaviour.4

It is generally acknowledged that intelligence is multifaceted and more complicated than just IQ: social and emotional intelligence are also recognised as important. However, as Thomas points out, ‘social and emotional intelligence may be meaningful within one specific cultural setting, they may not apply in another.’5 This is where CQ comes in.

The problem is that in our everyday life our patterns of behaviour are guided by cultural norms out of our awareness. This being on autopilot culturally is what Thomas calls ‘cultural cruise control’.6 Cultural cruise control is ‘running your life on the basis of your built-in cultural assumptions’.7 It is the internal imperatives that say, ‘Be Like Me!’8 Of course, the problems come when the ‘norms and scripts of one culture clash with another.’9

Thomas says we are able to switch off cultural cruise control, just as Djokovic switches off doubts about his performance, by practising mindfulness.10 Mindfulness can be defined in different ways, but one important way within the construct of CQ is as a ‘key linking process between knowledge and action’.11 Fundamentally, mindfulness is ‘awareness of and enhanced attention to current experience or present reality,’ involving the monitoring of our internal self and cultural scripts, as well as the external environment.12 Drawing on the mindful learning theory of Ellen Langer, this definition also accepts that mindfulness involves the active creation of new categories and looking at life from multiple perspectives.

Mindful learning theory recognises that much of the time we are living by automatic cognitive processes, which is sometimes called mindlessness. Mindfulness enables us to move out of this automaticity, which in the context of CQ includes automatic stereotyping, categorising and attributing negative motives for behaviour to those from different cultures.13 Mindfulness enables us to be aware enough not to respond automatically, to change undesirable responses and to develop new and more culturally appropriate interactions. In this way we are enabled to link knowledge to behaviour.14

Thomas points out that mimicking the behaviour of a different culture completely is not helpful. For example, somebody from North America who goes to Japan and mimics the intricate social skill of bowing properly may be viewed as ‘at best amusing and at worse offensive’.15

CQ will not develop quickly or in a linear fashion, according to Thomas. What it requires is social interaction. There are stages in the development of a high level of CQ.16

Working in a multi-ethnic church and living in one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse boroughs in London, I can see the benefits of developing cultural intelligence, especially in tackling the noxious prejudice of racism.

CQ also calls into question more simplistic and politically correct responses to racism. Labelling people as racist on the basis of one culturally insensitive comment just sends the issue underground. People learn what to say in public whilst keeping their real views for when they are in private. But it is not enough to label racism as a problem for individuals; cultural scripts can also be racist, or contain racist elements. These scripts need to be brought into the open.

The truth is that at times we will all make culturally insensitive comments and be involved in culturally insensitive interactions. CQ tells us that we are much more shaped by cultural scripts than we realise. We need to be more forgiving of such mistakes and ask, instead, whether we think the person has the capacity to learn to be more culturally intelligent, rather than leaping in with automatic judgements.

In the same way that we can talk about ‘cultural cruise control’, we can also, I think, talk about ‘religious cruise control’ or ‘political cruise control.’ Mindfulness can help us be aware of being on autopilot in these areas as well.

Let’s start serving up CQ and the mindfulness that makes cultural intelligence possible.

Shaun Lambert is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist as well as being Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church.

The second edition of ‘A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness’ is published by Instant Apostle and is available in paperback and electronic formats.

For trade, it is available from Lion Hudson c/o Marston and from CLC.

In July, Shaun will be speaking about mindfullness at New Wine and at London School of Theology’s summer school.

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