I recently met a group of university students traveling to the Middle East for a “study program” whose aim was to educate them about local culture and better prepare them for global positions.  They visited the most popular cultural sites and centers which including a trek into the desert and an authentic local experience.  I wasn’t surprised when I started to listen to some of their comments about what they thought they had learned and some of the questions that remained unanswered.  As a Cultural Intelligence professional, it didn’t take long to figure out that through the learning process the students didn’t become more culturally aware.  Instead their experiences had reinforced stereotypes about local cultural habits and norms, the outer and most visible aspects of culture one would find through “exposure” to these experiences without the proper guided discussion that should go along with it. Attitude matters too, but what’s more important is figuring out why they failed to build their Cultural Intelligence, and why these experiences left them with having more stereotypes than busted myths.

A recent study by Emma Buchtel (2014) posed the question: “Does learning about cultures improve cultural sensitivity, or does it strengthen cultural stereotyping?” Does it promote an “US vs Them” thinking that legitimizes stereotyping and supports prejudices? Butchel argues that with the wrong set of circumstances, attitudes and empty learning, what is meant to build cultural understanding and unity accomplishes just the opposite. True cultural learning is not as simple as trying local foods and learning about cultural dress and celebrations. This can be a great backdrop, but it’s not where the deep learning happens.  It requires a 360 approach to understanding culture with a conscious focus on the why not the how of things.

I have personally spoken to more than 20,000 students over a 6-year period, teaching and supporting learning about culture.  The anecdotal evidence I gained from that experience supports the theory that not every cultural experience succeeds in accomplishing the goal of cultural understanding. Some negative outcomes could be attributed to student attitudes throughout the experience.  But I observed that much of failures, not the successes had to do with the delivery of the information in a vacuum.  What I mean by this is when learning about local food or dress for example, the information is presented as a list of items consumed or worn without engaging the participant in critical thinking.

If we truly want to go beyond the surface, then we need to evaluate how we go about our cultural learning and invest in programs and experiences that succeed in accomplishing a true awareness and appreciation for our diversity as well as uniting us through the similarities that exist among all of us.  As Nasif Kayed, Founder and CEO of the Arab Culturalist says, “who were we before all of this (motioning with his hands)? We were all tribes and nations, exploring the vast expanses of the world, sharing ideas and learning about one another.”  Cultural habits did not grow without purpose, so we must learn about them through the deeper values that created them.  In discovering those values, we find the similarities that unite us. That’s when cultural exploration succeeds in teaching us to be culturally intelligent and better equip to navigate in a multi-cultural environment.

The Arab Culturalist has developed its programs over a period of 25 years, teaching and advising businesses, government entities, community groups, law enforcement and students on how they can create working and living environments that are inclusive and promote successful collaboration across cultures. Contact us to find out more at info@thearabculturalist.com

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