Choosing Cultural Intelligence

Date Posted: 6/12/2017

Dr. Maria Dixon Hall began her address to Annual Conference with a critique of the current state of race relations and an eye toward unity while condemning traditional diversity and inclusion training which she says has only made things worse. A tenured professor at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, Dr. Dixon is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Her keynote at Annual Conference covered not only where gaps exist in inter-cultural communication, but highlighted a new initiative launching at SMU to address inter-cultural misunderstandings in new ways.
“One of the things that is interesting is that every single generation has had to grapple with race,” she noted. “What makes [today] unique is that we have a means by which these protests and outrages [are] able to be communicated virally across campuses so that no longer did an issue stop at your campus… So we were left as many college campuses dealing with the same set of demands that may have been at Missouri, at Brown, may have been even at the University of Houston. What is interesting is this is no longer simply about race. Students were conflating a number of issues, whether it was sexuality, gender, religion, and what we found is that this changed rapidly from the idea of simply black and white. The other thing universities are grappling with is the fact that we are struggling with intellectual - for lack of a better word – frailty, with difference - with different opinions, with different ideologies, different ways of being. So difference on a college campus in the 21st century has taken on a complexity that has not been seen before.”

With an eye toward enhancing cultural intelligence, which she defines as “the ability to function, communicate and manage effectively in complex and changing cultural contexts” faculty approached administration at SMU. They decided to develop a program designed to tackle the issue by changing the way faculty, staff and students approach intercultural communication. To start, Dr. Dixon says they “had to deal with three very difficult facts:”
1. You can’t be a world changer if you can’t effectively engage the people in your own city
“There is an expectation by employers and communities that we at SMU are turning out people who can change the world. But you can’t change the world if you can’t talk to the world. That was the first thing we had to tell ourselves. We weren’t doing our jobs.”
2. Fifty-three years after legal segregation we are still living in a segregated society.
“This may not be popular to say, and I’m ok with that… The reality is this: we are more segregated and separated by color and age than we’ve ever been before. The statistics point it out well… We’re not talking about the people you work with. We’re talking about the people you invite over to dinner. The people you call just because. We’re talking about the people who might even have a key to your house.“
91% of whites only socialize with other whites in their private lives.
83% of blacks only socialize with other blacks in their private lives.
64% of latinos only socialize with other latinos in their private lives.
“None of us are truly engaged in diversity.”
3. Traditional Diversity and Inclusion Training have only made things much worse.
“We just need to be honest about this Traditional Diversity and Inclusion Training in my opinion has been one of the saddest developments that has emerged in the last 31 years… The truth of the matter is after 31 years diversity training has not given us any substantial change.”
Dr. Dixon said the new initiative they are launching in the fall is called CIQ at SMU as a signature initiative to address issues of diversity and inclusion. “The goal is not to appreciate diversity, but for every mustang to develop the skills and knowledge to effectively learn and work with people and in contexts that are diverse. It is designed that from the first day on campus until their last, faculty, staff, and students can learn and work to effectively create, collaborate and communicate in today’s culturally complex environment.”
Why are they going this route? The faculty, staff, and students “are leading increasingly segregated private lives yet expected to engage in integrated environment,” Dr. Dixon continued, adding that “success in the 21st century demands our ability to collaborate and communicate effectively within a complex cultural context… and for sustainable change to emerge, and entire cultural change is required.” She added.  “One of the things I like most about cultural intelligence is it allows us to walk away from the ineffective dance of intercultural etiquette. It moves us away from this idea that one group is always wrong and one group is always right. It moves us into the understanding that we all have a language to learn.  That we all have skills we need to learn.”
At its core, this is just “the idea that every one of us has a cultural language and that the more languages you learn the more multi-lingual you become and the more effective you become in your life… It doesn’t say anything about appreciation. It says we want you to be functional and effective in complex cultural situations. The bottom line is we want you to be able to do your job. Being able to complete the mission of the church regardless of the complex cultural situations you will see – whether that’s ethnicity or nationality, generational or organizational.”
She illustrated this point by discussing when we travel to new places, how we spend time and money researching other cultures, buying travel books, and learning key phrases so as to not offend or make mistakes that may get us into trouble. We want to know the “rules” of the new context. Or as she puts it: “How to stay off CNN while traveling… How do I make sure I’m not going to go to jail for touching or eating or doing something wrong?” She asks why we can’t use the “same motivation we use to not offend people who live over there… [and] utilize it for the people we live with every single day.”
As part of their CIQ initiative, they are launching an anonymous app called “ask me anything” that will
allow students, faculty, and staff to ask any question they have and it will be answered directly by staff or someone they can identify within the relevant community to answer it and make it available through their website. Dr. Dixon said they “want to make sure they’re leading and become a national voice.” She noted that they’re taking a new way and hope to be successful by moving beyond diversity toward cultural intelligence” so that “CIQ@SMU advances SMU as a national thought leader in higher education.”  Then, they “will be measured by the emergence of a culture where being culturally intelligent is the standard for being a member of the mustang family.
This article merely scratches the surface of the depth and breadth of the topics covered in Dr. Dixon’s presentation. I would urge you to set aside an hour to watch the entire video.