The other day I started writing a list of things that I wanted to thank my parents for. It’s now my seventh year living abroad (and away from them), so over the years I have realized specific elements about my upbringing that I used to take for granted, but now actually feel enormously grateful for.
One of them is cultural open-mindedness, or cultural fluency. What is cultural fluency? Well, since I couldn’t find any proper definition for this, I came up with my own.
One of the highest expressions of cultural fluency can be found in sports. Think of sports as a language that is capable of overcoming all these dichotomies that I mentioned. A Nigerian boy and a Japanese girl could become best friends and empathize with each other if you gave them a football and let them play. When I think of people being very culturally fluent, I think of the purity of empathy that sports has to offer.
And that’s the level that I strive for with my pursuit of cultural fluency.
I built most of my own cultural fluency in a number of ways: first, by traveling to foreign places since a young age. Second, by not shying away from doing solo trips to unknown cultures in which I had to “survive” on my own. And third, by proactively seeking cultural exchange on the ground so I would not just be a bystander but an active participant. All of the above has helped me develop cultural fluency. And while I acknowledge that the first point was a privilege out of my control, the second and third points are much more in our control.
Traveling is the most enriching experience one can have. And with each trip, with each experience, with each interaction that we have with people from other cultures, the better we are able to calibrate our cultural understanding. It adds richness and pleasant complexity to the way we experience life and offers clues about our place in the world. Like a big puzzle in which each experience is a piece that will eventually result in a comprehensive worldview.
The fact that I have worked throughout Latin America for more than four years – an experience through which I have built plenty of cultural fluency in the region’s business environment – allows me to not only know how authentic a promise of a business partner is, but also to increase that authenticity because I know how to best connect with them. I remember my very first business meeting in Brazil, walking away thinking I had closed that sales deal. Boy was I wrong. It wasn’t until my fifth trip to Brazil that I finally developed sufficient cultural fluency through which I would leave meetings knowing exactly what I could expect from those business partners.
One might wonder at this point what role linguistic fluency plays in this. Frankly speaking, it plays a big role. Linguistic fluency is probably what helps you get closest to building profound cultural fluency – just think of how much more impact Pep Guardiola had as the trainer of Bayern Munich because he learned German first.
Removing yourself from your familiar surroundings and throwing yourself into an environment that is fundamentally chaotic in comparison with what you already know is basically the fastest way to build cultural fluency. And once you have done that, you will be able to behave as a player and traveler, not as a spectator and a tourist.