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The Multicultural Mind

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Globalization has created a superheated competitive business environment that demands innovation to stay ahead. But it's also created a hidden source of innovation right in your midst: the people in your organization who have deep experience in more than one culture—multiculturals. Having to integrate different cultural frameworks has enabled them to develop abilities that can contribute powerfully to building innovative organizations.

David Thomas makes a compelling business case for recognizing and cultivating a new dimension of diversity—the diversity within individuals! He looks at how to establish the organizational conditions under which multiculturals can flourish and shows how even the most monocultural among us can gain the advantages of a multicultural mind.

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1 A RESOURCE HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Multiculturals and innovation

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There was a time when all an organization needed to succeed was to improve. But in today’s dynamic and complex competitive environment organizations need to innovate, and most of them know it. What many don’t know is that there is a largely untapped source of innovation that is hiding in plain sight. These are individuals with multiple cultural identities,1 such as:

Carlos Ghosn, born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, educated in France, and is now a superstar CEO in—Japan? He is so famous for turning around the fortunes of Nissan that his life story has been made into a Japanese comic book series. He is the CEO of Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Ralph Baer (born Rudolph Heinrich Baer in Germany) immigrated to the United States with his family as a result of World War II. He took up electronics and trained as a radio service engineer. In the 1960s he came up with the idea of playing games on television screens and went on to develop the Magnavox Odyssey and other consoles and game units. Known as the “Father of Video Games,” he was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2004.

 

2 WHY MEXICANS SPEAK SPANISH: Sources of cultural identity

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The continuing existence of different languages and cultures around the world might seem out of step with the homogenizing forces of globalization. However, culture and our cultural identity have a profound influence on how we think, feel, and act. The history of how cultures develop helps us understand the persistence of cultural influence and the importance of multiculturals.

Before the European discovery of what is now Mexico, a small number of shipwrecked sailors showed up on the shores of the Yucatán Peninsula. One of these was a Castilian named Jerónimo de Aguilar. After narrowly escaping being the featured actor in a Maya ritual sacrifice, de Aguilar and another shipwreck survivor, Gonzalo Guerrero, escaped into the interior, where they encountered a friendlier tribe (they were both enslaved, but at least they hadn’t been eaten). Both de Aguilar and Guerrero assimilated into the Maya culture—learning the language and adopting Indian ways; Guerrero took a Maya wife who bore him two children. Eight years later, Hernán Cortés made several brief forays into the Yucatán and learned of his countrymen’s existence. Guerrero and de Aguilar reacted to Cortés’s arrival in different ways. Guerrero, completely Mayanized, refused to join his countrymen and was later killed while fighting on the side of the Indians against the Spaniards. De Aguilar, by contrast, was pleased to be reunited with his countrymen, and Cortés ransomed him from his Indian captors for a few glass beads. Regardless of his initial reasons for contacting his countryman, Cortés soon came to realize that de Aguilar’s knowledge of the language and culture of the Maya could be invaluable in his quest for gold. The rest, as they say, is history; the invasion of the Spanish changed the language, religion, and many aspects of culture of this part of the world. Without the multicultural skills of de Aguilar, things might have turned out differently.1 There are numerous other examples of a culture being affected by colonization. However, there is perhaps no better example of how the skills of a multicultural individual influenced the process of cultural development. While cultures continue to evolve, they are deeply woven into the fabric of the society.

 

3 SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD: How confronting cultural differences results in a multicultural mind

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The phrase “sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” from the traditional African American spiritual, reflects the search for a sense of place and of self by the slaves who were transported from their African homeland. The song expresses the pain and despair of this longing. The questions Who am I? and Where do I belong? are central to understanding multicultural persons. How individuals come to experience another culture is perhaps less important than the act of confronting another culture on an existential level. Confronting cultural differences is critical to developing a multicultural mind.

As noted in chapter 2, some individuals will have acculturated as a result of migration. Others will have grown up in a multicultural family where they learned to identify with more than one culture. Still others will experience one culture in part of their lives (e.g., at work or school) and another culture in a different part of their lives (e.g., at home). Individuals who spend a significant part of their childhood growing up in one or more foreign cultures (often as the sons or daughters of foreign service employees, missionaries, or expatriates) are such a well-known example of multiculturals that they have been named third culture kids (TCKs).

 

4 NEORICANS, MEXICAN AMERICANS, AND CATALAN SPANISH: The many ways in which individuals experience and manage their multiculturalism

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Not every multicultural understands his or her cultural identity in the same way. In a recent study, a group of researchers asked multicultural individuals what it was like to be multicultural. Many of them responded that it was like being a salad with all the different colors and textures of their cultures combined in one bowl. However, there were many different responses, such as the following:

I’m like a spice rack. So, different spices and I’m really unique. I do believe, I think I’m different. I do think differently. And like a spice rack, I pick which part of each culture that I would like. And it can change from day to day. (ARAB AMERICAN)

I think I am probably kind of like the fusion food . . . kind of mix. (CHINESE CANADIAN)

It’s like a game of volleyball, I feel like. Sometimes volleyball can be like calm or you can have like a nice, like a nice, calm game. And sometimes it can get really intense and competitive, and sometimes I feel like the two cultures, they’re balanced. And sometimes I feel like they’re not where it’s like competitive between the two cultures . . . sometimes I feel it’s hard to incorporate the two cultures, just trying to find a way to make a mix sometimes is difficult. And sometimes I feel like, oh, it’s doable or it’s good, it’s OK. You can mix the two cultures. (ARAB AMERICAN)

 

5 SINGING SEA CHANTEYS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A SAILOR: Language and multiculturalism in an organizational context

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Individuals who are fluent in more than one language can make a significant contribution to innovation in multicultural organizations. However, multilingual does not mean multicultural any more than singing a seafaring song makes one a sailor.1 Furthermore, having a multicultural mind does not rely on knowing another language. Language is a powerful element of cultural identity, and second-language ability often forms alongside cultural identity. However, it is important that individuals and organizations do not equate the two. Speaking a foreign language is a valuable skill that can give individuals insight into another culture. But language can be just a piece of cultural knowledge, or it can form a key aspect of identity.

Communicating through language involves codes (systems of signs that represent a particular idea or concept) and conventions (agreed upon norms about how, when, and in what instances these codes will be used). Basically, language is a set of sounds with understood meanings, and the meanings attached to any sound (word) can be completely arbitrary. For example, the Japanese word for cat (neko) doesn’t look or sound any more like a cat than does the English word. But somewhere in the development of the two languages, these words were chosen to represent the animal, and you just need to know the code. While codes are determined in large part by culture, it is possible to learn them without identifying with their underlying culture. For example, some intercultural communication scholars report that foreign language teachers in the United States are instructed to teach their students foreign languages but to reassure these students that they will not have to change any of their own beliefs in the process.2 Their values and their sense of identity will not be affected. In this case, language skills consist of knowledge of the codes required to communicate, but without a deep understanding of the culture in which the conventions for language use were formed.

 

6 WHERE ARE YOU FROM—REALLY?: Observable differences and developing a multicultural mind

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Where are you from? seems like a simple question. And, for many people with physical characteristics that are typical of a particular geography, it is! But multiculturals often have racial or ethnic backgrounds that don’t match their cultural identity.1 They look “different,” and this confuses people. They are difficult to categorize! The following comments from people of mixed race are typical:

Keko, a mixed race student, had grown weary of her middle school classmates asking her how much Japanese ancestry she had. So when asked, she had systematically responded, “one-third.” It amused her that her less mathematically sophisticated classmates often accepted this answer without question. Rarely did they pick up on the fact that you can be one-half Japanese or one-fourth, but not one-third.2

Chela, with Scottish, Jamaican, and East Indian heritage, says, “Being biracial isn’t hard because we are confused about our racial identity. It’s hard because everyone else is confused. The problem isn’t us—it’s everyone else.”3

 

7 I AM FEELING VERY OLYMPIC TODAY. HOW ABOUT YOU?: The influence of the situation on multiculturals and innovation

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Sometimes the importance of the situation is the overriding influence on the behavior of multiculturals and on the creative process. The quotation in the chapter title is from Sanka Coffie (played by Doug E. Doug), the brakeman of the world’s first Jamaican bobsled team, depicted in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings. Despite having no experience in the Olympics, he was expressing his feelings of an Olympic identity when he and his teammates were qualifying for the Calgary Winter Olympic Games. Sanka’s expression suggests the powerful influence that a strong situational context can have on the way people feel, think, and act.

In July 1961 a series of experiments showed just how powerful the situation can be.

Forty men solicited by direct mail and a newspaper ad were paid to participate in a laboratory experiment at Yale University. Participants were ordered by an administrator (a role played by a 31-year-old high school teacher dressed in a gray lab coat) to administer an electric shock to a victim (another role, played by a 47-year-old accountant who had been trained to respond systematically) who was bound to an electric chair in another room. The justification for administration of the shock was a cover story about studying the effects of punishment on learning. A simulated generator was used that had 30 marked voltage levels ranging from 15 to 450 volts, with labels ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock.” A number of steps were taken to convince the participants of the realism of the situation. The participant was instructed to administer increasingly higher levels of shock each time the victim (learner) gave a wrong answer to a series of questions, even to the point of reaching the level marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” As the experiment proceeded, some participants showed resistance and were encouraged by the administrator with “Please continue,” “The experiment requires you to continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally “You have no choice, you must go on.” All 40 participants administered shocks at the 300-volt mark, at which point the victim could be heard to pound the wall of the room in which he was bound to the electric chair. He no longer responded to questions after this time. Five participants refused to go on beyond this point, and four more administered only one more shock. Although obedient participants continued, they often did so under extreme stress. They were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their skin. Despite their reluctance 26 of the 40 participants proceeded to punish the victim until they reached the most powerful shock available on the generator!1

 

8 I GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS: The roles of multiculturals in teams and organizations

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Much of the work of organizations is now done in work groups or teams. As knowledge-based competition becomes the norm, the contribution of teams to innovation is even more important to understand. Not only are individuals with multicultural minds a source of creative ideas, they have important and unique roles to play in organizations and teams seeking innovation. Individuals in culturally diverse organizations can be a source of innovation. However, as the line from the Beatles’ song in the chapter title suggests, in order to be effective contributors, they may need a little help from their (multicultural) friends.

Culturally diverse teams have the opportunity for superior performance, but that same diversity can be a source of problems, which must be managed.

For example, in a famous case of drunk flying, Japan Airlines cargo flight 8054 carrying the pilot (a 53-year-old US national), two copilots (both Japanese, aged 31 and 35), two cargo handlers, and 65 beef cattle crashed shortly after takeoff in Anchorage, Alaska, killing all on board. Post-mortem analysis indicated that the captain had a blood alcohol level of .29 percent (a driver in the United States with .08 percent is considered legally intoxicated). The captain’s preflight behavior included staggering and slurring his words and was noticed by the driver who took the crew to the airport. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was “a stall that resulted from the pilot’s control inputs aggravated by airframe icing while the pilot was under the influence of alcohol. Contributing to the cause of this accident was the failure of the other flight crew members to prevent the captain from attempting the flight.” The cockpit voice recorder showed that neither the first nor the second officer remarked about the captain’s intoxication, nor did they try to deter him from controlling the aircraft. Subsequent investigation attributed the reluctance of the junior flight crew members to confront the captain to the fact that suggesting to the captain, their superior, that he delegate the takeoff to a junior crew member would have caused him to lose face.1

 

9 THE NEEDS OF THE MANY OUTWEIGH THE NEEDS OF THE FEW: Leveraging the skills of multiculturals and building an innovative organization

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The quotation in the chapter title is perhaps the most famous line in the history of the television series and movie franchise Star Trek.1 It is of course attributed to Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy), the pointy eared, green-blooded, half Vulcan and half human first officer of the starship Enterprise. Spock, like the multicultural people discussed in this book,2 was constantly forced to confront his multicultural identity. Spock’s difference forced his culturally diverse crewmates to be self-aware and to examine their own assumptions about the way in which their own cultural programing influenced their perspectives. Spock often demonstrated his skills in boundary spanning between the crew of the Enterprise and the alien species of the moment. Also, their organization, the Enterprise, was an environment that got the best, not only from the multicultural and ever so logical Spock but also from the mercurial Captain Kirk, not to mention Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, and a cornucopia of crew members from the far reaches of the planet and the galaxy. While the Enterprise operated within the confines of the defined rules of its parent organization, Starfleet, the flexible situation on board the starship allowed the creativity that was often required to deal with the many unexpected encounters of space exploration.

 

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