Digital, Diverse & Divided: How to Talk to Racists, Compete With Robots, and Overcome Polarization by David Livermore

Digital, Diverse & Divided: How to Talk to Racists, Compete With Robots, and Overcome Polarization

David Livermore

208 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022

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I’m convinced that polarization is the number one issue facing us today. It seems like every week, there’s a new issue being raged about across social media, news channels, and friend groups. Political candidates propose solutions that only end up perpetuating the divides, and while awareness campaigns attempt to educate, each side consumes the information that confirms what they already believe. Meanwhile, leaders promote sitting down to talk through sensitive issues, but at best, people walk away “agreeing to disagree.” Polarization keeps growing.

A novel solution for overcoming polarization lies in the world of cultural intelligence—a research-based approach to understand and relate with people from different cultural backgrounds. My colleagues and I have been researching and writing about cultural intelligence for a couple of decades. To date, most of our work has focused on using cultural intelligence to improve interactions with people from different cultures. But more recently, our findings demonstrate that cultural intelligence is equally relevant for interacting with people who may come from a similar culture as us but seem alien to us with regard to their politics, religion, and opinions about social issues.

The following is an excerpt from Digital, Diverse, and Divided, my new book where I explain how to use cultural intelligence to address the polarizing issues dividing us at every turn. The book includes stories from individuals I’ve interviewed across the world and introduces the cultural intelligence model as a social innovation for navigating difficult conversations with co-workers, friends, and even family. You’ll discover practical tools for addressing some of the most divisive issues tearing us apart. And you’ll learn how to use the differences themselves as a catalyst for solving some of the biggest challenges facing us. I hope you’ll join me in the quest to build a more culturally intelligent world near and far.—David Livermore  

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One of the consistent threads across varied forms of intelligence is a set of four complementary factors. These are found across emotional, social, practical, or cultural intelligence. The four factors are motivation, cognition, metacognition, and behavior. A person who knows (cognition) how to relate interpersonally but has no desire to do so (motivation) won’t function in a socially intelligent way. An individual who can analyze (metacognition) a practical situation deeply but can’t actually solve it in real life (behavior) doesn’t have much practical intelligence. In parallel fashion, cultural intelligence consists of four competencies—motivation (CQ Drive), cognition (CQ Knowledge), metacognition (CQ Strategy), and behavior (CQ Action). This is the academic foundation for all the practical solutions discussed throughout this book.

1. CQ Drive: Interest and Perseverance

CQ Drive is the level of interest, drive, and energy to deal with cultural differences. It’s the degree to which you’re open and interested to learn from different perspectives.

Travis is a second-generation Vietnamese American. He grew up in Tennessee, went to college nearby, and got his first job out of college working for Young Life, a faith-based organization focused on adolescents. Travis became restless and convinced his fiancée to move to Palo Alto, California, to take a new assignment with Young Life. He describes the move to Palo Alto as the most difficult transition of his life. Everything felt alien—his neighbors, coworkers, even the churches. The pressing issues and topics of conversation felt foreign.

A few years later, Travis and his wife moved with Young Life again, this time to Singapore. That should have been the more disruptive move, particularly because it was at the very start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet Travis and his wife found the transition to Singapore much easier. Despite Travis’s Vietnamese heritage, he’s thoroughly American and has only been to Vietnam once. But his drive to understand the way of life in Singapore was much higher than his interest in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t so much that he studied the culture more; it’s that he had a different level of openness and curiosity that drove him to engage directly with the culture in Singapore as compared to Palo Alto. This is what it means to exercise CQ Drive.

CQ Drive is something any of us can develop. Four chapters into this book, you’re well on your way. A great deal of what we covered in Part I can motivate us to do the hard work of bridging polarized worlds. CQ Drive begins by intentionally seeking interactions and experiences with people from different worlds with a goal of developing and maintaining relationships with people who see and experience the world differently than you. Working together to address problems we have in common is a key motivational driver.

Different ≠ weird. When my wife and I began traveling and living abroad with our kids, we repeatedly said to them, “Different, not weird.” It’s a mantra we’ve continued all throughout our family’s travels. Eating noodles for breakfast isn’t weird, it’s different. Driving on the other side of the road isn’t weird, it’s different. Two straight men walking hand-in- hand isn’t weird, it’s different. It’s a subtle but important way of framing how you view differences.

When you respond to another world’s perspective with “That’s weird!,” stop and ask yourself, Weird to whom? Do the same thing when you hear yourself say, “That’s just wrong.” Many of the things we label as weird or wrong are simply unfamiliar to us. Cultural intelligence begins with an openness and interest in different ways of approaching life. Even moral dilemmas should start with a spirit of interest and curiosity before rushing to judgment. Being open to why Uganda believes homosexual behavior should be punishable by death is not condoning it. But we can’t develop culturally intelligent solutions if we don’t first take the time to genuinely understand the perspective behind it.

2. CQ Knowledge: Cultural Understanding

CQ Knowledge is your understanding of cultural differences and their role in shaping how people think and behave. This is the element most often emphasized when preparing to work cross-culturally. It’s only one of the four competencies needed to bridge polarization but doing so is impossible if we don’t first understand what’s behind our differences.

Some people are confused why it’s okay for a Black comedian to use the N-word and not a white person. The Black community rigorously debates whether there’s ever an appropriate time to say it. A word is never just a word. It’s rooted in context and this slur has a long history of symbolizing oppression and dehumanization. White slave masters, segregationists, and colonizers used the N-word to dehumanize Black individuals. So why would a Black person ever use it? Some say it’s a way for the Black community to turn oppression on its head and use the term as a gesture of love and endearment, such as when comedian Larry Wilmore referred to President Obama as “my n*gga” at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Yet when white comedian Bill Maher used the word a few weeks later, he was forced to apologize. “It’s like a knife, man,” Ice Cube told him. “You can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. . . . It’s not cool because when I hear my homie say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feel(s) like that knife stabbing you, even if they don’t mean to.”

Doing the hard work to understand the historical and cultural significance of language is one way to build and apply CQ Knowledge. We never finish developing our CQ Knowledge. There’s always more we can learn about different figured worlds. But an understanding of key similarities and differences between figured worlds is a good starting point, including things like communication norms, leadership preferences, risk tolerance, and time orientation. This broadened understanding gives us an ability to generate more accurate explanations for unfamiliar behaviors.

Seek to understand. Another mantra I repeatedly use is “seek to understand.” Understanding why some groups are routinely punctual and others aren’t begins with understanding. I don’t have to agree with your behavior, but I must first understand what’s behind it instead of writing you off as weird, ignorant, or brainwashed. This comes from talking to people from different backgrounds and by consulting evidence-based resources that provide knowledge about different figured worlds.

3. CQ Strategy: Awareness and Planning

CQ Strategy is the ability to “think about thinking.” This competency enables a more nuanced approach to interacting with people from different figured worlds. Instead of simplistically teaching the dos and don’ts of Ugandan culture, the use of CQ Strategy considers things like the role of personal convictions, the cultural context, and the mission of the US government in Uganda.

Many assume that more information will solve problems. If we’re struggling with a rebellious teenager, we look for a book to help. If people at work complain about millennials, we offer workshops about generational differences. Jared’s colleagues assumed that educating Ugandan staff about the origins of sexual orientation would convert them to the cause. Books, training seminars, and graduate degrees are largely based on the premise that if we give people enough information, they will change their behavior. But that’s just not true. We all have way more information than we need about eating healthy, exercising, saving for retirement, and flossing our teeth. But the challenge isn’t lack of information. The same applies to many issues we face when reaching across divided worlds. In fact, mounting research shows that too much knowledge about cultural differences can actually be a handicap. Knowledge without the critical thinking and reflection that comes from CQ Strategy leads to overconfidence and real-world ignorance.

CQ Strategy can be developed and applied by taking time to anticipate an intercultural interaction. This might be as simple as remembering to dress more formally when joining a business dinner in Paris than one in Silicon Valley, or it can mean having someone who understands Ugandan culture help you design a plan for how to appropriately raise a discussion about sexuality. CQ Strategy plays a critical role in overcoming polarization because it allows us to strategize how to address shared problems together.

Suspend judgment. Notice, don’t respond. Check your assumptions. Suspend judgment. These are other mantras I often use, all of which link to CQ Strategy. When we fail to withhold judgment, we fall prey to generalizing an idiosyncratic behavior to an entire group. When observing an unfamiliar behavior, notice but don’t immediately evaluate. CQ Strategy is the process used to plan, monitor, and assess our understanding and behavior—something that is incredibly difficult in the fast-paced, one-dimensional digital world. This helps us transfer what we learn from one world to another and eventually enables us to have a high degree of accuracy and consistency in anticipating and interpreting intercultural situations.

4. CQ Action: Flexibility

Finally, CQ Action is the ability to act appropriately in a wide range of intercultural situations. One of the most important priorities is knowing when to adapt and when not to adapt. Living in our increasingly diverse world requires the agency to tailor our responses to specific cultural contexts, while remaining true to ourselves.

Sylvia is a French executive working for a Middle Eastern company in Dubai. She’s the only woman on the executive team, and the majority of leaders across the company are men. When interviewed for the position, Sylvia made it clear that she expected to be treated respectfully and equitably. They assured Sylvia they would respect her and demonstrated it with pay, title, and a direct reporting line to the CEO. Sylvia was unwilling to put on a submissive, deferential act to fit in with the male-dominated culture, but she found ways she could adapt to the cultural norms without losing herself in the process.

In France, it wasn’t uncommon for Sylvia to have lunch with a male colleague or client as a part of developing rapport and trust. But she avoids those kinds of lunches in her new role, believing it’s one small way to respect the boundaries between work and personal interactions across genders. When Sylvia joins the executive team for a work-related dinner, she refrains from ordering alcohol. But when she discovered that the company was ignoring a number of safety regulations, putting their construction teams at risk, she raised the issue immediately. She communicated her concern respectfully but unapologetically and forcefully. This is what CQ Action looks like. Sylvia is comfortable in her own skin, and she’s not trying to be all things to all people. But she adapts as needed to improve her effectiveness.

CQ Action comes with practice. It begins with trying different behaviors, like changing how quickly we speak, adjusting the way we greet people, or trying different ways to build rapport. Eventually we develop a broader repertoire of behaviors that we can use as needed. With time, we gain the ability to consistently adapt to differences while maintaining flexibility to ensure we don’t over adapt.

Good intentions don’t translate. During our first year of marriage, Linda and I were both in graduate school and working full-time jobs. There were few hours when our schedules overlapped. My idea of a good way to use the weekend was to get the house organized and cleaned for another week. Linda’s idea was to do something fun together. I quickly learned that my good intentions didn’t translate, another mantra I repeat when talking about cultural intelligence.

If someone experiences your behavior as sexist, your intentions don’t matter. What matters is the impact of your behavior on the other person. Even during the time writing this book, I have been in situations when my behavior communicated something different than I intended. Whether it was attempting to use someone’s mother tongue, poking fun at myself for mansplaining, or trying to navigate a tense conversation about racism, my communication didn’t land quite right. I still feel defensive when called out on this kind of thing. Do you know anything about me and my life work?! But I’m getting better at putting aside my defensiveness, apologizing, and asking the other party if they would be willing to help me understand why my behavior was offensive and how I can be more respectful in the future. CQ Action means taking responsibility for adapting our behavior to ensure our intentions are expressed appropriately.

These four competencies give us the tools to navigate our digital, diverse, and divided world.


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