“A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it.” (Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. Riding the Waves of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing, 1997.)

Cultural awareness defined by COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary as someone’s understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially differences in attitudes and values.

People see, interpret and evaluate things in a different ways. What is considered an appropriate behavior in one culture is frequently inappropriate in another one.(Stephanie Quappe and Giovanna Cantatore. What is Cultural Awareness, anyway? How do I build it?)

While we can never learn everything about every culture, what we can do is know our own values and how they affect us. We can be determined to go beyond auto-pilot thinking and to question our assumptions. We can approach working across cultures with curiosity and the intent to learn about others. Doing all this helps us to communicate more effectively and to avoid misunderstandings that lead to bad feelings and conflicts. In communities, this translates into greater cohesion. In the workplace, it means higher productivity, creativity, and synergy.

Degrees of Cultural Awareness

As you go through the cycle of adjustment, your awareness of the host country culture naturally increases. This awareness tends to progress through a series of levels, described below.

  1. Unconscious incompetence

This has also been called the state of blissful ignorance. At this stage, you are unaware of cultural differences. It does not occur to you that you may be making cultural mistakes or that you may be misinterpreting much of the behavior going on around you. You have no reason not to trust your instincts.

2. Conscious incompetence

You now realize that differences exist between the way you and the local people behave, though you understand very little about what these differences are, how numerous they might be, or how deep they might go. You know there’s a problem here, but you’re not sure about the size of it. You’re not so sure of your instincts anymore, and you realize that there are some things you don’t understand. You may start to worry about how hard it’s going to be to figure these people out.

3. Conscious competence

You know cultural differences exist, you know what some of these differences are, and you try to adjust your own behavior accordingly. It doesn’t come naturally yet—you have to make a conscious effort to behave in culturally appropriate ways—but you are much more aware of how your behavior is coming across to the local people. You are in the process of replacing old instincts with new ones. You know now that you will be able to figure these people out if you can remain objective.

4. Unconscious competence

You no longer have to think about what you’re doing in order to do the right thing. Culturally appropriate behavior is now second nature to you; you can trust your instincts because they have been reconditioned by the new culture. It takes little effort now for you to be culturally sensitive.*

*This paradigm is based on work by William Howell.

Increasing cultural awareness means to see both the positive and negative aspects of cultural differences. Cultural diversity could be a source of problems, in particular when the organization needs people to think or act in a similar way. Diversity increases the level of complexity and confusion and makes agreement difficult to reach. On the other hand, cultural diversity becomes an advantage when the organization expands its solutions and its sense of identity, and begins to take different approaches to problem solving. Diversity in this case creates valuable new skills and behaviors.