Building Cultural Fluency

The other day I started writing a list of things that I wanted to thank my parents for. It’s now my 7th 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, came up with my own.

“Cultural fluency is the ability to quickly and deeply empathize with people of other cultures and to decode a nation’s DNA in spite of linguistic barriers. It describes an insatiable sense of curiosity that differentiates the tourist from the traveler.”

I built most of my own cultural fluency through the following 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 the cultural exchange on the ground so I would not be just a bystander but an active participant. All of the above have helped me develop cultural fluency. And while I acknowledge that the first point was a privilege out of my control, the second and third point are much more in our control.

Traveling truly lies at the core of what helps build cultural fluency. It’s the most enriching experience one can have. And with each trip, with each experience, with each interaction that we have with people of 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 would eventually result in a comprehensive worldview.

“What cultural fluency allows us to do is to meet other cultures at their eye level. To explore without judgement. To understand despite the barriers. To be trusted not feared. To decode and not disdain.”

The simplest example that comes to mind was on a hike that I once did in Africa. We were a diverse international group, yet our guides were all locals from that respective country. I remember how some individuals, native English speakers, would interact with the guides on a level of English that was full of sophisticated expressions and vocabulary. On the other hand, there were some other individuals, mostly foreigners themselves, who would talk to the guides with a level of English that was significantly more adjusted to the level that the guides spoke: rudimentary, simple grammar, slow. Instead of saying: “it’s a tricky thing to figure out,” they would say “it’s difficult and I do not understand it.” Instead of saying “Can you help resolve this asap?” they would rather say “I need your help. Can you help me now?”

For me, that was a telling moment because it showed me an incredible level of empathy (or lack thereof) in the way how we as a group were interacting with some of the locals. This, for me, was an example of cultural fluency. The ability to empathize and to meet on eye-level. And that empathy is especially important to keep us from judging when we encounter unknown cultural elements that do not instantly make sense to us. The empathy allows us to embrace, not dismiss the unknown.

Cultural fluency also helps us feel more connected to the world. It helps us to excavate beyond the surface of “cultural difference” or “language barriers” or dichotomy of “foreigner/local” and get at what makes humans from all around the world similar instead. We feel more at home — anywhere in the world — if we can understand more deeply the lives of the strangers that we cross paths with.

Finally, cultural fluency is something that, hopefully, can combat a lot of the hate that breeds violence. Hate stems from ignorance and vilifying that which we do not know. The religious man may travel the world and learn about belief systems antagonistic to his own, and return more confident in his faith and tolerant of others. Or, the agnostic man, may travel the world and learn about belief systems seemingly antagonistic to one another, and yet identify the common threads that link them together while also extracting from each different shards of wisdom to inform his own thinking.

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, but one can already get pretty far without linguistic fluency. What you need is a quest for learning, an instinct for empathy and a bias not to seek simple answers but to probe deeply into the things we see, hear and observe.

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 enough of that, you will be able to behave as a traveler, not as a tourist.


Big thanks to my dear friend Nick Young who inspired me to write this piece and who has significantly contribute to my own cultural fluency. Check omidscheybani.com to learn more about me.