4 Pitfalls to Avoid on the Path to Becoming a Global Citizen

By the SMU Social Media Team

Being a “global citizen” might be a movement that’s been gaining plenty of ground among those in the know—from the annual Global Citizen Festival, which has in the past been headlined by the likes of Green Day, Pharrell Williams and The Killers; to studies showing that global exposure can up creativity.

As Roy Chua, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business explains, an accumulating body of research has established a positive link between exposure to multicultural experiences and creativity. Multicultural exposure provides access to diverse information and knowledge which form the essential raw materials for creative re-combinations. Exposure to foreign cultures also helps challenge one’s mental model, pushing one to think out of the box.

But becoming a global citizen goes beyond spending hours poring over books and articles about an exotic locale, or mastering how to order a latte in the local language. “A global citizen is one who is culturally intelligent and able to adaptive effectively across multiple cultures,” says Assoc Prof Chua, who has co-authored the research paper, Not just how much you know: Interactional effect of cultural knowledge and metacognition on creativity in a global context.

According to him, knowledge alone may not be sufficient in gaining the status of global citizenship. In fact, it may lead to one forming stereotypes without considering context and situation. Here are the top four areas to be mindful of while trying to be a citizen of the world:


1. One can have too much knowledge

Knowledge may be power, but there might be a reason why the wise among us actually avoid information overload. The latter sometimes leads to an inability to gain insight into any given topic. And this also applies to our ability to be sensitive to other cultures.

One effect of “too much” knowledge is cognitive overload, explains Assoc Prof Chua. When knowledge about a culture is extensive, some individuals may ironically have less of a capacity to process and make the appropriate connections among relevant bits of information. Having excessive knowledge about a particular culture could also lead others to become inflexible in their perceptions, and potentially lead to the development of certain stereotypes.

“Individuals who have extensive knowledge of multiple cultures may perceive a certain cultural pattern that may, over time, become entrenched in their knowledge structure that makes it difficult to change,” says Assoc Prof Chua.

“Similarly, individuals who have deep knowledge of one culture can also develop stable mental schemas about this culture, rendering it difficult for them to challenge and break out of these set mental frames to develop new ideas that involved this particular culture.”


2. Possessing an inadequate toolkit for approaching different cultures

Being a global citizen requires a range of expertise which cannot be gleaned simply from books or courses. Instead, the building blocks to cultural intelligence come from a combination of knowledge, mindfulness and exposure.

According to Assoc Prof Chua, there are four building blocks to cultural intelligence—motivation, knowledge, meta-knowledge, and behavioural flexibility.

“Motivation refers to whether or not one is curious and interested in other cultures,” he says. “A global citizen should be highly motivated to engage a broad range of foreign cultures, not just specific ones.”

Knowledge refers to how much one knows about the cultural norms, customs, or legal and economic systems of other countries; and meta-knowledge refers to whether one is mindful about assumptions about other cultures because every culture is different and potentially changing.

Lastly, behavioural flexibility is the degree to which one can adjust behaviours like body language and accent to suit different contexts.


3. An inability to self-check and adapt

Being a global citizen does not just entail accumulating lots of intel about a foreign culture, but developing an awareness and understanding of oneself. Being able to look within to review assumptions and make adjustments in real time is essential, says Assoc Prof Chua—especially when the actual experience in a different culture deviates from preconceived expectations.

This ability to self-check allows us to evaluate and properly apply our existing knowledge to real-world situations, and “have better chances of deriving novel and useful solutions for problems through recombination of ideas from diverse cultures”.

Assoc Prof Chua adds, “Individuals with high cultural metacognition are better able to organise and sieve through the large amount of cultural knowledge they possess, make sense of them, and determine their applicability to the given context.”


4. Lacking empathy

One way to increase cultural metacognition is to take the perspective of others, by actively questioning how different people may perceive the same situation differently.

“The more one attempts to see things from different cultural perspectives, the more likely one can create a new and common meaning to the situation, which will also facilitate the formation of richer cultural knowledge structures,” says Assoc Prof Chua.

Another way to gain more perspective from the point of view of another is by engaging a ‘cultural mentor’—someone who is well-versed in a given culture and able to help correct inaccurate assumptions about that culture.


To learn more about SMU’s global exposure opportunities, visit admissions.smu.edu.sg/global-exposure