It takes two to Waitangi, and other cultural tales, bro!

Bob was a middle-aged plumber. He employed me as a university student supplementing my meagre scholarship allowance during vacations.

Who’d think plumbing was life-threatening? But Bob began as a builder’s labourer in the good-old-bad-old-days. Back then, occupational health and safety were scarcely a gleam in a shop steward’s eye.

Bob reminisced on his first job, lumping roof tiles along scaffolding eight stories up. Young and confident, he let his feet do the work of his eyes, and took a step … into fathomless space.

Messy oblivion

His life flashed before him while his mind processed the missing scaffold support and his plunge to messy oblivion.

Human instinct’s a funny beast. The plank wasn’t absent, just warped. But that inch between where his foot was and where it should have been turned his hair prematurely grey.

He also told me about his mate, the crane rigger — the bloke in pre-walkie talkie days who rode the load from ground to destination on high rise constructions. After a few beers one lunch, the rigger got careless.

His pals furtively attached the neglected safety harness to his corpse. They knew his widow and children would be destitute if the workers’ compensation claim was refused. To my youthful imagination, it was a law-defying act of social culture — justice and injustice facing off in a moral punch-up behind the lunchroom.

Bob never worked at heights again. He became a plumber.

‘Plumbers stick to the dirt, mate.’

With them, but not of them

They were memorable stories, but I was immortal; nothing like that could happen to me. Besides, I belonged to a different culture. I was a student of literature, an historian, a philosopher. My occasional forays into the lives of working folk were objective, observational, remote. I was with them, but I wasn’t of them.

I took time off my honours degree to liberate my inner writer and invaded beautiful New Zealand. Beauty fuelled ideas, but didn’t pay even my most modest bills. Discovering your literary shortcomings still takes money. I worked as an itinerant while busily failing to capture the great Australian story.

Along the way I lived with a gentle Maori family. I witnessed New Zealand’s unique blend of cultures: an eclectic mix of individualistic British pragmatism and collective Polynesian exuberance. At first it seemed a clash of peoples, but I learned it takes two to Waitangi.

Was it coincidence, or some kind of cultural predestination that landed me a job in a steel factory as a crane rigger?

I mastered the hand signals that guided the overhead crane driver. He and the crane travelled the hundred metre length of the plant on twin rails, delivering coils of steel plate like metre-high, two-tonne toilet rolls to the mills below. They rolled the steel into pipes, and the crane returned the finished payload to rail-trucks for despatch.

Bad cultural move

The canteen was central to the often crude, all-male workforce. As the youngest employee, and probably the only university educated worker, I kept to myself, writing poetry in a corner. Bad cultural move.

The plant was unionised. One time, a minor dispute with management led to a stop work meeting. Naively, I voted against a popular strike motion.

One of the regular crane drivers was a statuesque Maori. He played rugby and had a physique a bulldozer would hesitate to tackle. His physical presence was in stark contrast to his speech. If he spoke to me at all, he kept it brief: ‘F_ _ k off, pakeha (non-Maori)’.

After the strike, he signalled me up the ladder to his control cubicle four metres above the factory floor. As I drew level with his cabin, he opened his window and without a word crashed his leg of lamb-sized fist into my face.

Taking a cultural dive

My cultural somersault with pike and twist scored well in the descent, but lost points on landing. When I came to, an incredulous manager chortled: ‘Mate, I’ve never seen any body bounce like that!’

Asked if I wanted to press charges, I declined. I mumbled my cultural arrogance must have provoked him. In truth, I was rigid with terror. It was time I moved on.

Just before I left, the crane driver came to my lodgings. Struggling for words, he said he was grateful I hadn’t taken the matter further. His discipline and police record would have meant suspension, loss of wages, a fine, or even a criminal sentence. He was struggling in his marriage, and the fall-out he’d narrowly avoided had made him re-think.

He gripped me in a rib-cracking embrace and boomed: ‘Man, you no f _ _ _ _ _ g pakeha. You my bro!’

If you’d like to know more about cultural intelligence, boosted workplace harmony, and enhanced productivity, bounce a call through to Tavale Ilalio on 0428 504 240 or visit

Arthur or Martha or neither–how cultural intelligence can help untangle the transgender knot

By Roger G McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

When doctors deny one in five members of a community medical care, and 41 per cent of that group attempt suicide, a cloud hangs over our cultural intelligence on two essential issues — health and gender.

Push the pause button on that for a moment. First, look in the mirror and ask yourself that existential teenage question: who am I? For most of us, at least one basic response is pretty clear. I’m a male, or a female.

However, for a small but expanding sector of humanity, the answer is anything but plain.

Dr Ada Cheung has three parallel healthcare careers. She’s an internationally recognised and awarded endocrinologist, and a full time medical science researcher at the University of Melbourne. She also heads an organisation probing and promoting the health and welfare of Australia’s transgender community.

Her interest in transgender issues stems from her research at the University of Melbourne. She is the recipient of a prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) fellowship. NHMRC is one of 17 portfolio agencies under the auspices of Australia’s Federal Department of Health. The council is one of the world’s most respected medical research administrators with, by international standards, a disproportionately high number of Nobel laureates among its researchers.

Her research project focuses on improving the lives of people with hormone-related conditions. As well as in-depth probing into the influence of testosterone and oestrogen, she has a particular interest in the physical and mental health status of transgender and gender diverse people.

Straddling three cultures

Dr Cheung’s personal and professional lives straddle all three cultures, though they’re not always complementary and not all in constant accord. As a medical specialist, she represents and connects to a culture she loves and respects, but sometimes struggles to fully endorse.

She describes on the one hand a strong, intensely historical culture that gives us the Hippocratic oath, with its passionate respect for human life and dignity. On the other, she portrays the same culture as represented by a male doctor in a white coat standing over a compliant patient confined to a hospital bed.

Dr Cheung thinks of our contemporary Western medical culture as an embedded, hierarchical tradition. Universities and teaching hospitals make sure students receive inoculations of medical and moral expectations that can cause serious side effects for both practitioner and patient.

In an environment where doctors cannot be seen to be fallible, to falter or to fail, bullying remains a significant issue. Mental illness and suicide are rife, she says, but slide under the radar in a culture that struggles with overt signs of vulnerability. Who would not recall the New Testament warning: ‘Physician, heal thyself’?

A new approach to medical cultural intelligence

The prestigious Psychology Today magazine confirms her contention. In the United States, physicians are at higher risk of suicide than non-physicians. Suicide is responsible for a quarter of young physicians’ deaths annually. The profession needs a new approach to cultural intelligence, she believes.

Her second culture, scientific research, is both quizzical and sceptical. She jokes that scientists don’t trust or believe anything, and that nothing is true except for the data they so minutely examine. Unlike medical practice, the research is clinical and bloodless. Emotion is all but removed from the equation in favour of the facts. Yet its relative remoteness from the lives its discoveries and conclusions are meant to treat can make scientific and medical research seem almost one-dimensional.

She believes devoted researchers must work hard to design protocols and conduct research programs that do more than provide solutions to some of our most baffling physical and mental puzzles. Unravelling scientific, medical, and therapeutic mysteries may be a wonderful first step. But without a corresponding shift in cultural call and response — the marginalised pleading to the mainstream — no reformative or lasting societal change can occur.

Dr Cheung says she didn’t choose her research field, it chose her. The stigma members of the transgender community constantly endure blights our humanity because it occurs at the most fundamental level.

Biological, not psychological

She and her team face a remorseless, though not unwinnable battle to counter one of our most prevalent myths: people outside the conventional male and female boundaries go and remain there by choice. The truth of gender assignment is radically different: it’s biological, not psychological. Our hereditary DNA determines our gender just as it ordains other physical characteristics such as eye colour, finger prints, right or left handedness, and a host of other attributes and functions.

More critically, gender is not a one-or-the-other choice — for any of us — between masculine and feminine. Biologically standard infants of course display a tell-all penis or vagina at birth. While the newborn’s external sex organs might seem a give-away for her or his likely sexual orientation in puberty and beyond, it’s far from the end of the story.

We now know that conditions like autism, anxiety, depression, and dozens of other life-defining and life-altering states occur across a spectrum. Experts can measure them from barely noticeable to profound and severe. Which makes it all the more surprising that something as basic as gender ambivalence and ambiguity has taken so long to achieve recognition.

Transgender studies are still in their relative infancy, but a wealth of terms for different gender identities has already sprung up. Dr Cheung’s Trans Medical Research organisation lists nine categories but there are many more:

  1. Trans man or trans male: a female at birth but who identifies fully as male
  2. Trans woman or trans female: male at birth but identifying fully as female
  3. Non binary: identifies as neither trans male or trans female, preferring to identify along the gender spectrum
  4. Gender fluid: a person whose gender identity changes
  5. Gender queer: someone who doesn’t identify with either of the two main genders, or gender binary
  6. Agender: not identifying with any gender at all
  7. Demi boy or demi girl: a person who identifies only partly as a male or a female
  8. Trans masculine: identifying as more male than female on the gender spectrum
  9. Trans feminine: identifying as more female than male on the gender spectrum.

Dr Cheung says the trans community suffers doubly, first through the ignorance and bias of the wider population and health professionals, and then through division within its own ranks. Marginalised and stigmatised for decades, transgender people tote unenviable baggage compared to the rest of the gender-assured population. She cites some disturbing research figures:

  • 41 per cent of transgender people in Australia have attempted suicide
  • 54 per cent suffer from depression, five times the national rate
  • 20 per cent have been denied treatment by a medical professional
  • 50 per cent report having to educate their healthcare professionals about their status
  • 28 per cent have experienced harassment in a medical situation
  • 49 per cent put off medical care because they didn’t have enough money

With these kinds of odds against them, transgender people feel sidelined and have a mostly lower socio-economic status than the rest of the population. Some profess a distrust of the medical and scientific profession, a minority of which has shown an historic discrimination, even if unintentional.

Transgender people have to live with the enhanced sensitivities that come with gender ambiguity. Dr Cheung says she has inadvertently caused transgender people offence, even as a sympathetic researcher specialising in the field. Much work remains to be done by health professionals to gain or recover the transgender community’s trust.

She sees it as a collision of cultures. She describes a muddled conflict zone where tradition and an unconscious bias in doctors meet a difficult to grasp gender fluidity that cannot express itself in a unified voice. Further education and research, combined with enlightened goodwill on the part of the medical profession, will go a long way to easing that cultural tension.

If you would like to learn more about transgender culture or associated issues affecting you or someone you know, contact Dr Ada Cheung MBBS (Hons) FRACP PhD, Department of Medicine (Austin Health), The University of Melbourne E:

If you would like to know more about straddling cultures and untangling cultural knots to maintain cultural dignity, contact Tavale Ilalio, on 0428 504 240 or visit


Cultural intelligence and sport: a spiritual grammar

Rugby union boffins name the near-flawless legend, John Eales, as Australia’s greatest Wallaby. A dual world cup winner in 1991 and in 1999 as captain, he is lionized wherever rugby is known.

In 2017, Eales spoke emotionally of the day he led a Wallabies snub of the New Zealand All Blacks’ haka, the incomparable Maori war dance. In a 1996 Test match in Wellington, the Wallabies turned their backs on the performance, incensing the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby fans. Cultural observers worldwide mourned, lamenting the insult to a cultural symbol of courage in combat and pride in peace.

Long after the end of his illustrious career, Eales confessed his sorrow at instigating a haunting international affront. He added a further sadness: after 40,000 years of indigenous culture in Australia, the Wallabies had no equivalent cultural expression of their own.

We know sport brings out the best and worst of humanity. We only occasionally see gestures of humility in victory and nobility in defeat. Too often we wince at thuggishness and brutality on the pitch and in the stands.

More than a matter of life and death

‘What’s better than thrashing Collingwood (an Australian rules football team known for its sometimes uncouth fans) by twenty goals? Breaking their hearts by a single point.’

Another football aphorism: from the cultural mountain of Anfield, legendary Liverpool FC manager, Bill Shankly, pronounced: ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s far more serious than that.’

Australians and New Zealanders push Shankly’s observation further, applying it to all sport. In Australia, the leader of the nation, the Prime Minister, enjoys less recognition and deference than the captain of the Australian cricket team. Or did, until the notorious 2018 tour of South Africa when the Australian captain, Steve Smith, and his maligned ‘leadership group’ went close to destroying that revered tradition. Sandpapergate, as the infamous Australian ball-tampering plot became known, pierced Australia’s cultural heart.

Winning selection for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team isn’t just the pinnacle of sporting achievement; it’s an elevation to sainthood.

And South American life insurance policy writers hesitate when covering a small but significant cohort of the sporting population — soccer referees.

Big business

Sport is big business whichever way you look at it. Respected global management consultant firm, A.T. Kearney, values sport as a US$$480-$620 billion annual contributor to the world economy. We can’t dismiss it as children letting off steam in the sandpit.

The Vatican of Australian sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, still holds the world record for sporting attendance: 1,153,000 for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It also holds the world record for a single cricket Test match — 350,534.

Melbourne too is the only major city in the world to stage a public holiday for a horse race. The Melbourne Cup has earned its proud label as the race that stops a nation. At 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, millions of Australians in every corner of the country gather round TVs and radios to hear the call.

You’d imagine with Australia’s vast mineral and agricultural wealth, our leading employer would be mining, farming, or manufacturing. Think again. It’s more likely the horse racing industry.

Leading players from any of a dozen sports codes find cultural, commercial, and political doors flung open to them that few, often better qualified mortals could approach let alone breach.

We take our sport seriously indeed. It’s not simply what we do; it’s quintessentially who we are, and how we relate to the universe. Even if we’re not champions on the field, in the pool, or riding the waves, we live in our imaginations through our heroes. Vicarious pleasure — gaining satisfaction through others’ success — comes as readily to us as blowies to a barbecue.

The darkness —sport, pride, and tragedy

Then there’s the darkness. Sport, pride, and tragedy make a celebrated trio.

Ancient Greek theatre gave us tragedy, and it wasn’t your grandmother dying in her sleep at 102. It described the man (always a man) of culture, position, and exceptional personal qualities who crashes to catastrophe through pride, stubbornness, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with the facts. The Greeks called it nemesis through hubris — punishment through overweening ego. In modern Western culture we’d say: the arrogant bastard got what he deserved.

In 2012 and 2016, Australia took two of its largest and reputedly strongest teams to the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Both outfits glittered with actual and potential world stars. The nation expected our pet events, swimming, cycling, and rowing, to deliver a torrent of gold. All fell short, leaving it to lesser-known disciplines to plug an unstanchable wound.

Cultural haemorrhage

When, after London, we slipped to tenth, well behind archrivals Great Britain on the international medal tally, we felt the injury to national pride as a cultural haemorrhage.

Across the Tasman, the culture that rugby injects into New Zealand penetrates deeper into national life than anywhere else on earth. When predominantly British settlers arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud, they found the indigenous Maori already playing a game called ki-o-rahi. Containing elements of both rugby union and Australian Rules football, it forged a role in easing interracial tensions and nurturing a culture that would cement a new national identity.

As we saw at the beginning of this story, New Zealand culture is at its most visible in the haka. It’s that fierce and fearsome traditional war and tribal dance the All Blacks have long adopted with awesome success.

It doesn’t quite come with a watertight guarantee. Our Kiwi cousins suffer a collective cultural and psychological meltdown if the All Blacks fail to reach or win the Rugby World Cup final.

Little deaths within

When our heroes falter, fail, and fall — as fate and history dictate they all too often do — a little something dies within us too.

Think of the instances of ego, greed, and desperation that have brought so many undone. The list is agonisingly long: the East German government and its political sports doping culture; prominent athletes such as Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong; sportsmen caught up in match-fixing and cheating, including cricketers Hansie Cronje; our own Australian cricketing titans Steve Smith and David Warner, shrunk to errant cheats.

Consider the origins of sport and its mostly successful attempts to establish a universal code of decency, honesty, purity, selflessness. Then ponder the shame that attaches itself to champions when they drop below agreed standards of fair play. Not only do they diminish themselves, but we too feel the loss of innocence and the ache of withdrawal when a beauty we hoped would remain unspoiled is ruined.

Their fall from grace brings to mind the concluding fragment of John Donne’s Meditation XVII, his immortal No Man is an Island poem:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Substitute a sporting betrayal for any man’s death. You begin to see another facet of cultural intelligence. You grasp that sport isn’t just a game but a spiritual grammar able to communicate triumph and tragedy in everybody’s language.

By Roger McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

If you want to lift your organisation’s cultural intelligence game, whistle up Tavale Ilalio on 0428 504 240 or visit

Cultural awareness versus cultural intelligence — the chicken and the egg debate

As the extent of mobility increases in the developed world, the need for cultural awareness accelerates. In countries across the Anglosphere in particular, where large-scale immigration has been a central pillar of population growth, the need couldn’t be starker, says Dr Stephane Shepherd.

Dr Shepherd is a research fellow and lecturer in psychology at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University, Melbourne Australia. Recently he was a visiting scholar at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in the United States.

Dr Shepherd spoke at the launch of Mahana Culture’s Chasing Our Tales forum in April. Chasing Our Tales showcases Mahana Culture’s cultural intelligence programs, led by Culture Connects. Culture Connects is a four-day across three-month incubator course for organisations, government departments, and corporations dealing with and looking to benefit from cross cultural currents within their ranks.

Wrinkles in theory and practice

He believes that when examining the formal learning structures of cultural awareness to date, these societies need to acknowledge the deficiencies in conventional workshops on the subject. They need to iron out some of the wrinkles in both theory and practice which to date have put the cultural awareness cart before the cultural intelligence horse.

He describes those deficiencies as myopic, impractical, and lacking self-criticism, factors that forums like Mahana Culture’s do much to address.

Cultural awareness workshops have various derivatives: cultural competence, cultural safety, cultural humility, and some overlapping sub-derivatives such as anti-prejudice training, diversity training and micro-aggression training. The overarching aim of most is to enhance effective cross-cultural training, initiatives he paints as laudable objectives.

They’re commonplace in Australia at the moment, with their philosophies embedded in many government departments’ and industry sectors’ strategic plans. The reasoning is mostly good, although it can sometimes be driven by ulterior motives — such as human relations departments ticking the avoid-litigation-at-all-costs box.

Institutional racism

Dr Shepherd says much of the foundation work for current cultural awareness workshops was spawned by the health disparities literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reviews at that time attempted to address cross-cultural healthcare discrepancies across a range of indicators, beginning with institutional racism. This, he says, is where a lot of cross cultural awareness training originated.

The literature on cultural awareness training is extensive, with more than 100 academic and research studies. He draws four take-home messages from the meta-analyses and systematic reviews:

  1. A slight improvement in clinical knowledge is detectable after participation in cultural awareness workshops (while acknowledging this is focused on health care settings where the bulk of the training is targeted). Follow up analysis shows awareness tends to tail off over time.
  2. Patient satisfaction shows a minor improvement but with mixed findings
  3. In health care settings, the analyses provided no evidence for improved healthcare outcomes in terms of efficacy. Can patients navigate their way around healthcare settings after a clinician has undergone some cultural awareness training? Do they adhere to treatment and medication protocols, and is there any improvement in their health goals? At this point, there hasn’t been any evidence of improved patient outcomes from conventional cultural awareness workshops.
  4. Many of these studies have poor methodological rigour, making the outcomes of cultural awareness workshops look dismal.

Dr Shepherd referred to the most comprehensive research study on cultural awareness initiatives in business settings. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, it analysed three decades of data on cultural awareness training from more than 800 US forums, essentially covering the entire Fortune 500 group of companies.

Shaming, blaming, and finger pointing

The study found that three quarters of the workshops used negative messaging, which he describes as shaming, blaming, and finger pointing. This had adverse effects on staff, producing a backlash and subsequently activating bias rather than reducing it.

By contrast, the study found the two most effective solutions were broader mentoring and increasing communication between diverse staff through positive initiatives. While bringing different people together for a shared, overarching appreciation of diversity wasn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, the study found that communication between diverse people within an organisation actually increased cultural awareness, and how it was measured.

Dr Shepherd says most of the traditional cultural awareness workshops in which he’s been involved don’t work because they embrace the superficial. They address what he terms a ‘catalogue of stereotypes’ in an hour-long masquerade of cultural learning.

Museum approach

He dubs it the ‘museum approach’ — you go into a museum, you’re exposed to a display of cultural artefacts, and you leave. The brief contact makes no lasting impact on behaviour.

He also feels much cultural awareness training reduces our inter-cultural understanding to the barest essentials when attachment to culture is multi-faceted. Worse, well-meaning workshops can either exoticise or homogenise belief systems and ignore the diversity of character and nuance within particular cultural groups.

Personal ethnicity and culture doesn’t always monopolise our individual outlook. Interactions readily take place between what Dr Shepherd terms our ethno-cultures: professional, religious, racial, or belief-based behavioural norms that characterise who we are and what we stand for.

Divisive and vindictive

He points out that cultural awareness sessions have often attracted criticism as being both divisive and vindictive. Returning to the healthcare sector, he gives the example of cultural awareness workshops delivering crushing statements such as: ‘The hospital you work at is an extension of colonisation, and all of you are symbols of privilege and oppression.’

Whether we agree or not, he believes that cultural awareness training without the initial and underlying investment in cultural intelligence alienates half the people it’s designed to benefit. Participants are made to feel they can’t ask certain questions, leading to an unsurprisingly negative reaction from those who should be most engaged with the training. Far from positive reinforcement, they perceive the central message as accusatory. They sense a condemnation for their lack of a cultural awareness, rather than recognition of their willingness to learn.


Cultural awareness training workshops also stand accused of impracticality. Dr Shepherd asks how a history lesson, often delivered as an injection of cultural stereotypes, can transform attendees’ work practices. He also questions how participants should be expected to apply these difficult lessons in organisations that rarely facilitate this new knowledge?

He paints a portrait of cultural awareness as aspirational and well meaning but in need of substantial work, refinement, and even reconfiguration. For cultural awareness to work not simply sound good, it first needs a solid foundation of cultural intelligence.

Winding up at the Chasing Our Tales launch, he said: ‘From what I’ve seen so far with Mahana Culture, we’ve got a much more sophisticated approach. Mahana Culture and cultural intelligence are well placed to take us forward in this space.’

By Roger McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

To advance the debate between cultural awareness and cultural intelligence, call Tavale Ilalio on 0428 504 240 or visit

My test for cultural intelligence — don’t argue with an All Brown

My colleague, friend, and founder of Mahana Culture, Tavale Ilalio, arranged for me to undertake a cultural intelligence assessment. He’s a Samoan Scottish Kiwi rugby player, an All Brown. You don’t argue.

At my age, the fear that haunted me in exams fizzled long ago. When it comes to tests, I usually as laid back as a nanna’s nap. Instead, anxiety growled in my guts, like a dog made brave by its fence.

I’m average enough in IQ to make me outwardly humble and inwardly ashamed. (I dreamt stories in school when I should have been learning algebra.) But some of the brightest people I’ve met — folk whose IQ embarrasses the Himalayas — are social amoebas.

Top of my EQ class

Years in corporates, consulting, and business have taught me a native emotional intelligence (EQ). It often has the drop on MBAs and PhDs when creativity and teamwork matter more than brains and qualifications. I won’t share my EQ score, but when I made up my own EQ test, I topped my class of one by a handsome margin. (I call that pure and applied IQ!)

Now I faced a dilemma. Tavale, a seasoned and empathetic social worker, had convinced me that emotional intelligence takes over where mental intelligence stops. What’s more, cultural intelligence continues the race when emotional intelligence hands over the baton.

What is cultural intelligence?

But what exactly is cultural intelligence. Is it the obvious recognition of racial and ethnic difference? Linguistic and religious variations? Even some questionable eating and drinking habits?

I think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted fellow. I live in Australia, one of the world’s more successful post World War Two multi-cultural experiments.

Now that I think of it, maybe the culture I grew up in could have had its mysteries for others. My religious school signed up to original sin as a life policy. I was guilty from birth. I was too young to figure out what I’d done wrong. Was kicking in utero an indictable offence?

Then we had the golden rule — when the kid next door kicks his footy over your fence, kick it back. Why didn’t he reciprocate?

Two black eyes

Finally, we always had to turn the other cheek. I guess two black eyes are a kind of balance.

These days, I’m an Anglo Saxon, middle class, Australian male. Lucky you, some would say. But I haven’t always been easy in my cultural skin.

This country’s 19th and 20th century immigration and integration programs enjoy worldwide acclaim. But our early colonial history and even today’s interaction with the indigenous inhabitants of the world’s largest island and smallest continent remain contentious.

Plus, I lived in troubled Zimbabwe for eight years while it violently shook off white minority rule. I wondered if I had an identity at all, let alone one that could stand up to the scrutiny of a probing cultural audit.

Why so agitated?

Why then was I so agitated about my cultural self-assessment? I was about to find out.

The self-assessment Tavale connected me to comes from the world’s most advanced institute for cultural intelligence. Fittingly named the Cultural Intelligence Centre (, the institute is the first and most respected hub of its kind. It’s built on the pioneering work of CQ researchers, Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne, and their colleague and CQ Centre founder, David Livermore.

The assessment is built on the CQ Centre’s break-through four capabilities of cultural intelligence:

  • CQ drive (or motivation)
  • CQ knowledge (or cognition)
  • CQ strategy (or meta-cognition)
  • CQ action (or behaviour).

How did I perform?

I needn’t have worried. The multiple-choice appraisal is fair, broad-minded, and explores your potential for cultural progress rather than exposing the bogey of a bigoted background.

With scores measured low, moderate, or high for the four capabilities, I received three highs and a moderate to high. My personalised CQ report also gave me excellent feedback about what each score meant, a detailed profile summary, and a comprehensive personal development plan.

If that wasn’t enough, it explained CQ research validation, provided a glossary of cultural values, and offered a stack of other useful insights.

I may never make Secretary-General of the UN, but neither am I a Pol Pot apprentice, nor mono-cultural yoghurt.

By Roger McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

For deeper insights into how cultural intelligence boosts personal and organisational performance, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 0428 504 240, or visit

Cultural intelligence. What is it?

Picture a party with an inter-generational bunch of Australians gathering for a Christmas Eve celebration. Among the guests was a Muslim couple and their two young children. The husband – let’s call him Mohammed — was a highly educated political refugee from the Middle East. Despite his impressive foreign qualifications, he could only find work in Australia as a labourer.

His wife — we’ll call her Fatima — was also well educated, but had chosen to stay at home to look after their pre-school children. She wore the hijab, the demure veil of her Islamic faith, though not the burqa which conceals face and body.

It was a sweet, inter-community Aussie-style experience with a barbecue, small gifts for all, and games for the children. The conversations span freely between all the topics you’d expect of a festive gathering. Come the farewells, everyone exchanged warm embraces. One of the men, — we’ll name him Bruce — a fifth generation Australian and a father of adult daughters approached Fatimah as he had all the other women.

A sweet, Aussie-style experience turns sour

Eyes flashing, Fatima backed away, warning him: ‘In my country, strange men do not touch women.’ A joyous occasion suddenly turned sour.

Bruce was initially shocked. He said: ‘I wanted to tell her: “Actually, we’re not in your country, we’re in mine. And in Australia, we have a habit of giving people, especially underdogs, a fair go”’.

He felt impugned and judged for attempting a gesture, which in his eyes was a gift of friendship. Fatima felt invaded. He admitted that, on further thought, he could have handled the situation differently.

He acknowledged that where Fatimah, not a native English speaker, had used the word ‘country’, she really meant ‘culture’. And that, with a little sensitivity, he could have easily prevented the hiccup by asking her how people exchanged greetings and farewells in her civilisation.

Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence

Christianity and Islam haven’t exactly enjoyed the cosiest of relationships down the centuries. Bruce’s story, and the circumstances in which it occurred, perfectly illustrate what was missing in this cultural exchange. It also underpins Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence: engaging safely with people of different beliefs.

Culture often carries with it overtones of the arts. From a micro perspective, it does stand for human achievement beyond the necessities of survival, at both individual and collective level. On the macro level, culture is the summation of customs, habits, and achievements that bind groups of people into identifiably distinct communities.

When in Rome …

Bruce’s reaction to Fatima’s rejection of his innocent farewell hug was of the instinctive ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ variety. But Bruce had the underlying cultural intelligence to realise that traditions and rites run deep in all cultures. Whether they’re religious, social, sexual, or inspired by other human motivations or pressures, they are the outward symbols through which we express our sense of identity and identification.

Cultural intelligence completes the sociological and psychological circle of human development that begins with mental or intellectual intelligence (IQ). IQ is best known as a standardised measure of cognitive ability. It’s also the foundation on which emotional intelligence (EQ), rests, where EQ defines your ability to recognise and manage your emotions, and identify others’, in a social setting.

IQ + EQ = CQ?

IQ and EQ are essential to cultural intelligence. If you possess reasonable levels of both (free tests are available online), you are more likely to have a reasonable CQ level as well.

Cultural intelligence is a relatively new phenomenon. CQ researchers Soon Ang and Lin Van Dyne coined the term in the early 2000s, and David Livermore expanded on it in his book Leading With Cultural Intelligence. Between them, they have identified four capabilities:

CQ drive (or motivation)

CQ drive measures willingness and confidence to operate effectively in culturally diverse environments.

CQ-knowledge (or cognition)

CQ knowledge gauges awareness of cultural similarities and differences across business, interpersonal values, beliefs, and customs, and social, verbal and physical exchanges.

CQ strategy (or meta-cognition)

CQ strategy awareness of cultural diversity, and the skills to plan for and adjust to cultural experiences outside expectations.

CQ action (or behaviour)

CQ action evaluates how well or poorly subjects’ verbal and non-verbal performances impact on each other.

If this sounds a little academic, it’s because researchers have begun to realise the power and depth of cultural intelligence can have establishing and cementing relationships between people and organisations.

For deeper insights into how cultural intelligence boosts personal and organisational performance, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) or contact us here.

By Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

Courage and cowardice in the culture game

Julius Caesar knew a thing or two about the culture game. He managed the dominant club of his league. He successfully challenged every other team around Europe and the Middle East in his day. And he played some aggressive away fixtures in pre-Christian Britain that the Anglosphere still talks about today.

He impressed one social media commentator enough to tweet: ‘the cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.’ That was Billy Shakespeare, captain and coach of Stratford United and the Southwark All-stars, whom he led to the UEFA culture cup in 1599.

A class of people called The Discouraged

A tall story, of course. But let your historical imagination wander for a moment. In the early to mid 1800s, long before the formalisation of the social sciences, street urchins in particular, but the dispossessed in general, were called The Discouraged. The term described a class of people who lacked the resources, or were denied the energy and resilience to claw their way back from deprivation and denial.

Britain’s first industrial revolution from roughly 1760 to 1840 enshrined poet and visionary William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills.’ This was a despairing, and later inspiring, code describing the mechanisation that displaced traditional manual crafts. In less than a century, water and coal-driven steam power destroyed many of the manual livelihoods that had sustained civilisation for millennia.

Little wonder that an entire spectrum of skilled and semi-skilled artisans and their children became discouraged.

Cultural intelligence and resilience

Encourage is a beautiful word. In its fullest sense it means much more than to give a word of advice or a helping hand in time of need. Literally, encourage means to embolden, or make brave. But rather than emboldening troops in battle, cultural intelligence sees courage in the sense of resilience; of getting back on your feet and starting afresh when life or fate has knocked you down.

Cultural intelligence also sees courage less as defeating someone or something, but more the process of getting through or bouncing back from adversity.

Circle of Courage

Mahana Culture has long used the Circle of Courage model in teaching the value of courage in a cultural context. The model comes from a Native American tradition, and our personal friendship with one of its authors, Martin Brokenleg. An elder of the Lakota culture of North America, Martin is a psychologist and author, and was a professor of Native American Studies in South Dakota for 30 years.

The Circle of Courage describes the four essentials children need to attain to become functional, responsible, and courageous adults:

  1. Belonging — identification with a group or community with shared principles and values based on loving and being loved
  2. Mastery — learned skills and control in mental, physical, social, and spiritual engagement and activities
  3. Generosity — learning and practising the art of sharing and giving joyfully without expectation of reward
  4. Independence — achieving a level of personal goal-setting and personal responsibility where the consequences of both success and failure are understood and willingly accepted.

While the circle focuses on children, and has been highly successful in action in the US and South Africa, it’s as well to remember that it applies equally to adults throughout life. We can all too easily forget these principles, or become distracted by circumstances, even in maturity and parenthood.

In terms of culture, courage is close to the concept of awakening. It takes courage to find out who you are especially if your cultural tale has been attenuated or even crushed. It also takes courage to fill what for many is a cultural deficit in ethnicity, family history, or personal identity, including coming to terms with issues such as mental illness or depression.

In Australia particularly, we can see how important cultural courage is for young indigenous people where ritual and tribal culture has to share, and often compete with, cultures a long way removed from traditional beliefs.

If you could use an injection of courage finding and telling your cultural tale, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 0428 504 240.

Article written by: Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

Cultural dignity: the battle against otherism

We were chatting about cultural dignity and I was reminded of Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl was a German Jewish psychiatrist, author, and psychological innovator. He was the founder of logotherapy, a successor theory to Adler and Freud. If these weren’t remarkable enough achievements, he was also a survivor of one of the most cold-blooded and savage assaults on culture and dignity the world has ever seen.

Frankl survived the Nazi death camps, where his wife and both parents were murdered. He wrote famously about dignity under the most horrific conditions where the Nazis treated Jews as üntermensch, or sub-humans.

‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

Another German, Victor Klemperer, kept extensive diaries from 1933 to 1945 chronicling the Nazi regime’s compounding humiliation of Jews at home. Part Jewish himself, only his World War 1 decoration for bravery and his marriage to a Christian saved him from deportation to certain death. They could not, however, save him from the daily attacks on his dignity.

His detailed, accurate, and mostly objective journals leave a chilling expose to the frightful damage we as a species cause when we undermine dignity.

Dignity — humanity’s first distinction

Humanity’s first distinction from all other species lies in our mutual acceptance of dignity. At our very least and poorest we know, or should know, we are worthy of honour and respect. Cultures, religions, and social movements the world over, uphold the central notion of dignity, from the sacred potential of childbirth, to the reverence of age, and the mourning associated with death. We thrive in the presence of dignity, and falter in its absence.

As civilisation continues to advance, and our knowledge of other cultures grows, the world around us shrinks. Dignity is an unalienable birthright, a gift we universally celebrate. Dignity is the moral foundation on which we survive, live, and thrive. Only aberrant cultures like Nazism deny it. Dignity and courage in the end defeat them.


But for all our vigilance, indignity is never far away. It begins with comparisons and judgements that we as humans are too often unable to resist. Our unconscious wants to believe that one culture — usually ours — is superior to another — usually theirs. These judgements lie at the heart of all the isms: racism, sexism, ageism, and many more, all parcelled together into a box that we might term otherism.

Expressed publicly, these judgements diminish others’ dignity in order to bolster our own.

World-renowned child and youth neuroscience researcher, Dr Bruce Perry, talks about the six stages of adolescent development of which the last stage is maturation, represented by an appreciation of diversity.

His definition of diversity requires worth, celebration, respect, and dignity. He believes we should be surrounded by them all, and act towards others with each. In recognising and celebrating dignity in others, we enrich innate dignity in ourselves.

How to preserve our cultural dignity

To preserve our cultural dignity, we need to understand other cultures, not just our own. That understanding has to rest on the unshakeable belief that every human is intrinsically worthy and valuable. Only then can we begin to grasp our own biases and blockages, and see them as the impediments that obstruct otherwise rewarding human relationships.

Dignity — identifying it, restoring it if it’s gone missing, and certainly celebrating it — is the beginning and end of Mahana’s work. We preserve, protect, and replenish cultural dignity through mental, emotional, and cultural intelligence.

Call Tavale on 0428 504 240 if your team’s cultural dignity could do with a polish.

Article written by Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

The great Australian cultural cocktail party

Our vision of culture is heavily shaped by the idea of a world view influenced by place; that culture is a continual flux of beliefs, values, and behaviour shaped not just by who you are, but where you are, and where you came from.

Within those overlapping influences, we also teach the idea that culture is an ABC summation of attitudes, beliefs, and customs that characterise the way groups of people appear, and respond, to others.

Australia has been a multicultural country from the outset. One of our recent Culture Connects workshop participants told us in her graduation cultural tale that the First Fleet was made up of no less than 64 nationalities.

Our record of welcoming the adventurous, the poor, and the dispossessed from all over the globe grew with the gold rushes, and climaxed with massive waves of immigration in the aftermath of the Second World War. Multi-national and refugee immigration continues at a high level by world standards. The great Australian cultural cocktail party has no apparent end.

Two feet on the ground

I’m a Samoan Scottish New Zealander at home in Australia. In Pacific Island and Maori culture, we have a concept called turangawaewae, which basically means ‘your two feet planted on the ground’. Culture for me is where you are physically located, and the influences that are brought to bear on you as illustrated in the Bronfennbrenner model.

Bronfenbremmers model

The Bronfenbrenner diagram shows the four circles of family, school/work, community, and peers overlapping.

At the conjunction where all four have a variable influence is where you find culture.

Unlike ethnicity, culture isn’t transmitted through our DNA.

It’s an acted-out process in which place influences your world view, which shapes your beliefs, which in turn stimulates your behaviour, and ultimately defines your culture.

For example, Pacific Islanders are spread between many locations — Samoa and New Zealand in my case — but also Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, Tahiti, and many more. In terms of their ethnicity, or their biological profile, all are Polynesian. But culturally, they are quite different, just as Europeans or Africans or Asians have hugely divergent cultures.

Cultural intelligence

In the context of cultural intelligence, particularly in a workplace or organisation, you can compare individuals and organisations to countries.

Mahana Culture deals in cultural intelligence at both levels. We help individuals reach an understanding of their personal heritage and ethos, and how to express it confidently in varied cultural, work, and social settings. And we help organisations come to grips with their own constituents’ cultural diversity, and how to weave it harmoniously into a common declaration that makes people proud to work together because of their differences, not despite them.

Call Tavale Ilalio of Mahana Culture on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) to learn how to harness cultural intelligence as a unifying theme in your workplace or organisation.

Article written by Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

* Urie Bronfenbrenner, US psychologist known for his work in ecological systems theory in child development.

Shame to flame – how awakening stokes the fire of culture

My mother has the honey-brown skin and the pearl-white smile that sets the tone for Samoan culture.

She’s part of the magic of the Pacific. She belongs to a people whose culture is the poetry of the waves, the canvas of the stars, and the music in the language of her island race.

As a young boy, I used to lie in bed at night and listen to her speaking on the phone in her native Samoan to her sisters, my aunts, overseas. I would try and pronounce some of the words. Her culture was strong, but she admitted that she didn’t teach us Samoan customs and language because she didn’t think it would be helpful to us growing up in New Zealand.

Easier to fall culturally asleep

As a powerful force in the family, she was immensely proud of her Samoan heritage. But when I went out from the family into the other three of Bronfenbrenner’s* four worlds — school/work, peers, and community — I felt a kind of shame. So it was easier, or less difficult, to fall culturally asleep.

I’ve seen this same cultural slumber in many young people with whom I’ve journeyed as a youth worker.

In my early thirties I did some social work study, part of which examined Maori culture. The curriculum called for everyone to explore and share their own cultural heritage.

It touched me profoundly. I underwent a cultural awakening in both my mother’s Samoan culture and my father’s Scottish heritage, along with my own experience of Maori and New Zealand culture. And I realised that what had been missing or empty could nonetheless be replaced.

It was an awakening to something I innately knew but was too immature as an adolescent and young adult to acknowledge. Young people, of course, want to fit in at almost any cost. It’s only in adulthood that they realise there is something more, a void to be explored and filled. That’s where the cultural awakening, or enrichment, can begin. It goes from ‘so what’ to ‘wow.’ And it’s never too late.

Transform your organisation with culture and story. Call Tavale Ilalio of Mahana on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) for more information on how culture and story boosts organisational effectiveness and productivity.

Article written by Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

* Urie Bronfenbrenner, US psychologist known for his work in ecological systems theory in child development