Growing numbers of Study Abroad students spend most of their free time on Facebook and Skype, communicating with friends and family back home.

Business travelers often do the same thing. Evenings are spent catching up on email and communicating with family, co-workers, and friends rather than soaking up the local culture.

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together (highly recommended!) notes the same phenomenon at professional conferences. Conference attendees are tethered to their digital devices, concerned about finding the time and space in the schedule to be alone with their digital networks. People at conferences used to chat with others while waiting for a presentation to begin or getting a taxi. Now they spend that time doing email, supposedly making better use of “downtime”.

I love that I can see and hear my kids’ voices on Skype, even when I’m on the other side of the world. But I have a growing concern that our technological advances work against so much of what is core to cultural intelligence—being fully present, deep-focused consciousness, and becoming more aware of one’s identity and culture. The growing discussion and research about the impact of technology upon our lives has profound relevance for how we think about our cross-cultural effectiveness.

Leverage Liminal Space
International Travel has always been a powerful way to gain self-awareness and perspective on life back home. But if we bring our homes with us, how might we be missing out?

You’re probably familiar with the idea of liminal space—the anthropological term for disorienting periods which foster new points of view. But technology is making liminal space harder to come by.

International travel, cross-cultural encounters, and to some degree, even retreats and conferences use to be ideal environments for liminal space. But if our driving concern is staying connected to life back home, it’s much harder to experience the disorientation and transformation these opportunities used to offer.

In June, my 15-year-old daughter will be going on her first international trip by herself. I’m grateful that she’ll rarely be more than a text message or Skype call away. Yet I wonder how that might limit her experience compared to my first overseas sojourn—where in 6 weeks, I had one or two ham radio calls home and a few letters from family and friends. My social network was stripped away. It was hard, but it forced me to directly encounter my fellow travelers, our hosts, and the local Peruvian culture.

As painful as it’s going to be, my wife and I want to limit how much we hover over our daughter’s experience in Thailand. We want to give her the liminal space she needs to shape her identity and further develop her CQ.

Eliminate Multitasking
Many of us (myself included!) think we’re immune to the studies that debunk the gains of multitasking. But the research is mounting that when we multitask, the quality of everything we do is downgraded. It feels good to multitask because our brain rewards us with a multitasking “high”. But our actual productivity and effectiveness goes down.

Turkle reports that her MIT students whose laptops are open in class don’t do as well as those who take notes on paper. She’s convinced this is mostly a result of the additional distractions that seduce the laptop students (e.g. Facebook updates, ESPN scores, YouTube etc.).

A crucial part of behaving with cultural intelligence is engaging in a high-level of self-consciousness. This includes things like perspective taking—How would I feel if I were this person right now? How do they perceive me? How do they view this situation—And it’s a matter of being self-aware. This requires a lot of brainpower, something that gets reduced when we multitask. In fact, some studies such as this one reported in The Chicago Tribune show that we actually lower our IQ when we multi-task.

Create Boundaries
Technology is not the enemy. And cold turkey approaches are unrealistic. Most of us can’t cease from all email contact when we travel nor can we expect all Study Abroad students will forego Facebook for a full semester (though if you’ve tried this and succeeded, by all means share the results!).

But we can reclaim control over our technology, rather than merely being seduced by its pings. A few simple ways to begin, when you travel and when you’re home.

1. No Phones at Meals
When sharing a meal with loved ones, colleagues, friends, or even a vendor soliciting your business, turn off your phone off for an hour. It does wonders for conversation and connection.

2. Turn off “Push”.
The “ping” of email releases dopamine in the brain. Most of us can’t resist the urge to check our phone when we hear it. A simple way to eliminate the distraction is put yourself in charge of when you get email rather than the device being in control of your attention.

 3. Schedule times to do email.
We’ve all heard this before but it bears repeating. 1-2 times a day focused on email communication is suffice for most of us. It’s amazing how quickly I get through it when it’s the only thing I’m doing for an hour. It’s also amazing how quickly it consumes 4-5 hours of my day when I’m just randomly responding as emails come in. Plus, if you’re known as someone who always responds almost immediately to email, it backfires when you actually want to take a break. And if you put up a vacation/auto-response, take advantage of it and don’t check in!

4. Don’t check email during breaks etc.
When you’re traveling or attending a conference, if at all possible, don’t check email during a brief break. There are so many times I’ve regretted checking my email at lunch break, frustrated that I don’t have adequate time to deal with some of the urgent things that have come in. And it tempts me to send off a quick response I might regret later.

 5. Re-think what’s urgent.
But what about when there are truly urgent issues that have to be addressed? Surely there are crises that emerge. But most of what we deem a crisis, really isn’t and can be delayed for a few hours, or even days.

6. Use Commute Time to Reflect and Breathe
When traveling, (or even commuting to work daily), resist the temptation to use the commute time to read email, Twitter, and Facebook. Observe what’s going on around you. Reflect upon the day’s events. Breathe deeply. This can make the difference of whether a 15-minute train ride is calming and life-giving or life-sucking.

 7. Limit the Ping Pong Effect
The problem with catching up on on my email is it induces nearly as many responses that fill my inbox all over again. Think about how to make the email threads as few as possible. Suggest a time and place to meet. And if you need to communicate to a colleague down the hall, walk down and talk to them.

The bigger challenge is implementing these boundaries. But I hope you’ll resolve with me to gain a little more control over technology this year, which will in turn improve your CQ, the quality of your work, and best of all, your overall quality of life!

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