Off the Map: Revisiting geocultural literacy

Just about a decade ago, I spent two of these columns discussing the importance of geographic and cultural (geocultural) literacy. It is important not only as a well-rounded body of knowledge for any individual, but is also critical for doing business in today’s well-connected, globalized work environment. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the topic and see where the issue stands after ten years of rapid technological, geopolitical and societal changes.

First, let’s take a refresher on the basic requirements of a successful, culture-savvy global business. Naturally, business acumen and strategy are critical, but the ongoing globalization of talent and workflows demands an even better-prepared, geoculturally literate workforce empowered to work in an environment where cultural differences are frequently pronounced and must be carefully managed. In the past decade this has become even more important due to the significant rise in factionalism of worldviews (red states versus blue states, right versus left, Western versus Eastern) as well as greater reinforcement of local viewpoints in the face of encroaching international influences.

This dynamic is contrary to the common perception that the worldwide spread of information technology and “global culture” effectively creates a borderless world where we can downplay or ignore geographic and cultural differences when people are viewed as consumers. Some have even suggested that geography is not as significant as it once was, and yet we see governments placing even greater emphasis on territorial sovereignty, such as China’s increased activities in the South China Sea. Since 2007, the process of globalization has actually done more to emphasize the “local” against the “global” at various levels of society, as the contrast between “us” and “them” has become even sharper if you follow the lines of information flows (or restrictions). Moreover, our high-tech, globe-trotting “global culture” that’s now fueled by a proliferation of smartphones, smart devices and perpetual WiFi remains a socio-economic privilege of the few. So, whether perceived as “geopolitical,” “geocultural,” “cross-cultural” or “linguistic” on the surface, this type of knowledge remains mission-critical as the cornerstone of a global business. Ten years on, I’d argue that it’s become even more essential to business survival because the process of cultural homogenization (one of the premises of globalization) has seen less progress than many assumed.

So, has geocultural literacy improved at all in the past decade? Previously, I cited the results of the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey, which painted a pretty dismal picture. Only 54% of young US adults (ages 18-24) surveyed answered all the questions correctly; for example, 63% could not find Iraq on a world map, and about 46% could not identify the states of New York and Ohio on a US map. Fast-forward to 2016 when National Geographic partnered with the Council on Foreign Relations to conduct an update of the geoliteracy test, again with the young adult demographic (ages 18-26). In this age of smartphones and instant access to Wikipedia, mapping and wayfinding apps, and spatial information at their fingertips, how do think they performed? As you might guess, not well — in fact, in the United States, the average score on the survey was only 55%, which is a failing grade in most US classrooms. The vice president of education for National Geographic, Kathleen Schwille, stated that “even people who’ve been through college are still not gaining this sort of basic level of understanding about the world and how things are connected to each other.”

In the 2016 survey, one of the topics participants struggled with was economics and trade. No, this doesn’t bode well for the modern business environment. When they were asked to name the United States’ largest trading partner, most stated incorrectly that it’s China; a mere 10% chose Canada as the correct answer. Similarly, on the issue of immigration, most respondents overestimated the extent of Mexican immigration to the United States, which was a key topic in the last presidential election cycle; over 65% were not aware that the number of Mexicans entering the United States is actually smaller than those exiting. The news isn’t all horrible, however. Students did pretty well on general geography questions such as matching a country to its continent, and they also performed better on environmental issues. But in the end the majority of students really struggled with any questions that delved into more detailed geographic knowledge.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the US remains the brunt of jokes about poor geocultural literacy, especially when it seems to be reinforced from the highest position in the country. For geographers like myself, concern doesn’t stem solely from a desire that more people understand the world they live in, but also from observing the clear connection between this lack of geocultural comprehension in the business world and the resultant mistakes and serious infractions committed by companies — pretty much all of the issues I’ve been discussing in this column since 2005.

So after a decade, it’s disheartening that there is little, if any, improvement on the issue of geocultural literacy. Regardless, I know that I and many other geographers as well as professionals working internationally, strive to reinforce the fact that by improving their geocultural literacy, businesses and the public at large will benefit from a new, fundamental cross-cultural understanding and a solid orientation about the world in which they live and work. Whether or not an individual aspires to be a “global citizen,” building geocultural literacy in business — starting at the individual level — is ultimately about building trust not only between companies and their global customers, but more broadly between one nation and another. Ultimately, a broad improvement in geocultural literacy is going to start at the personal level and spread onward and outward. Those who regularly “geogrify” their minds will pass on that habit to their children, spread their perpetual curiosity to those around them and take their geocultural advantage into their workplaces.

In 1869, the American humorist and writer Mark Twain noted that: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

During his time, Twain was a prolific traveler and an astute observer of human nature and even around the time of the US’s centennial years, it was clear that American citizens were already demonstrating a sense of geographic isolationism that compelled him to respond. While Twain references “travel” in his passage as a key to enlightenment, one could appropriately substitute the synonyms of “geography,” “cross-cultural exposure” and even “geocultural literacy” while completely preserving his intended meaning. As the United States is in a current, renewed state of apparent isolationism, one might wonder what Twain would write if he were aware of the state of geocultural literacy in the US today and the world in general, witnessing the juxtaposition of incredible information resources and travel capabilities alongside a palpable lack of interest, and in some cases even denial, of the diverse, interconnected world in which we live and conduct business.