Cultural Intelligence: Huh?

What is Cultural Intelligence?

So what in the world is Cultural Intelligence?

I’m so glad you asked!

Just like the Intelligence Quotient (IQ), there is a Cultural Intelligence Quotient (CQ) that measures a person’s ability to function well in unfamiliar environments.

This definition published by the Harvard Business Review is helpful:

Cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.

Let me give you a few snippets from a great article at Forbes about Cultural Intelligence:

  1. Leaders with high CQs understand how to encounter new cultural situations, judge what goes on in them and make appropriate adjustments to understand and behave effectively in those otherwise disorienting circumstances. They have repertoires of strategies and behaviors for orienting themselves when they encounter unfamiliar behaviors and perspectives, so they can discern whether a seemingly bizarre behavior is explained by culture or is unique to a particular person or organization. Such discernment is critical in, for instance, cross-border negotiations, understanding new markets, unifying dispersed leadership teams and developing global marketing plans.
  2. Business leaders with a low CQ may see no connection between cultural intelligence and the profit-and-loss sheets that determine their survival, but they miss the staggering bottom line differences that separate people and companies who prioritize enhancing their cultural intelligence from those who don’t. Research … has found that people with higher CQs are consistently more personally and professionally effective. They have an edge in the crowded job market and enjoy greater personal satisfaction and less burnout in all kinds of multicultural situations.
  3. A growing number of leaders in business, government and nonprofits are realizing the benefits of assessing and developing their CQ. It’s a matter of having the skills you need to lead in today’s globalized world. You don’t get CQ from intuition or experience alone, but anyone can develop it.

The Good News about Your Cultural Intelligence Quotient (CQ)

Well, first the bad news: Going with your gut is NOT a good strategy! Especially if this is your first foray into an intercultural environment. Trust me, you won’t just “get it right” because you’re considered a people-person in your home context. But the good news is this: we can all DEVELOP OUR INTELLIGENCE in this important area. Check these guys out for some First Steps, or Next Steps in your CQ development.

The Culture of Choice

Choosing is an art, and it is shaped by our culture much more than we realize. When researching the way Americans choose, as compared to the way people from other nations choose, the contrasts are quite revealing! Here is a short list of How we Like to Choose (as Americans). The contrast with other preferences shows us how easy it will be to experience misunderstanding when functioning in multicultural contexts. I highly recommend the Ted Global 2010 presentation by Sheena Iyengar (see below), but here’s the short list of decision-making preferences, from the American cultural point of view:

  1. It is best to make your OWN, individual choices
  2. More options = better choices
  3. You must NEVER say “no” to choice!

It’s time to take a critical look at these assumptions, and to ask some fresh questions about them.

Choosing, and the Culture of Choicesheena iyengar the culture of choice

The entire “American Dream” is built on the assumption that limitless freedom to choose, and limitless options to choose from, promises enduring success and fulfillment. But when you look at that “American Dream” a bit more closely, you’ll begin to see the holes; holes that people from different cultures tend to see much more readily (even if it’s tough for them to define exactly what ‘holes’ they are seeing). Sheena Iyengar does a fantastic job of helping Americans actually understand (at least partially) the reasonableness of OTHER WAYS OF SEEING. But remember, you don’t usually have a Sheena walking around with you, explaining the world to you. Unless we are, as a matter of discipline, being intentionally cross-culturally aware, we can be almost CERTAIN that we will misinterpret what’s going on around us. We are pretty much FORCED (when just going “on our gut”) to read the behaviors around us through the lenses that we’ve inherited from our own cultural pressures. We’re naturally (innocently?) unaware of these lenses, and think we’re just “being objective”. But we rarely are!

If you’ve got 20 minutes, enjoy this excellent presentation by Sheena Iyengar (over 2 million people have found it worth watching!).

You live in a cultural cage!

You're in a cultural cage!

Most of us are locked up pretty tightly inside our “cultural cages”, and it’s the rare person that even BEGINS to see this about himself. That’s the “trick” about culture and worldview, we hardly even notice how strongly it is shaping our lives!

People ask me what I mean by “cultural cages”, and I’d like to try to coax out a clear meaning, and apply it to ourselves and to those around us in cross cultural contexts.01-hens in cage

What’s culture?

Culture, as most of our readers know, eludes simple definitions. The key components of what we call culture would include: shared beliefs; shared values; learned responses; patterns of behavior; passed on through a socialization process. For the anthropologically and technically oriented, these descriptors do an adequate job of painting the picture.

HOWEVER, I find that all of us benefit from talking about culture in much more earthy, concrete terms.

So let’s just add these common-man’s key components of culture:

It’s the way you feel about things, the way you decide that one thing is more important than another.

It’s actually behind your reaction to movies and to what you call “good music”. Culture even pushes you to feel repulsed by some ‘foods’ and very strongly attracted to others. (My Faroese friend loves the “aged” meat from the head of a lamb, but nearly vomits at the thought of peanut  butter). Culture is what makes you feel like some people are “weird” and other people are “normal”. It’s what causes you to recognize that you’re not “at home” when you’re in a different country (or different PART of the country, or city).

Culture is like water for a fish: they don’t notice it! 

They only notice if they’re OUT of it! It’s like the lenses in a good pair of glasses: you don’t see them, you only see THROUGH them. Those lenses affect every single thing that you see, but you’re rarely even aware that the lenses are shaping (and changing the shape) of the images coming to your eyes. Culture does the same thing: it shapes what we see, how we feel, what we like, what we dread, but the thing itself – culture – is practically invisible.

Cages keep things in, and keep things out. Our ‘cultural cage’ is what limits our perception.

It locks us into a very narrow range of possibilities. “Dangerous driving” is something than most can talk about, but country-to-country people will not agree on what it looks like.

An Indian will feel very differently from an American about what “dangerous driving” looks like. The “cage” that’s built by culture has, over time, become pretty strong! Both the Indian and the American have heard, since infancy, references to “that crazy driver!”.

But what their mom or dad or friend is referring to when making such a pronouncement is very different. When the Indian and American stand side by side in the middle of traffic, trying to cross the street, they will NOT agree about whether or not there are “crazy drivers” or “dangerous driving” all around them. They’re inside their respective cages, and can’t seem to get out. They see it “one way”, and can’t seem to see it another!

Many of us are living in very real, very concrete and palpable contexts of cultural tension and cultural misunderstanding. If people from the same culture experience interpersonal conflict as a rather expected routine, imagine how much MORE common it is in multicultural contexts!

We naturally move AWAY from that tension. 

Yep. That’s what humans do: we avoid the hassle and the discomfort that comes from working through cross-cultural obstacles.

So what happens?

What happens is division, separation and ostracism. People that are comfortable with their cage are happy to hang with people who live in similar cages. We all see things the same way!

We all “know” what’s good, bad and ugly. But those “other people” have such a DIFFERENT way of seeing things. We look out through the bars of our cages at each other, pointing our fingers at each other, saying in unison, “You’re weird!”.

When thinking about ourselves as cultural beings, it’s fair (I think) to lump ourselves into two basic categories: (1) Mono-cultural and (2) Multi-cultural.

The mono-cultural person, unfortunately, lives out her/his life without ever really taking a deep look at the cultural influences that shaped them, and consequently rarely knows how to respect, appreciate or understand OTHER cultural ‘shapes’. They’re just sort of ‘stuck in their cultural cage’.

But the Multi-cultural person (which, by the way, can even be achieved by people living in their own home culture) takes a posture of inquisitive exploration, desiring to “get inside” of why other people “live life differently”.

This multi-cultural person believes that they’ll discover good reasons why people are different. They know that they’ll be able to disagree too, but that they’ll disagree from a position of understanding, rather than from a default position of ignorance. The multi-cultural person is attracted to the idea of crossing from “outsider” status, to “insider” status, and by the intrigue of developing friendships with people that are, at first “different”, but soon to become “understood”.

The multi-cultural person actually starts SEEING their own “cage”, recognizing that they’ve been shaped by a particular community.

They’re “o.k.” with that; they even love that. But they do recognize that it’s only “one shape among many”.