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!).