A young American man devoted a lot of attention to a Japanese woman visiting his community, including extreme courtesy — taking her arm to cross the street, and so on. The young woman later told her friends excitedly that she now had an American boyfriend. In fact the American, who was from the deep south of the United States where many families pride themselves on effusive courtesy, was not interested in the Japanese girl as a prospective girlfriend. He had merely tried to be polite, in a manner that came naturally to him in his own in-group. Unfortunately, the same manner of behavior practice by a member of the Japanese woman’s in-group would definitely have been evidence of a romantic interest.
from Cultural Intelligence by David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson
Without cultural intelligence, we are just as likely as the man in the above scenario to take actions that will be interpreted completely opposite to our intent by the other parties. So what is cultural intelligence? Succinctly, it’s an individual’s ability to engage successfully in any environment or social setting with other individuals of varied cultural backgrounds. But what does this mean? It means that we have to recognize our cultural failures and overcome them.
What kind of cultural failures? The kind pointed out by Thomas and Inkson, namely:
- our obliviousness to the key features and biases of our culture,
- our uneasiness when interacting with those who are culturally different,
- our inability to explain the behaviour of others who are culturally different,
- our failure to recognize knowledge that can be transferred from one culture to another,
- our lack of awareness when our culture is influencing our behavior, and
- our inability to adjust when living and working in another culture.
Once we recognize these failings, we understand the need to become more culturally intelligent, to increase our CQ or cultural quotient. We can start by switching off cultural cruise control and becoming more mindful of our cultural interactions. Namely, we can:
- become aware of our own assumptions and ideas,
- tune into the assumptions and ideas of others by noticing what is apparent about their actions,
- use all of our senses to perceive a situation,
- view a scenario from multiple perspectives,
- become aware of the context of the interaction,
- create mental maps of the personalities and backgrounds of others to assist us,
- seek out fresh information to correct and confirm the mental maps, and
- develop empathy for the other person.
Once we do this, we are well on our way to becoming culturally intelligent, a state of being that we will discuss further in the next post. In the interim, I would encourage you to refer to Thomas and Inkson’s introductory text on Cultural Intelligence or their follow up on Living and Working Globally. While the first book in particular does not contain much in the way of specifics for dealing with a particular culture, it’s a great start for those of you who want to get the right mindset necessary to become culturally intelligent.
This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.