Cultural Intelligence III: A Foundation for Cultural Intelligence

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.

As per Wikipedia, cultural intelligence, also knows as cultural quotient or CQ, is a theory that posits that the ability to understand the impact of an individual’s cultural background on their behavior is essential for effective business. However, for our purposes, we can more practically define cultural intelligence as an individual’s ability to understand the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, practices, qualities, and beliefs regarding daily interaction, manners, arts, and worthwhile pursuits for a characterizeable group of people and to effectively use that understanding in the individual’s interaction with members of the characterizeable group of people, consistent with our definition of culture in the first post.

So how do you become culturally intelligent? A number of authors have put forward a number of theories, as can be easily deduced by a search for cultural intelligence on which returns approximately 290 results, but one of the simplest theories is that put forward by Thomas and Inkson in their introductory text on Cultural Intelligence. Since the simplest theory is usually best one, as per the KISS principle, it is the one we’re going to discuss.

According to Thomas and Inkson, cultural intelligence has three parts:

  • Knowledge

    of what culture is, how cultures vary, and how culture affects behavior,

  • Mindfulness

    to verbal and non-verbal cues in cross-cultural situations, and

  • Behavioral Skills

    that allow the individual to act and respond competently across a wide range of situations.

Each part interacts with, and reinforces, the other. Knowledge leads to mindfulness which improves behavioral skills that allow the individual to cue into more verbal and non-verbal clues in a cross-cultural encounter that increases the individual’s knowledge and starts the cycle all over again, allowing the individual to progress through on cultural journey through the developmental stages of CQ.

An individual who wants to obtain a high CQ in other cultures will need to progress through the five stages of CQ, which are:

  1. Reactivity to External Stimuli

    where the individual does not even recognize that cultural differences exist and mindlessly adheres to the individual’s own cultural rules and norms.

  2. Recognition of Other Cultural Norms

    where the individual becomes aware of the multi-cultural mosaic that surrounds us all and becomes interested in learning more about other cultures.

  3. Accommodation of Other Cultural Norms

    where the individual begins to recognize that there are different cultural situations, that there are appropriate responses to those situations, and that the individual must try to respond appropriately. Responses are slow and awkward, but mastery of certain behavioral skills is beginning.

  4. Assimilation of Diverse Cultural Norms into Alternative Behaviors

    as the individual is now able to adjust to different situations without much effort due to a wide range of behavior skills at their disposal. The individual can now function in multiple cultures almost effortlessly and do so without discomfort.

  5. Proactivity in Cultural Behavior based on Recognition of Changing Cues that Others Do Not Perceive

    where the individual is able to adjust their behavioral responses automatically in anticipation of what is to come.

In order to truly be successful in international negotiations, you have to at least reach stage 4, and if you want be the go-to master, you need to reach stage 5. Of course, as Mr. Locke will attest to, reaching stage 5 will take a significant amount of time and effort*, and possibly an expatriate assignment or two, but it will be worth it in the end.

So how do you get there? Start with the tips offered by Thomas and Inkson and focus on improving your:

  • Integrity

    or a well-developed sense of self and an understanding of how your beliefs motivate your behaviors,

  • Openness

    by becoming more humble and more inquisitive, and

  • Hardiness

    and increase your robustness, courage, intrepidness, and overall capability to survive unfavorable conditions.

Finally, become aware of the verbal and non-verbal nuances of the culture that surrounds you. After all, one of the biggest failures when it comes to international business is failing to understand the thought processes and motivations of the locals. Just knowing the language is not enough. In the next seven posts, we’ll address some of the verbal and non-verbal nuances that you should be aware of in the Chinese, German, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, and Thai cultures. Namely, we’ll cover directness, verbosity, and volume on the verbal side as well as distance, touching, body position, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and emotions and the non-verbal side. We’ll also highlight a few rules surrounding meetings, meals, and negotiations to get you started on preparing for your international assignments. Then, for those of you leading the charge, I’ll recommend taking a preparatory seminar, like the ones offered by the Global Procurement Group, which are developed and delivered under the supervision of Dick Locke, who has headed Supply Management organizations in Canada, France, German, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States and dealt with over two dozen global cultures on a regular basis during his Supply Management career.

* Probably at least 4 or 5 years, as the current theory is that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, but once you’ve mastered one culture, mastering similar cultures (in the same geographic region) will take less time as many rules and behavioral responses will be similar (i.e. Upper North America, South East Asia, and other geographic areas have similar cultures in each representative country).

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