How Can You Improve Your Cultural Intelligence?

Three simple steps towards better understanding other cultures.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

How would you like to be able to meet anyone, from any culture, and without any previous knowledge of their culture, without even knowing what country they are from, to be able to identify their cultural orientations? A kind of “universal culture translator”, that works with everyone you meet? 
 
 Fact is, our modern world is one with an incredible cultural diversity. We no longer need to travel to another country to meet people from other cultures. Today, we work with them side-by-side in the office. We go to school with them. We meet them on the street, and at our clubs. Odds are quite good that someone you know has dated or married someone from another culture.

No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive — Mahatma Gandhi

Cultural Intelligence is a new paradigm, that gives us the tools to be better able to integrate and Thrive in this new world. It does away with cultural stereotypes (“Chinese are like this” and “Germans are like this”), and instead teaches you to regard every person as an individual. And then, simply from observing their behavior, language, and reactions, you can begin to put together a picture of who this other person actually is. 
 
 How can you develop your Cultural Intelligence? There’s no quick fix, it is something that takes time and effort, but there are a few key strategies that can get you started: 
 
 1) Watch out for personality descriptions of cultural behaviors. This is perhaps one of the most common problems in dealing with people from other cultures. For example, someone says one thing to your face, and then something entirely different behind your back. In most western cultures, this is an indication of a dishonest personality; a backstabber; two-faced; unreliable; untrustworthy. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect or honor. 
 
 But in many cultures, to say something negative to another person directly is the epitome of poor manners. It shows a complete lack of respect for the relationship. Instead, they will deal with such situations in a more round-about manner, one that avoids the potential for direct conflict or disagreement. 
 
 Now, you may personally dislike either system. But the fact is, within their culture, a person who acts this way is not being dishonest, and in fact is demonstrating respect for the relationship that they have with you. If you are able to see past your own culturally-programmed reactions, and recognize that they are actually attempting to show respect, then you are taking a positive step towards greater Cultural Intelligence. 
 
 2) Understand that we all share the same emotions, desires, and personalities. All humans on the planet, regardless of their culture, share the same emotions — love, hate, excitement, sadness, etc. Culture just means we express those emotions differently. We all share the same motivations — a desire for safety, for love, for acceptance, for success, etc. Culture just means we express those motivations differently. And we all share the same personalities — optimistic, pessimistic, extrovert, introvert, etc. Culture just means we express those personalities differently. 
 
 Seeing the differences in how people from other cultures act is relatively easy — in fact, that is pretty much they way that most people are taught about other cultures, by focusing on how they are ‘different’ from us. But the person with high Cultural Intelligence can see past the differences, to recognize the commonalities underlying them. 
 
 For example, many westerners in China tend to express dismay or even anger when they fall down and hurt themselves, and Chinese around them respond by laughing and clapping. In their own culture, this would indicate that they are mocking them, laughing at their misfortune. However, if you observe Chinese families, you’ll find that often when their kids fall and hurt themselves, instead of showing concern, they laugh and clap…essentially saying, “See, it’s alright, nothing serious, just keep going!” It is intended as encouragement. Only if it proves to be more serious will they begin to show concern. So when this happens to foreigners in China, the Chinese aren’t mocking them or laughing at them. It’s more like they’re saying, “Hey, it’s a small thing, don’t worry, it happens to everyone!” 
 
 3) Get rid of the word “normal” in talking about culture. There is no such thing as a “normal” culture, and “normal behavior” is valid only within the context of a particular culture; the moment you are dealing with another culture, that behavior may no longer be ‘normal’ at all. 
 
 Replace the world “normal” with the word “different”. Using the word ‘normal’ means that others are ‘abnormal’…it is a judgment that implicitly places your behavior as better than or superior to theirs, because you can’t both be normal. But you can both be different.

Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions. — Paulo Coelho

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a Chinese ethnic minority group that I work with, the Mosuo. Now, almost everyone reading this would consider it ‘normal’ that the biological father of a child is generally considered the father. But with the Mosuo, the father role is usually taken by the mother’s uncles, with the biological father having little or no role at all. It’s quite humorous how much this upsets some people when they hear about it, because they’ve just taken it as ‘normal’ that the biological father is the father. Yet with the Mosuo, this alternative system works quite well, and actually has some distinctive benefits. 
 
 Cultural diversity is an inevitable and inescapable part of our world today. And Cultural Intelligence is a crucial skill to thrive in this world. It can not only transform your own life, enabling you to have richer, deeper, more meaningful relationships with those around you; but it can also have a huge impact on our world as a whole.

Click here to learn more about Cultural Intelligence.