WE CAN MAKE THE BEST OF IT Chan Yuk Fai ushered his British guest into the crowded Shanghai restaurant. Around them, the atmosphere was busy with the quiet babble of a dozen conversations. Mr. Chan bowed slightly, then leaned forward and smiled. “I think,” he said in excellent English, “I think the food is not the very best in this restaurant.”
Jeffrey Thomson stiffened slightly. He found it hard to conceal his surprise. What was he to make of Mr. Chan’s remark? Mr. Chan had chosen the restaurant. Did he really think the food was poor? If he thought so, why had he chosen this restaurant? Perhaps criticizing the food was just a Chinese custom— something everyone did that had nothing to do with the real quality of the food. Perhaps it was a joke—Mr. Chan was smiling broadly. After all, what did Jeffrey know about the Chinese sense of humor? Or perhaps it was an affectation of modesty. He had read somewhere that Chinese were self-effacing. But he had also read that they were indirect. Maybe criticizing the restaurant was Mr. Chan’s way of saying he did not have a lot of interest in Jeffrey or what he had to say. Maybe it was even some form of veiled insult!
He realized that Mr. Chan was politely waiting for him to respond and that he had no idea what to say. He felt very confused. Best to be noncommittal, he thought. What would I say if someone said that to me in London? He smiled back at Mr. Chan. “I’m sure we can make the best of it,” he replied. Was it his imagination, or did he see a minuscule reduction in Mr. Chan’s beaming smile?1
On the surface Jeffrey Thomson’s worries about Chinese culture are about Chinese customs, the ways in which people habitually go about day-to-day
activities. The Chinese custom is to show respect for a guest by disparaging one’s own accomplishments, even the selection of a restaurant. Chinese people expect that the guest will return this respect with a compliment. By not doing so, Jeffrey has made a cultural blunder. This custom is specific to the cultural situation, but Jeffrey’s predicament is one that thousands of other travelers from all continents and countries experience. Jeffrey does have some understanding of the cultural differences that exist between himself and Mr. Chan, including his reflection that Chinese people tend to be self-effacing and inscrutable. And he is looking for clues to help him to draw the right conclusion and behave correctly. But his knowledge, his insight, and his experience are simply insufficient for the task. He lacks cultural intelligence.
Components of Cultural Intelligence Jeffrey’s problem can be divided into three linked components.
First, he lacks detailed knowledge. He understands that cross-cultural differences exist. He has remembered a few characteristics of Chinese people. But these are crude stereotypes, of little help in enabling him to understand the situation.
Second, he lacks mindfulness. Not only does he not know what Mr. Chan’s remark means, but he lacks the ability to observe and interpret the remark in the context of other cues—prior conversations, his dealings with other Chinese, the visible quality of the restaurant, Mr. Chan’s smile, and so on. Because of this, he is unable to read the situation as it develops. Whatever the outcome, he is likely to learn little from the experience. Mindfulness is a means of continually observing and understanding cultural meanings, and using that understanding for immediate action and long-term learning.
Third, he lacks the skill to adapt his behavior. He would love to be able to respond confidently and authentically but also sensitively to his host. He realizes that being able to respond appropriately would put both himself and Mr. Chan at ease and would help their conversation. But because of his lack of both knowledge and interpretive skill the only action he is capable of is to respond as he would “at home.” Jeffrey needs to develop a repertoire of behaviors that will enable him to act appropriately in any cross-cultural situation.
The three components combine to provide intercultural flexibility and competence. In brief, culturally intelligent people have
• the knowledge to understand cross-cultural phenomena
• the mindfulness to observe and interpret particular situations
• the skills required to adapt behavior to act appropriately in a range of situation
These three components are interconnected and build on each other. Because culturally intelligent people have good background understanding, their interpretation is assisted—they know what to look for. But each competency is also based on wider personal characteristics. The people who find cultural intelligence easiest to acquire are interested in novel learning and social interaction and have good communication skills. But those who are unsure of themselves in these areas will likely find that acquiring cultural intelligence increases their competence and confidence in all interpersonal situations.2
In this chapter we focus on the information base—or knowledge—that is the first component of cultural intelligence. Here, what is needed is a basic understanding of culture.
What Culture Is The word culture is familiar to everyone, but what exactly does it mean? A useful definition by noted social scientist Geert Hofstede is that culture consists of shared mental programs that condition individuals’ responses to their environment.3 Thus, culture is inherent in everyday behavior, such as Chan Yuk Fai’s and Jeffrey Thomson’s efforts at conversation, but such behavior is controlled by deeply embedded mental programs. Culture is not just a set of surface behaviors; it is deeply entrenched in each of us. The surface features of our social behavior—for example, our mannerisms, our ways of speaking to each other, the way we dress—are often manifestations of deep culturally based values and principles.
A key feature of culture is that these mental programs are shared— Chan Yuk Fai and Jeffrey Thomson share theirs with many other people from their own ethnic or national communities. Hofstede talks about three levels of mental programming, as shown in Figure 2.1.
• The deepest level—human nature—is based on common biological reactions, such as hunger, sex drive, territoriality, and nurturing of the young, that all members of the human race have in common, even though they come from different cultures.
• The shallowest level—personality—is based on the specific genetic makeup and personal experiences that make each individual unique. For example, we may be sociable or introverted, aggressive or submissive, emotional or stable, or perhaps, as a result of learning, have a deep interest in fashionable clothing or a love of good wine. Because of personality, each of us has many characteristics that are different from those of others, even though they come from the same culture.