The development of cultural intelligence
UNDERSTANDING THE FRENCH Jenny Stephens, a U.S. national, is an executive for the French subsidiary of an American multinational. After meeting and marrying a Frenchman in New York, she moved to Paris, where she has lived for seven years. She speaks French fluently and regularly interacts with French relatives and friends and colleagues. When asked if she feels she understands French culture, she says
I have been here for seven years. I have found that whenever I would begin to get a sense that I really understand the French, something strange would happen that would throw me off completely. As I would reflect on the event and discuss it with my husband and friends, I would develop a more complex view of the French. Then, things would go fine for several months until the whole process would repeat itself.
For example, I felt I was making progress when I learned how to buy cheese. Putting together a proper cheese
plate in France is as complicated as choosing wine correctly. A perfect cheese presentation must contain five cheeses—a ripe (but not too ripe) light, soft cheese; a hard, sharp cheese; a goat cheese; a semisoft cheese; and a blue cheese. However, just knowing this is insufficient to be viewed as anything but a novice in a French cheese shop. To be truly expert, one must know what cheeses from what regions are particularly good at the moment. When I learned that by simply using my basic knowledge and asking appropriate questions such as what brie is particularly good this week, I was treated with much more respect.4
In this case Jenny is practicing mindfulness by recognizing unusual things that she observes as being related to culture and talking them over with others. She also uses mindfulness when she recognizes that her limited knowledge can be used effectively by planning how to adapt her behavior. In this way, each instance of idiosyncratic French behavior builds on her previous knowledge and contributes to her development of cultural intelligence.
Activities That Support the Development of Cultural Intelligence Perhaps the most important means of increasing cultural intelligence is spending time in foreign countries, in which cross-cultural experiences will be frequent and CQ will increase through necessity. While foreign experiences are ideal, there are numerous other situations and activities you can draw upon, ranging from formal education to informal interactions, including developing relationships with others who are culturally different.
The types of formal training available on cultural intelligence can be classified in terms of being experience-based (as opposed to purely “classroom”) and being culture-specific or applicable across cultures. All these types are valuable, but cultural intelligence requires learning from experience and building skills that can be applied across cultures. The following chart shows the types of formal training available and how they apply to our model of developing a high CQ.
Of the three types of methods, formal experiential training is the most rigorous and effective but is rare and often expensive. Most of us therefore rely on our day-to-day interactions with culturally different others, in different contexts: multicultural teams, interactions with culturally different individuals at home, and foreign assignments.
MULTICULTURAL GROUPS AND TEAMS
Because of globalization, our work groups are increasingly multicultural, offering rich opportunities to gain cultural intelligence by observing the behavior of individuals from different cultures responding to the same situations. Examples include the assignment of group roles, the establishment of a leader, and the imposition of deadlines. If we are mindful, we will note the wide variety of reactions from culturally different members to the group’s behavior. The interactions of culturally different people in groups are complex, but this complexity generates great learning opportunities to develop greater cultural intelligence.
CROSS-CULTURAL INTERACTIONS AT HOME
The numerous learning opportunities that multicultural societies present us with often lack the depth and intensity that is required for us to learn from
them. For a Westerner, having dinner at a Cantonese restaurant and interacting with the Chinese service people is indeed an intercultural experience, but it is a very mild one (although it might become a bit more intense with an order of chicken feet!) and lacks significant engagement. Just as leadership skills are often taught by testing the leaders of groups engaged in challenging outdoor activities such as ropes courses, significant CQ development requires us to move outside our comfort zone and to challenge ourselves in deeper ways.
In our international management courses we, the authors, routinely require our students to practice the skills they have learned in class by engaging in a non-trivial cross-cultural experience in their local area. “Culture” in this case is not confined to national or ethnic culture but, consistent with our definition in Chapter 2, can be applied to any social group. Subcultures within a culture provide excellent learning experiences. We tell students that if they are to learn, they should feel culturally uncomfortable in the situation, at least at first. Some ways to engage in cross-cultural experiences are to
• Locate an ethnic organization in your community and attend (and participate in, if possible) a cultural celebration. Ask members to explain the significance of the event and the symbolism of the activities.
• Find an interest group that represents a set of beliefs to which you do not subscribe and attend one of its meetings. For example, some of our heterosexual university students have attended meetings of gay and lesbian associations.
• Attend a religious service or wedding ceremony of someone from another culture. Ask a member of the culture to explain the significance of the rituals involved. One of our mature MBA students, a Japanese- Canadian, visited the home and attended the temple of a Sikh co- worker. The following is an excerpt from her report.5
MY CROSS -CULTURAL DAY WITH ANANYA For my cross-cultural experience I was fortunate to spend the day with Ananya, who is an IT specialist at my organization. I was invited to her home and to accompany her to the Sikh Gurdwara (temple) in East Vancouver. I wanted to embrace this opportunity not only for the experience but also because I looked forward to getting to know her. The objective of the experience was to
practice mindfulness in order to increase my cultural intelligence and be more effective in a variety of cross-cultural situations. Over the weeks following my visit with Ananya, I re-examined some of my past and present experiences as well as my thoughts and opinions. I realized that despite being different, I had become desensitized and had oversimplified the influence of culture around me. I had always believed that I instinctively knew more than others because of my history of being simultaneously Canadian and Japanese but never fitting into either world. However I realized that just because I am bicultural, it does not make me an expert in operating cross-culturally.
In preparation for my day with Ananya I read to gain some basic knowledge about her culture. It was helpful to read about Indian facts and culture on the Country Insights page of the Government of Canada website and the information on the Internet about Sikhism. This information allowed me to learn appropriate behavior at the temple and to develop expectations about her home.
Some aspects of Ananya’s home were a surprise, such as how her children, who were born in Canada, respected and lived the family value system in a deep way. The family had custom- designed their current home to a duplex and laneway house so that the parents and their two adult children are able to live multigenerationally together. This is a cultural norm. We drank the chai tea that she prepared for us and talked. I learned about how she practices her beliefs through the twice-daily prayer and washing. This helps her overcome the frustrations of a bad work day. The scriptures teach to remove negative thoughts before going to bed.
At the temple my head was appropriately covered. I followed her to the women’s side of the entrance hall where we removed our shoes and washed our hands. We walked into the main hall, and I bowed when she bowed. We then accepted the Karah- parshad pudding. I became overwhelmed in the moment and did not cup both hands. I was embarrassed, but the woman dishing out the pudding gave me the slightest of smiles and demonstrated without speaking. Could this have been a smile of disapproval? I was not sure. I immediately corrected my behavior. We found a place to sit with the women, and I listened to the singing of the Gurbani while I read the English translation upon the large screen.
It spoke of human frailty, and the beautiful music was both enchanting and sad.
We left upon Ananya’s signal and joined in the sharing of a meal in the Langar halls at communal tables. Did I feel uncomfortable that day? I know I attracted some attention, but (as a Japanese-Canadian) my normal is to be different in a crowd. Consistent with Sikh beliefs, I felt welcome to be there. Being immersed in this situation and operating with heightened awareness was a good reminder of what it feels like to be different. I realized that over time I had dialed down my sensitivity and have been on “cultural cruise control.” During my day with Ananya, I did work hard to observe, and it took constant attention. However I found that questioning why did not come automatically. Too many times I subconsciously answered my own questions with assumptions, which typically were based upon stereotypes. These were lost opportunities to gain a deeper understanding. When I returned home I did some more reading and was better able to appreciate my experience in the Gurdwara. I found that my retention for cultural details improved, this second time being able to put the knowledge into an experiential context. Continuous learning is important to increasing cultural intelligence.
A key takeaway from my experience is to be more mindful of the needs of my co-workers when we converse about an issue. Often if a person was frustrated at work, I had, over time, developed a script. I listened to identify the problem and honed in on the impact to the individual whom I assumed was looking for a resolution. This is the approach that is common in individualistic cultures. However on my day with Ananya, I learned I need to be mindful that some people have great concern or greater concern about the group than others. In order to satisfy their need for resolution, I must remember to address issues at multiple levels, particularly for those with a collectivist orientation.
This bicultural student’s experience with her colleague is a good example of mindfulness in action and the development of cultural intelligence. Her immersion into a culturally different situation showed her how often she had operated on cultural cruise control, and her description of the situation shows acute attention to the behavior of those who are culturally different from her, as well as to the context. As this case shows, you can find cross-
cultural interactions in your own backyard as well as abroad. These learning experiences can translate very directly to participants’ daily lives at home or in the workplace.