How smart phones lower your cultural intelligence


Growing numbers of Study Abroad students now spend most of their free time on Facebook and Skype, communicating with friends and family back home. And business travelers often do the same thing. Evenings are spent catching up on email and communicating with family, co-workers and friends rather than soaking up the local culture.

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together (highly recommended!) notes the same phenomenon at professional conferences. Conference attendees are tethered to their digital devices, concerned about finding the time and space in the schedule to be alone with their digital networks. People at conferences used to chat with others while waiting for a presentation to begin or getting a taxi. Now they spend that time doing email, supposedly making better use of "downtime".

I love that I can see and hear my kids voices on Skype, even when I'm on the other side of the world. But I have a growing concern that our technological advances work against so much of what is core to cultural intelligence - being fully present, deep-focused consciousness, and becoming more aware of one's identity and culture. The growing discussion and research raising questions about the impact of technology upon our lives has profound relevance for how we think about our cross-cultural effectiveness.

Leverage Liminal Space
International Travel has always been a powerful way to gain self-awareness and perspective on life back home. But if we bring our homes with us, how might we be missing out?

You're probably familiar with the idea of liminal space - the anthropological term for disorienting periods which foster new points of view. But technology is making liminal space harder to come by.

International travel, cross-cultural encounters, and to some degree, even retreats and conferences use to be ideal environments for liminal space. But if our driving concern is staying connected to life back home, it's much harder to experience the disorientation and transformation these opportunities used to offer.

In June, my 15-year-old daughter will be going on her first international trip by herself. I'm grateful that she'll rarely be more than a text message or Skype call away. Yet I wonder how that might limit her experience compared to my first overseas sojourn, where, over a period of six weeks, I had one or two ham radio calls home and a few letters from family and friends. My entire social network was stripped away. It was hard, but it forced me to directly encounter my fellow travelers, our hosts, and the local Peruvian culture.

As painful as it's going to be, my wife and I want to limit how much we hover over our daughter's experience in Thailand. We want to give her the liminal space she needs to shape her identity and grow her CQ.

Eliminate Multitasking
Many of us (myself included!) think we're immune to the studies that debunk the value of multitasking. But the research is mounting that when we multitask, the quality of everything we do is downgraded. It feels good to multitask because our brain rewards us with a multitasking "high". But our actual productivity and effectiveness goes down.

Turkle reports that her MIT students whose laptops are open in class don't do as well as those who take notes on paper. She's convinced this is mostly a result of the additional distractions that seduce the laptop students (e.g. Facebook updates, ESPN scores, YouTube etc.).

A crucial part of behaving with cultural intelligence is engaging in a high-level of self-consciousness. This includes things like perspective taking – "How would I feel if I were this person right now? How do they perceive me? How do they view this situation". This is a matter of being self-aware and it requires a lot of brainpower, something that gets reduced when we multitask. In fact, some studies such as this one reported in The Chicago Tribune, show that we actually lower our IQ when we multi-task.

Create Boundaries
Technology is not the enemy. And cold turkey approaches are unrealistic. Most of us can't cease from all email contact when we travel nor can we expect all Study Abroad students will forego Facebook for a full semester (though if you've tried this and succeeded, by all means share the results!).

But we can reclaim control over our technology, rather than merely being seduced by its pings. A few simple ways to begin, when you travel and when you're home.

1. No Phones at Meals
:When sharing a meal with loved ones, colleagues, friends, or even a vendor soliciting your business, turn off your phone off for an hour. It does wonders for conversation and connection.

2. Turn off "Push" :
The "ping" of email releases dopamine in the brain. Most of us can't resist the urge to check our phone when we hear it. A simple way to eliminate the distraction is put yourself in charge of when you get email rather than the device being in control of your attention.

3. Schedule times to do email: We've all heard this before but it bears repeating. One or two period during the day focused on email communication is sufficient for most of us. It's amazing how quickly I get through it when it's the only thing I'm doing for an hour. But it's also amazing how quickly it consumes four or five hours of my day when I'm just randomly responding as emails come in.

What's more, if you're known as someone who always responds almost immediately to email, it backfires when you actually want to take a break. If you put up a vacation/auto-response, take advantage of it and don't check in!

4. Don't check email during breaks etc:
When you're traveling or attending a conference, if at all possible, don't check email during a brief break. There are so many times I've regretted checking my email at lunch break, frustrated that I don't have adequate time to deal with some of the urgent things that have come in. And it tempts me to send off a quick response I might regret later.

5. Re-think what's urgent:
But what about when there are truly urgent issues that have to be addressed? Surely there are crises that emerge. But most of what we deem a crisis, really isn't and can be delayed for a few hours, or even days.

6. Use Commute Time to Reflect and Breathe:
When traveling, (or even commuting to work daily), resist the temptation to use the commute time to read email, Twitter, and Facebook. Observe what's going on around you. Reflect upon the day's events. Breathe deeply. This can make the difference of whether a 15-minute train ride is calming and life-giving or life-sucking.

7. Limit the Ping-Pong Effect:
The problem with catching up on on my email is it induces nearly as many responses that fill my inbox all over again. Think about how to make the email threads as few as possible. Suggest a time and place to meet. And if you need to communicate to a colleague down the hall, walk down and talk to them.

I don't imagine this is the first time you've heard most of these ideas. The bigger challenge is implementing these boundaries. But I hope you'll resolve with me to gain a little more control over technology this year, which will in turn improve your CQ, the quality of your work, and best of all, your overall quality of life!

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Older Comments

A large part of the problem is dealing with the tide of email so we don't drown in it when we get back to the office.

There is also the speed expectation. Back in the day when we wrote letters it might take a week or more to communicate information. The letter had to be written, posted, sorted, delivered, read and the process started again. We managed OK.

Then came fax, and I recall that clients started sending letters by fax. The reason being that they knew that when a fax arrived it would not go into the office post system, and the recipient would get a call to say a fax had arrived or it would be delivered straight away. So faxes knocked off the time in the post and the time being sorted in the office.

Then came email and the same thing happened, what used to go by fax now went by email and it got to the recipient even quicker. Business that used to take days could now be done in hours or less.

The answer is not managing the receipt of email, it is managing it being sent. Encourage colleagues not to send emails copied to all and sundry. Target emails more effectively - what used to go on the notice board in the office now gets emailed to everyone even if it is not relevant to them all. Tell people not to email people they can actually see from their desk. Finally manage expectations so that people learn that just because you do not reply straight away it does not mean you are ignoring them.


Having spent months studying in South Korea and Switzerland last year I believe you're right. However, I also see the importance of valuing your smartphone, computer, in how they are supposed to be valued. These items are modern day advances that exist to help us in our attempts to understand more about this world. I definitely agree that we have seem to have misunderstood or actually forgotten the purpose of these tools. We carry them with us wherever we go taking our world with us, like you said. In addition to limiting the usage, which is a great first step, suggestions how and when to use your modern tools and how to maximize their utility would be the proposed next step. It is my belief that when looking around in the veritable toolshap that exists around us, we might want to focus what we can do, rather than what we should stay away from. A master craftsman does not look at the tools of his or her disposal with the intent of only looking at their limitations. Yes, it is a vital first step, but what comes after is even more important. Having written a guide to a more sustainable individual decision-making process I believe that the assessment of upsides, positive aspects in our environment will lead to better decision making. I completely agree with your assessment but I would also try to add something more, a bit more constructive. Thank you for an interesting article.

Nicolas Waern Sverige

What about the fact that when I travel to different places/countries I meet new local friends with whom I stay in touch with through social media platforms. This actually gives me more insights into their culture, local behavior and local news. And it will stay that way even if I'm not in that Country anymore.

I grew up in the Netherlands, I stay in touch with my old friends and family through social media, but I also communicate through these platforms with my friends in the US, Philippines, Kenya and now also my new local friends in the UK, whom I get to know much better by (for example) just browsing their FB wall.

Thomas Nishantha London