Stress test your cultural intelligence

Nov 01 2012 by David Livermore Print This Article

Most people I meet acknowledge the need for cultural intelligence. There's growing consensus that life in our globalized world requires respect for one another. But the comment I often hear is, "Isn't this pretty much common sense?"

Respect people's opinions, follow others' cues for how to behave, and never criticize someone's family or culture, even if they do it themselves.

I agree that common sense and social intelligence will get us through many of the cross-cultural situations we face. Although I can't resist pointing out that it's not a given. For example, "following people's cues" presumes you know what the cue means in the first place - e.g. does someone giggling mean "I'm amused" or "I'm really embarrassed right now".

But as soon as we're stressed, annoyed, or under pressure, "common sense" doesn't cut it cross-culturally.

An Annoyed Customer
The other day I was walking through a shop in Singapore and the shopkeeper hovered around me at every turn. I was dead tired and the tight quarters in the shoebox-sized store were already making me claustrophobic. I suddenly felt so annoyed by having a shadow that I abruptly turned and walked out of the store.

I'm quite sure the shopkeeper wasn't worried about me shoplifting. More than likely, she felt her best way of serving me was to be very attentive to whatever I might need. Now that I step away from the experience, it hardly seems like something to get worked up about. But in a moment of tiredness, I didn't take the time to temper my internal frustration.

Fortunately, I don't think much damage was done by my momentary impatience. But what about when these things happen with someone we encounter regularly? We need cultural intelligence most when we're stressed or when we experience something that seems "rude". We have to stop, take a deep breath, and consider the true intention of the Other-something that requires growing amounts of CQ.

An Annoyed Country
Singapore as a whole is getting more stressed and annoyed by different cultures. A few years ago, many Singaporeans would hear about the work we do in cultural intelligence and would respond, "CQ isn't needed much here. Singapore is such a harmonious place where so many ethnicities get along great."

Over the last few years however, the population has nearly doubled and most of the growth has come from foreigners. A growing number of Singaporeans are feeling like second-class citizens and their increasingly frustrated by the way Western expats are driving up the cost of living. And many locals are annoyed by foreign workers from neighboring countries who some believe are messing up the pristine city-state and crowding up the public transit.

Racial harmony and multiculturalism seemed great until it got annoying dealing with the influx of foreigners.

Annoyed Work Teams, College Students, and Church Members
I've seen this phenomenon play out in various settings.

Work teams are happy to work with their colleagues spread across the globe until they have to keep explaining the same procedure to an overseas team week after week after week. In a nice, sterile training room, it's easy to say, "Oh I get it. Their culture is 'high uncertainty avoidant' so we just need to be patient with their endless questions."

But when the fiftieth email comes through asking for yet another assurance, apart from cultural intelligence, the "common sense" question is, "Why don't they trust us?"

Or how about on campus? Most of today's college students have grown up in the age of multiculturalism. They welcome attending a university with cultural diversity. But when a roommate starts cooking something "smelly" or when "all" the students from a certain culture never join in on the dorm room banter, a growing chasm grows between "us" and "them".

I've seen this same phenomenon occur in religious communities. A church gets excited about the prospect of becoming more multicultural until the worship and teaching have to change and the teenagers from different ethnicities start dating each other.

Or just watch how a group of passengers respond to someone "cutting in line" during the boarding process. It's amazing how quickly this triggers broad sweeping statements about entire cultures.

Common sense isn't enough to help us sort through the jarring impact of cultural differences when we're stressed or offended. There are indeed times when someone is simply being rude or selfish. But by consciously applying cultural intelligence, we'll be better able to discern when it's inappropriate behavior and when it's simply a matter of cultural difference.

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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.