Cultural intelligence and international travel

May 20 2013 by David Livermore Print This Article

My 15 year-old-daughter is preparing to travel to Thailand by herself next month. Emily has often heard me say that international travel is more likely to increase adolescents' cultural intelligence (CQ) when they travel without their parents or friends. So she decided to see if my wife and I really believe that.

I'm thrilled and her mother is a little freaked out. But we all agree this will be a great learning experience for her. So in a few weeks, Emily will be flying to the other side of the world without us.

Many companies rotate high potential leaders from one global assignment to another, as preparation for being senior leaders in the organization. University and high school students also study abroad as a way to get an edge on others in the college and job market. Similarly, volunteers travel overseas with the hopes that they can combine service with a life changing opportunity.

But is there any evidence that international travel will increase CQ? Absolutely! But there's also evidence that international travel can actually decrease CQ. What makes the difference?

Few things have greater potential to increase CQ than the hands-on experience of international travel. But it's a correlation, not a causation. How you travel, where you spend time, the nature of your interactions, and the way you make meaning from the experiences makes all the difference in whether international experience improves your CQ or not. In fact, international experience can actually decrease CQ and perpetuate ethnocentrism if not done well. Have you ever met an expat or short-term missionary who didn't have high CQ? Enough said.

It starts before ever leaving home. I'm actually not too worked up over whether people should spend vast amounts of time doing pre-departure training and orientation. It can certainly be helpful. But what's most important is some thoughtful anticipation about the cross-cultural experience and how to learn from it.

Emily scores pretty high on our CQ Assessment when it comes to CQ Driveóthe level of interest, drive, and confidence to adapt to intercultural situations. She grew up traveling internationally, she loves to be immersed in different cultures, and she's been learning about Thai culture and studying the language. But our way of orienting her for her overseas experience has been a bit different. I've been throwing her a series of "What if" questions.

So, "what if you arrive at the airport and our Thai friends' who are supposed to meet you aren't there?"

"That's easy" she said. "I'll just text them." To which I said, "Okay. But what if your phone doesn't work?" "Then I'll use a payphone," she replied.

My next challenge: "Okay, but you don't have any Thai money." To which she said, "I'll just exchange some." But I kept pushing her: "The person at the currency exchange tells you they aren't allowed to exchange money to minors. Then what?"

I'm trying to get her to come up with solutions for the kinds of things she could experience cross-culturally.

Emily is crazy about animals. In fact, at some point during her visit to Thailand, she'll be joining a group to learn how to provide veterinary care to animals after a natural disaster. I asked her, "What if you're visiting a hill tribe village and they serve you dog? What will you do?" She decided she would push the meat around for awhile and make it look like she had eaten it. But she couldn't live with herself if she actually ate it. I'm not sure that strategy will work but it's not a bad response. I want her to know that cultural intelligence doesn't mean abandoning everything she values and believes.

"What if a group of your peers start making fun of a Buddhist monk walking by. What will you say?" We talked about the importance of applying cultural intelligence to both her peers and the local culture. And she practiced some responses of what she would say and how they might respond.

I'm less concerned about the precision of her answers. And I'm more interested in getting her to see that there are very real cultural dilemmas she's likely to face and to give her some practice anticipating how to respond.

This has been a fun, engaging way for our family to interact together about Emily's upcoming trip. And it taps into our research findings that cultural understanding is more likely to be improved and applied when it's relevant to the individual and situation.

This is why groups like McDonalds have reduced the amount of training they do before their global leaders are assigned overseas; instead, they provide them with a CQ coach after they arrive who meets with them regularly to interact about the real-life cultural dilemmas they're encountering.

We continue to research how business travelers, study abroad students, and charitable volunteers can best use international travel to increase their CQ. If they simply stay in establishments where the staff have been trained to adapt to our every whim, it's unlikely they're getting a true glimpse of the local culture. And when they travel with friends, peers from school, or family, it takes extra effort to have any meaningful interaction with people outside the built-in networks brought along. And if the people they spend time with when they're abroad offer a skewed interpretation of what's going on, they can come home with a very inaccurate perspective.

But when international experience is combined with active engagement (e.g. jumping on public transit, walking through the market, and having dinner with locals at their favorite haunt) and thoughtful reflection (e.g. looking for what is similar/different from home; suspending judgment about what certain behaviors mean, having a cultural coach who accurately helps you process what you experience), it's the most powerful way to improve CQ.

How do you leverage the potential of international travel?

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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.