Assessing cultural intelligence by how people talk

Jun 17 2013 by David Livermore Print This Article

I'm constantly observing the way individuals' cultural intelligence (CQ) comes through in their verbal interactions. I don't mean whether they're knowledgeable about many different cultures. I'm talking about whether they actually adjust the way they speak in light of the people with whom they're communicating.

Here are a few specific things I monitor to assess CQ in how we talk:

1. Rate of speech

The other day, a non-native English speaker was ahead of me in the car rental line. He was having a hard time understanding the agent. But the agent just kept repeating the same thing in the same way, never slowing down or attempting to use different words.

Speaking more slowly, clearly, and simply with individuals who aren't familiar with your language or accent is a basic way to demonstrate some CQ. But this is a little tricky. Because nothing is more insulting than speaking too slowly, loudly, or simply. So we have to find the balance.

2. Volume and Enthusiasm

I also observe how individuals regulate their volume and level of enthusiasm when speaking in various contexts. An African American executive describes the way he learned to speak in quieter, less boisterous ways in his office. He learned that his large stature and his skin color combined with his naturally loud voice was intimidating to some people. So he found he was better received by bringing it down a few notches.

I use a different level of energy and volume when I speak at a conference in New York as compared to Tokyo. Some might say this is being inauthentic. And again, taken too far it can be. But some adaptation in light of the audience can eliminate unnecessary distractions.

3. Lingo and Jargon

If I'm working with a group of physicians or IT professionals, two fields that are way outside my expertise, I notice which individuals consciously stop to explain an acronym or idea to me that others are freely discussing. And in a similar way, I watch for the use of colloquialisms as people from one country or region talk with people from other places.

I also observe the use of insider language when we run cultural intelligence workshops with participants from a variety of disciplines and contexts, such as people from corporate, educational, military and faith-based settings. Some of the participants adapt their language in light of the diverse group gathered and others seem to make little effort to eliminate or explain their use of terms and expressions that are unfamiliar to many other participants.

4. Double Voiced Discourse

And I pay attention to if and how people use double voiced discourse (DvD). This is an idea conceptualized by Dr Amy Sheldon from the University of Minnesota who has devoted her career to studying how language is used in human interaction. Her work offers us a great deal when thinking about intercultural communication. She describes DvD as a communication style where you demonstrate a double orientation in how you communicate, both your own perspective and the perspective/s of the other/s with whom you're speaking.

DvD is saying something like, "Given your expertise in ___, you know this better than any of us." Or maybe you say, "This might concern you given what you went through last year."

Your statement indicates an understanding of the other individual's perspective. If DvD is used too much or in the wrong situation or cultural context, it can be ineffective or even come off as insecure or manipulative. But when used appropriately, it reveals a core aspect of cultural intelligence: perspective-taking.

These verbal behaviors are most relevant to CQ Action - the degree to which you appropriately adjust your verbal and nonverbal behavior when interacting cross-culturally. And I could keep going with the kinds of behaviors that reveal someone's CQ. For example, how do you respond to the question "Where are you from?" Listing a specific town, unless it's a globally recognized city, is not usually the best response when talking with someone who lives in a different country. Instead, start by naming your country or referencing your proximity to a well-known location.

During the next couple days, look for how these behaviors show up in your interactions. And I'd love to hear other behaviors you observe as a way to gauge CQ in yourself and others.

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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.