How to Achieve Cultural Intelligence

Cultural competence is crucial for effective communication and global interactions. Pallavi Aiyar explains what cultural intelligence is and provides some tips on how to achieve it.


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So when we talk about the whole concept of intelligence, I think most of us have heard of IQ and most of us have heard of EQ. What do we mean when we say IQ? We are talking about a certain kind of cognitive intelligence. We’re talking about calculations, speed, those kinds of things, memory, perhaps even. And when we talk about EQ, we are talking about emotional intelligence.

The ability of someone to be aware of their own emotions and also the other way around, to be aware of the emotions of who they are talking to. But there is also a third aspect to intelligence, and this is the concept of CQ. So we have IQ, EQ, CQ. This would be the cultural quotient or cultural intelligence. So the idea of being culturally competent is that when you are encoding a message, you encode it in a way in which a culturally diverse audience would be able to decode it appropriately.

You might have very high EQ in your own culture, but this might not crossover very well in another culture. Now, one very important concept when we are considering this is the concept of implicit norms, because all of us have certain culturally shaped implicit norms and we assume, therefore, that everybody shares those same norms. Very simple examples include, you know, how in Spain, when you greet somebody, you almost automatically lean forward to kiss them twice.

But in other cultures, this could be scary, even, it could be offensive. In India, it is very much the implicit norm for strangers to kind of pull a little baby’s cheek. In Europe, that kind of action could again come across as scary because it would be seen as an invasion of the private space. What we are encoding is friendliness and openness, and what is being decoded is quite the opposite.

Being global is something that is very attractive, it’s a buzz word, and diversity as well. And obviously there are many benefits, different perspectives, which will lead to more out-of-the-box thinking and greater creativity. But there are also challenges, and those challenges are the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding. And finally, another related aspect to all of this is that of pragmatic competence.

We mean that whenever you have a communication situation, if you are talking to somebody who’s a native speaker and a non-native speaker, or even if they are native speakers but from different parts of the world, that opens up a whole area of possible miscommunication that arises from things like accents, simple errors, euphemisms. How do you compliment somebody? I had a friend who was telling me very proudly the other day about how his father had gone to jail, and I thought that this wasn’t something to boast about until, of course, I realized he meant Yale University and not jail at all.

I speak Chinese, and Chinese is all about tone, so I make mistakes all the time when I’m speaking Chinese, which to the untrained Chinese ear they can’t understand me. But people who have higher CQ in China, they can understand me perfectly because they can understand from the context what I mean. If you came to India, people are quite likely to say “what’s your good name” instead of “what’s your name?”

Because this is a 19th-century usage that sort of remains. I suppose that the only way really to develop your CQ is to expose yourself to cultural diversity, and that can come in many ways. It can come through travel. Once you travel, you realize that what you once considered normal is not normal at all. I think another way would be to learn languages and exposing oneself as much as possible to diversity, which can also come through deep reading, for example, watching films.

The other thing to keep in mind is that cultures exist at many different levels. Within a country, you will have different cultures between sort of urban areas and rural areas, a different cultural framework between the northern part of a country or the southern part of the country or a coastal area or an inland area. And even more, we will see differences in family culture.

So I think another way of increasing our cultural competence would be to avoid kind of staying within silos or echo chambers that are essentially just repeating what you already think, but engaging in dialog across silos and across different perspectives. So I think what happens once you know your levels of CQ are higher and you become somebody who is more culturally competent, it allows you to kind of see through a lot of superficial differences and really drill down to the essence of humanity.


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