Cultural Intelligence

See also: Intercultural Awareness

How is it that some people can interact seemingly effortlessly with people from other cultures? They somehow appear to understand instinctively what different gestures and expressions mean, and how to respond appropriately. They don’t take offence at the wrong things—and perhaps more importantly, they don’t cause offence either. These people have a particular skill many others lack: they are culturally intelligent.

Cultural intelligence may be seen among expatriates and those working across international cultures. However, it can be equally important in working across cultures of different companies, or even different divisions within the same company. This page discusses the elements of cultural intelligence, and how it can be developed.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

The concept of cultural intelligence was set out in 2003 by Christopher Earley and Soon Ang. Earley later expanded the concept with other co-authors, including Elaine Mosakowski in an article for Harvard Business Review in 2004.

They defined cultural intelligence very simply (see box).

Cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.

Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, ‘Cultural Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review (October 2004)

However, it will immediately be clear that although the definition may be simple, the concept itself is anything but straightforward.

Earley and Mosakowski suggested that cultural intelligence was related to emotional intelligence—and that it could be seen as an extension of that concept. They said that someone with emotional intelligence understood individuals, and what made them unique. However, someone with cultural intelligence could somehow ‘tease out’ individual differences and separate them from differences that were likely to be shared by someone from the same culture.

Sociability vs. cultural intelligence

Interestingly, Earley and Mosakowski’s work suggests that individuals who are most used to being socially successful are actually least likely to be culturally intelligent.

This may be for three main reasons:

  • They may be particularly steeped in their own culture, and therefore find other cultures much more alien;
  • Their behaviour may be so instinctive that they struggle to make it more conscious; and
  • They are not used to having to observe what others do, or consider others’ behaviour and reactions before acting themselves.

Three Elements of Cultural Intelligence

Earley and Mosakowski identified three elements or components of cultural intelligence:

  • The first is head: the use of logic and thinking

    Cross-cultural training often focuses on logical explanations of differences between cultures. However, it is unlikely to cover every possible eventuality. Instead, people moving into other cultures need to develop conscious strategies to develop their own understanding. This might, for example, involve comparing people that you meet to find points of similarity that might indicate cultural traits.

  • The second is body: the physical side of cultural intelligence

    You should never underestimate the power of ‘doing’. Research on recruitment and cultural barriers in business found that people who adopted some of the mannerisms of the recruiters they met were more likely to be offered a job. Mimicking the mannerisms of those around you is a very good way to build rapport. It works within cultures, and it works across cultures. Research shows that consciously trying to use the mannerisms of other cultures can actually help you to experience life in those cultures more fully.

  • The third is heart: the wish and motivation to understand other cultures

    Adapting to a new culture takes time and effort. You have to be motivated, and you must also be prepared to overcome setbacks. That usually means that you have a reasonable belief in your own self-efficacy: your ability to get things done. This tends to give more self-confidence, and in turn more ‘staying power’.

Six Profiles of Cultural Intelligence

Earley and Mosakowski have found that there are broadly six ‘profiles’ of cultural intelligence. These are:

  1. Provincials tend to be effective in working with people from the same background as themselves, but less so elsewhere.

  2. Analysts use a logical process to ‘decipher’ the rules of a new culture. They tend to draw inferences from patterns of behaviour.

  3. Naturals use intuition to respond to cues in a new culture. They therefore tend to rely on first impressions.

  4. Ambassadors demonstrate strong confidence that they ‘belong’ in the new culture, even if they don’t really know much about it. They tend to be good at watching how others have assimilated, and also have the humility to know what they don’t know.

  5. Mimics copy others’ behaviours and actions. They are good observers, and rapidly pick up cultural cues, even if they do not fully understand them. This builds rapport, and understanding can be developed later.

  6. Chameleons are a very rare type of person. They have high levels of all three components of cultural intelligence. They seem to have natural insights into a new culture, and do not have any trouble assimilating or responding to cultural cues. Only around 5% of people are this type.

It is also possible to be a mixture of various types, with the analyst/ambassador combination being particularly common among managers in multinational companies.

Developing Cultural Intelligence

Like any other skill, it is possible to develop cultural intelligence.

Earley and Mosakowski set out a six-step programme for that purpose, covering:

  • Step 1. Finding a starting point

    The first step is to look at your own cultural intelligence strengths and weaknesses, to find a good starting point for development. There are self-assessment tools available, including in Earley and Mosakowski’s article. Companies who want their employees to develop cultural intelligence will often carry out their own assessments.

  • Step 2. Select training or development that focuses on your weaknesses

    You don’t have to embark on formal training or courses. You simply need to do something that will develop whichever of the three areas you have identified as weakest. Earley and Mosakowski gave examples of reading and analysing business case studies as a way to develop your analytical skills (Head), or acting classes or role play to develop your physical abilities (Body).

  • Step 3. Apply your training in small ways

    Once you have done some training, and started to think about that area of your cultural intelligence, the next step is to apply your new skill. Test yourself in small ways first, to establish a solid base on which to build.

  • Step 4. Organise your resources to support your development

    It takes time and effort to develop your skills. Without the resources available—including your own personal time—you will not succeed. Organise the resources that you need, either at work or at home, to give yourself the best chance of success.

  • Step 5. Enter the new culture

    As you start to develop your skills, you need to test them in your new culture. You may want to coordinate this with others, to take advantage of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, if one of a group is very good at mimicry, it may make sense for them to ‘go first’, so that others can observe their experiences.

  • Step 6. Review, revise and try again

    As you become more familiar with the new culture, and develop your cultural intelligence, you need to review and evaluate your new skills. It is worth seeking feedback from peers and others to get a clear picture of how well you are doing. You may, for example, need to do some development in other areas to round out your skills.

Another way of developing your cultural intelligence focuses on four different aspects identified by author David Livermore in a 2011 book called The Cultural Intelligence Difference.

He said that these four aspects were drive, knowledge, strategy and action.

  1. Drive is the desire or motivation to learn about a new culture. To strengthen this, you could try activities like getting to know more people from different cultures, learning a foreign language, or volunteering in places that will expose you to more cultures.

  2. Knowledge means understanding how culture affects beliefs, values, thinking and behaviour. For example, you might spend time watching how people from other cultures interact with people from their culture, and considering the meaning of different gestures or expressions in different contexts.

    There are some examples of the use of different gestures in different contexts and countries in our page on Non-Verbal Communication.
  3. Strategy means using your knowledge to develop specific and robust ways of working or communication. Useful approaches include questioning your assumptions about different cultures, and watching local media channels to get new insights.

  4. Action means how you operate in practice. This means both routinely, and also how you react when something goes wrong, and there are cross-cultural misunderstandings. It is especially important to remain open-minded, and appreciate that most people do not mean to cause offence. If in doubt, an apology is unlikely to upset anyone.

A Skill to Learn

Cultural intelligence is a vital skill for anyone who ever has to move between cultures.

This, of course, basically means anyone who ever interacts with people from another place, organisation or even department of their own organisation. Fortunately, it is also a skill like any other, and can be learned.

The key is to want to learn and develop this skill.