Cultural intelligence consists of knowing about your own and other people's culture.
Intercultural knowledge may help you decrease your initial disorientation. You can try to learn at least some of the rules of your host country before leaving home. However, in a smooth transition from the phase of cultural awareness to the second step of acquiring cultural intelligence, you should try to analyze your relationship to your own culture first.
This article on cultural intelligence is closely interwoven with other articles in our Cross-Cultural Communication and Culture Shock sections. It treats cultural intelligence as an important second step towards cultural competence for people living and working abroad. cultural awareness being the first step.
Cultural Intelligence: Home Country
- What products are considered typical of my home country? Which rituals are widespread and popular?
- How do some of its most important systems and institutions work? (A system or institution can be something as powerful as the role and status of the French President in the national government – or something as seemingly small and personal as the “average” family in Nigeria.)
- Do you know some norms and attitudes that influence the origins and workings of such institutions? For example, if it’s common in a “typical” family to discipline the children severely, it suggests that younger people should always obey their (clearly superior) elders.
- And which basic values do these beliefs reveal? The attitude towards filial obedience would imply that power and hierarchy are extremely important to such a culture.
Once you have asked yourself these questions about the culture you come from, you can try finding some possible answers about the new culture you are soon going to live in and thus start acquiring your necessary cultural intelligence.
Cultural Intelligence: Clichés
In all likelihood, you will probably start out with some disjointed clichés and stereotypes about other countries and cultures. That’s not what you’d call cultural intelligence, but it’s not necessarily all bad either: Stereotypes come into existence because they are very simple to understand and easy to remember.
“All Germans are hard-working and over-punctual” is a far shorter statement than, “generally speaking, Germans tend to live in an achievement-oriented culture with a mono-chronic approach towards time management.”
Reflecting on your own culture and gathering information on your host culture should help you understand where such stereotypes come from and how they can be replaced by true cultural intelligence.
Cultural Intelligence: Host Culture
The following action points are useful steps on the way towards acquiring cultural intelligence.
- Start taking language classes. Even though non-verbal communication often transmits a more powerful message than the mere words that are spoken, language skills are greatly beneficial. They help you to be more communicative in everyday life, to access more factual knowledge about living in that country, and to address intercultural misunderstandings more effectively.
- Meet other expats who have already lived in this country for a while and ask them about their “best-practice” tips.
- Immerse yourself in your new country’s rituals and products. You could, for example, read travel guides on local traditions and festivities, try cooking some recipes, or consume a bit of contemporary popular culture. What could such things reveal about deeper cultural issues and how could they further your cultural intelligence?
- Do research online to acquire cultural intelligence on your host country or buy a few books on expat living. The materials should explain some hard facts (e.g. history, politics, economy), give you concrete advice on everyday situations (e.g. table manners, etiquette in business negotiations) and address some of the underlying cultural values.
- Take seminars on cultural intelligence. However, please exercise some caution here. There are no specified qualifications for intercultural trainers, so always ask them for references from previous participants. Everything that promises you miracles and perfection should be treated with caution.
Always remember: Even interculturally effective persons sometimes make clumsy gestures, especially in the beginning. However, you chances of avoiding them increase the higher your level of cultural intelligence is.