Cultural intelligence. What is it?

Picture a party with an inter-generational bunch of Australians gathering for a Christmas Eve celebration. Among the guests was a Muslim couple and their two young children. The husband – let’s call him Mohammed — was a highly educated political refugee from the Middle East. Despite his impressive foreign qualifications, he could only find work in Australia as a labourer.

His wife — we’ll call her Fatima — was also well educated, but had chosen to stay at home to look after their pre-school children. She wore the hijab, the demure veil of her Islamic faith, though not the burqa which conceals face and body.

It was a sweet, inter-community Aussie-style experience with a barbecue, small gifts for all, and games for the children. The conversations span freely between all the topics you’d expect of a festive gathering. Come the farewells, everyone exchanged warm embraces. One of the men, — we’ll name him Bruce — a fifth generation Australian and a father of adult daughters approached Fatimah as he had all the other women.

A sweet, Aussie-style experience turns sour

Eyes flashing, Fatima backed away, warning him: ‘In my country, strange men do not touch women.’ A joyous occasion suddenly turned sour.

Bruce was initially shocked. He said: ‘I wanted to tell her: “Actually, we’re not in your country, we’re in mine. And in Australia, we have a habit of giving people, especially underdogs, a fair go”’.

He felt impugned and judged for attempting a gesture, which in his eyes was a gift of friendship. Fatima felt invaded. He admitted that, on further thought, he could have handled the situation differently.

He acknowledged that where Fatimah, not a native English speaker, had used the word ‘country’, she really meant ‘culture’. And that, with a little sensitivity, he could have easily prevented the hiccup by asking her how people exchanged greetings and farewells in her civilisation.

Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence

Christianity and Islam haven’t exactly enjoyed the cosiest of relationships down the centuries. Bruce’s story, and the circumstances in which it occurred, perfectly illustrate what was missing in this cultural exchange. It also underpins Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence: engaging safely with people of different beliefs.

Culture often carries with it overtones of the arts. From a micro perspective, it does stand for human achievement beyond the necessities of survival, at both individual and collective level. On the macro level, culture is the summation of customs, habits, and achievements that bind groups of people into identifiably distinct communities.

When in Rome …

Bruce’s reaction to Fatima’s rejection of his innocent farewell hug was of the instinctive ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ variety. But Bruce had the underlying cultural intelligence to realise that traditions and rites run deep in all cultures. Whether they’re religious, social, sexual, or inspired by other human motivations or pressures, they are the outward symbols through which we express our sense of identity and identification.

Cultural intelligence completes the sociological and psychological circle of human development that begins with mental or intellectual intelligence (IQ). IQ is best known as a standardised measure of cognitive ability. It’s also the foundation on which emotional intelligence (EQ), rests, where EQ defines your ability to recognise and manage your emotions, and identify others’, in a social setting.

IQ + EQ = CQ?

IQ and EQ are essential to cultural intelligence. If you possess reasonable levels of both (free tests are available online), you are more likely to have a reasonable CQ level as well.

Cultural intelligence is a relatively new phenomenon. CQ researchers Soon Ang and Lin Van Dyne coined the term in the early 2000s, and David Livermore expanded on it in his book Leading With Cultural Intelligence. Between them, they have identified four capabilities:

CQ drive (or motivation)

CQ drive measures willingness and confidence to operate effectively in culturally diverse environments.

CQ-knowledge (or cognition)

CQ knowledge gauges awareness of cultural similarities and differences across business, interpersonal values, beliefs, and customs, and social, verbal and physical exchanges.

CQ strategy (or meta-cognition)

CQ strategy awareness of cultural diversity, and the skills to plan for and adjust to cultural experiences outside expectations.

CQ action (or behaviour)

CQ action evaluates how well or poorly subjects’ verbal and non-verbal performances impact on each other.

If this sounds a little academic, it’s because researchers have begun to realise the power and depth of cultural intelligence can have establishing and cementing relationships between people and organisations.

For deeper insights into how cultural intelligence boosts personal and organisational performance, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) or contact us here.

By Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program