Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

The Case for Cultural Intelligence

The Relevance of Culture Today

Growing up as an Asian-American, I was aware of, and thinking hard about, culture from before I can remember.  As a newly minted psychologist, when I led a support group of Asian-American students at a Boston College, I heard strong echoes of my own experiences and quite a few new ones.  The painful conflict between loyalty to family expectations and the beat of my own drummer.  The racist taunts in childhood, and stereotypes that I still encounter, sometimes from the highest halls of education.  But the young college women opened my horizons to seeing that my own keen awareness of the power of culture by no means encompassed the variety of ways culture puts its finger on a life, the way a potter shapes clay with an effortless touch.

When I stepped into the corporate world in the late 1990s, there swirled a popular industry peddling “cultural competence” to companies with global exposure.  Business had the biggest stake in the learning curve where success or failure in global markets, global negotiations, and increasingly, global teams, represented serious money.  Nevertheless, at that time, you still had to make a case for why paying attention to culture was worth the effort.  Now that the internet and globalization have flung open the doors of planetary interconnectivity, the learning mandates for cultural awareness and cultural competence seem almost quaint.

Yet, despite broadened horizons, it seems to me that real cultural intelligence is still elusive. Even more so in the present age where broad forces of existential threat — such as climate change, war, and turbulent politics – are causing a trend toward hardening borders between all sorts of identity groups. 

Cultural Intelligence as Perspective-Taking

Because cultural intelligence is more than simply acquiring a body of knowledge about various cultural differences, like whether one regional group is strict about timeliness, while another, is casual.  You could think of it as the difference between learning the names of the parts of human anatomy, the bones and muscle names – and getting to know a person in a real interaction.  In this way, cultural intelligence is more like emotional intelligence.  It’s more of a back-and-forth, a process of mutual feedback that changes with each iteration.

The young women in my college support group expanded my cultural intelligence, by making me see the impact of, say, a cultural characteristic such as parents instilling educational ambition – on a life.  Each life experienced and manifested the same characteristic differently in its own way. 

In other words, cultural intelligence is as much about attitude or perspective – or attitude about perspective, as anything else.  It is whether you are willing to see through to another perspective, or not.  The term applies to attitude toward culture – national or ethnic culture, if you will – but it is the same ability operating in successful negotiators, desirable business partners, and effective leaders.   It is the willingness to be open to a relationship, rather than to presume knowledge before an encounter begins.

There is an old business story about an American negotiator who approached a Japanese executive with a stiff bow, taking in belatedly the implications of the difference between their styles of dress.  The American lawyer was clad in suit and tie, the Japanese in ‘hip’ clothing more in line with the youth-focused media company he ran.  No harm done – the sincerity of the American’s intention was laughingly – if embarrassedly – appreciated and waved off.   This is a good story about cultural intelligence.  An abundance of good will and a hefty dose of “theory of mind” on both sides turned an awkward start into good relationship fodder.

This is not an article against cultural competence – a phrase describing the process of learning about how people from a different culture, nation, religious group, etc. think, behave, and do things.  Not at all.

What I mean to invite thought on, is the merit of that middle path (which I am calling cultural intelligence) between the kind of cultural “competence” that hardens into stereotype, and the loosey-gooseyness of an attitude that we’re all good old folk who, down at heart, feel and [should] act the same.

Very often when either stereotype or intolerance is in play, there are other strong forces in the background.  Strong group dynamics, such as competition between identity groups such that one or both groups feel threatened by the other.  Or stranger anxiety, where people who are different in some way are perceived to be undesirable to know.  Or the strong social dynamic of conformism, with its implicit threat of expulsion.

Sometimes it is just a kind of threshold, where people who are unfamiliar with one another need some time to settle into each other’s spaces, and there is a kind of a ruffle while that is taking place.

What is clear is that intention counts against a good deal of ignorance.  The positive attitude about perspective means that someone thinks that shifting perspectives, or trying to, is a worthy effort.  In relationships, that “small” step can change the entire dynamic.