Cultural Intelligence

Discussions with students in the last couple of weeks have centred around the issue whether Cultural Intelligence exists and whether it can be tested through a test as developed by Christopher Earley, for example.

Chris Earley and colleagues focus on 4 aspects of Cultural Intelligence (CQ): meta cognitive, cognitive, motivational and behavioural. It is a self reported instrument, that has been tested by other colleagues (e.g., Ward et al 2009). Ward and colleagues concluded that the self reported bias and the fact that the concept is not different from emotional intelligence creates problems for CQ as a tool, although as a concept it is interesting.

Harry Triandis (2006) likes the idea of cultural intelligence but doesn’t actually mention the tool. He talks about 5 things that ‘cultural intelligent people do’ – like suspending judgement, paying attention to the situation, be trained to overcome ethnocentrism, choose to work for organisations with similar values and, finally, not make assumptions about organisational practices. Others, like David Thomas and Elisabeth Plum have also been working on cultural intelligence. Thomas has dived into the cognitive aspects of it, whereas Elisabeth approaches it from a pragmatic but perhaps slightly PC point of view (focus on ‘understanding each other’).

As far as I am concerned, I’d argue that Cultural Intelligence does exist and that it is different from emotional intelligence because it requires the insight on how cultures work, which is different from good social skills in general. For example, what would you score on the following statements (1= strongly disagree, 2= disagree, 3= don’t know, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree):

If someone foreign does not understand me then they are a bit ignorant or I didn’t explain it very well


If someone foreign is agreeing with me then this is because both of us are on the same wavelength on this occasion


If someone foreign is polite and kind to me this is because I earned their respect or they are a nice person


If someone foreign is in conflict with me then this is because one of us differs in opinion from the other in this situation


If someone foreign is offended because of what I said or did it’s because they’re a bit sensitive or I was a little tactless

If your answer hovers between the 4 and 5, you’ve missed out on a crucial component: culture. It may be that someone agrees with you to save face, as is part of their customs. Or, a person may seem offended but they’re actually neutral about the issue, it’s just a hot headed culture they’re from. Have you ever been abroad and asked for directions. Did you get an answer you KNEW was wrong and were you confused why someone would do that? In some cultures it is more important to be helpful than accurate.

My students from China gave me a wonderful example of Chinese feedback. If a lecturer would ask “did you like my lecture?” A Chinese student’s comment may be: I liked your seminar, which comes across as irrelevant and confused. However, the student is trying to save your and his/her face: instead of commenting on what was not good, he/she highlights what was. As a Dutch person (direct!), this was a wise lesson to learn.

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A focused read for busy people

I developed a report that summarises the knowledge that I acquired over the years and have taught to (MBA) students as a researcher in Cross Cultural Management and Psychology. The report was developed with the aim to inform decision makers in businesses and organisations, who work in an international context. The Financial Times, in fact, stated recently that cross cultural management is a core aspect of leadership and management development. It’s available to you at no cost because a) it is important to build a bridge between the ‘real world’ and academic work as we face a challenging globalised future and b) research needs to have a practical impact. 

In terms of globalisation and our future, you are no doubt aware that the world’s regions and countries are mapped according to wealth (e.g., GNP), systems (i.e., political, economical and legal), and development (e.g., infrastructure, level of education). Indices and statistics of these concepts provide us with information about the differences that exist globally between countries. Governments, global organisations (e.g., Worldbank), and multi-national corporations (MNCs) may use it before deciding on investment, aid, and collaborations.

            At the individual level, we learn about cultural differences between people through travel, the media and day-to-day living, working, and interaction in a multicultural environment. People vary in terms of what they value and how they do things. We may inform ourselves about the how, what and where of people foreign to us out of necessity or out of interest of the anthropological aspects of (modern) human life.

            For some time, knowing the do’s and don’ts often sufficed for any substantial intercultural interaction. In the professional realm, cross cultural training before or during intercultural assignments, projects or mergers usually provided a ‘toolbox’ of these do’s and don’ts, such as how to greet, what (not) to discuss over dinner, and when to expect a definitive offer on a deal. However, due to globalisation, organisations function within diverse contexts across continents and the modern person has mixed identities (ethnic, national, religious), with x-number of years of experience abroad. This means that a simple do’s and don’ts list is not enough.

            Successful interaction requires intercultural insight. This constitutes the know-how as mentioned above but, moreover, it requires the ability to interpret the situation presented to us by being aware of our cultural lenses and keeping the other’s perspective in mind. It is an updated kind of toolbox, which is adapted to 21st Century working life.

            This briefing will address the three core aspects of effective intercultural engagement: Know-How, Cultural Self-Awareness, and Perspective. Each section will describe some important research in an accessible way, illustrated by practical examples. The briefing concludes with advise that can be implemented immediately. Check out the link on the top menu above or click here: Identity Research for Impact – A review for practitioners



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Welcome to the Identity Research Blog

From the first e-conference back in May 2007, we’ve now arrived at a blog for this website – to review and report on issues, news, and events related to Identity and research.


Nathalie van Meurs, D.Phil.



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