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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