Baseline, benchmark, bottleneck: Why cultural self-awareness is crucial.

I just had a chat with a Dutch teacher to discuss the materials that I will present to a team of European teachers at a workshop for the Virtex4all project in Estonia in June 2010. The aim is to give them some ideas that they can pass on to their students about cultural differences. During the briefing conversation, she mentioned that it’s not so much about a list of do’s and don’ts but about awareness of cultural differences.  I agree but think it’s more than that. It’s about awareness of our own culture and identity and understanding that we use these (subjective) norms to evaluate a situation and decide what to do next


how often does someone look up the ‘why’ of their own way of doing things before they travel for business or pleasure?

Being aware of your culture is key to understanding the other 


Cultural self awareness sounds psychological, which may put some people off. This is unfortunate, because even basic business, sales, good management and governance is all about psychology. Social psychology deals with the behaviour of people in social situations. By default, management (be it in business, governmental, non-governmental sector) concerns dealing with people; i.e., social situations. It pays to know your psychology.

As much as we’d like to view ourselves as superior intelligent beings, we are only human and with that come certain behavioural and cognitive traits. For example, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. I once asked my Chinese students how they eat (with chopsticks) and what they eat (Chinese food). To the question ‘Do you eat European food?’, the answer was ‘yes, but with chopsticks’. It had not occurred to me that the tool is separate from the substance. It’s a nice example that indicates that our reality is seen through cultural lenses that are part of our identity, but with which we also evaluate someone else.


Continue Reading

Processing consequences

The last 10 days, for professional and personal reasons, have been about processing consequences and how this affects one’s identity. Coming from a country that prides itself for its tolerance yet independence, the cultural values that are about individualistic thinking sometimes battle it out with more collectivistic values that motivate me to think about others and evaluate what will happen next. So, if others do not do that, it can be frustrating.

Such cultural value differences can occur at individual, team, organisation and national level. If you are a perfectionist, who likes to deliver good work it can be awkward and frustrating when the teams around you have a slightly more ‘relaxed’ approach. It could be that the infrastructure or IT facilities within your country or organisation fail you, which affects your professional identity. It could also be that an individual does something that affects you directly. Perhaps a conflict ensues and you need to manage this. What can you do when the other really cannot understand your issue with what they’ve done? The other can say they’re sorry and your view on things may have changed forever, but is moving on the only option left?

Processing consequences is a form of emotional intelligence that is key to successful (cross cultural) management and good leadership. I am monitoring what is happening in The Netherlands, currently an interesting case study in terms of the rise of right wing extremism. What does it mean when a party like the PVV, which has strong policies on the maintenance of the Dutch identity, is so popular? If we vote for parties like that, are we processing the consequences properly or are we protesting against the status quo, not thinking about the future state of affairs if this party comes into power? And if it all does turn sour, what is the meaning of saying sorry, like so many leaders have done (and some still haven’t – left or right wing) for the mistakes they’ve made? In short, what are the consequences for those who do not process consequences?

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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



Continue Reading

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.



Continue Reading

Countering Radicalisation: perspectives and strategies from around the globe

Nathalie van Meurs and Charles Harb recently attended the conference ‘Countering Radicalisation: perspectives and strategies from around the globe’ organised by the Dutch government in The Hague for ministers of internal and external affairs, national security officers, policy makers and researchers. Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch PM and High Commissioner for Refugees chaired the meeting, which involved round table discussions on radicalisation and terrorism. Tony Heal, the Deputy Head of the Prevent Unit within the Home Office of the UK also presented, and alerted the researchers among the audience that, although approximately 14,000 articles on counter radicalisation exist, very few contain empirical data. More research is required and policy makers are very interested to talk to the academic community about formation of identity, management of conflict, and strategies for collaboration between local and national government on this issue.

Continue Reading

LSE talk: The New Politics of Identity

On the 29th of April, 2008, Professor Lord Bikhu Parekh (University of Westminster) gave a talk on his new book “A New Politics of Identity”. He was accompanied by a panel of experts in the field, namely David Goodhart (Editor of Prospect), Professor John Keane (University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum, Berlin), and Prof Lord Tony Giddens (Chair).


After Professor’s Parekh’s presentation, the panel discussed Bhiku Parek’s work, which covers the impact of globalisation on ethnic, religious, and national identities. The event was open to all and organised by LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance.


Professor Parekh decided not to summarise the book but to focus on its message and launched the concept of three identities: personal, social, and human. Each of these identities raise questions about lifestyle decisions and beliefs. He addressed the issue of how we organise our identities; are they prioritised by oneself or primed? As an example he mentioned that a person may be a Christian cricketer. Does being Christian affect being a cricketer (e.g., in terms of competitiveness – do onto others…. ) and vice versa?


His main focus, however, was on this new ‘human’ identity. We must ask ourselves “as a human being, what kind of life am I to live?”. He linked this with the work of the philosopher Hegel (and Marx to an extent) in terms of whether this universal identity is mediated by other social identities. If someone is a globally oriented citizen, does this affect their behaviour? If so, how? For example, in terms of justice and obligations, should there be a political community that aims towards universal democracy and global welfare state, not limited to a nation? The panel commented on these and other aspects within the book. David Goodhart focused on the concept of citizenship and argued that ‘the left’ needs to rethink the definition of ‘the nationstate’ as human rights presupposes a citizenship. In terms of immigration, this means that the UK should follow the Canadian model and that each individual needs to add value based on their skills. Citizenship comes with rights. These ‘rights’ conflict with moral liberal thinking and the focus should be on rights AND obligations. He continued to argue that majority groups’ identities are not satisfied by current political arrangements. For this reason, he states, Parekh’s book is too balanced (on the one hand, on the other hand) and a case is made for both liberalism and group rights. He said people should settle with the fact that identity is often politically defined in terms of race, religion etc.


The issue of immigration and individual vs. group rights was also elaborated upon by John Keane. He criticised the book for not addressing the causes and agents of globalisation. He aimed to clarify that globalisation does not mean Americanisation per se nor does it imply homogenisation. A discussion ensued regarding the idea that the concept of the state and the concept of humankind are juxtaposed but whether it is truly a matter of bipolarity. Parekh replied pragmatically that it is necessary to think beyond the nation state. If, for example, talent is taken from India (e.g., IT specialists or medical experts) then scholarships should be provided. He argues that we should think in terms of a post national state with reference to human rights and political morality. There is a need for some kind of social cohesion and less of a need for a focus on the state and culture. Due to the complexity of identities it is nonsensical to think of a state as ‘liberal’. Equally, universalism is not necessarily a good thing.


Continue Reading

Mixedness and Mixing e Conference

Mixedness and Mixing e Conference: New perspectives on Mixed Race Britons


Inspired by the success of the Negotiating Identities eCongress, the Commission for Racial Equality (now Commission for Human Rights and Equality) hosted an eConference on 4-6 September looking at issues relating to Britain’s mixed race population (mixedness) and mixed families (mixing).


Mixed-race people account for around one in six of all ethnic minorities in Britain today. They belong to an ethnic group that is not only the fastest-growing in Britain today, but also has the youngest average age and the greatest amount of diversity. It is also perhaps the least well understood.


The events brought together a wide variety of perspectives to identify and discuss new approaches, ideas and experiences, and to consider how these can best be used to formulate policy that delivers equality to all mixed-race people.


Nathalie van Meurs wrote a paper for this conference.


Check out:



Continue Reading


The original Identity Research website was set up by me, Dr. Nathalie van Meurs. It hosted the E-Congress on Negotiating Identities on the 15-16th May, 2007 and remained a source of information about negotiating social identities in a variety of contexts until February 2010, when it was revamped into a blog.


I set up this website for the purpose of bringing together people from the academic community, business, the Arts, media, sport and government to discuss the idea how we can successfully be multitudes, because nobody is just a nationality, religion, gender, job, political affiliation, or interest group.


I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Cross Cultural Management and the research leader for the Business and Management department at Middlesex University Business School in London.

For the past two years, I worked as a Research Fellow at the Open University, U.K. exploring (organisational) culture and Person-Organisation Fit. Before this, I lectured Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Psychology and Empirical Methods at the University of Oxford Brookes.


I gained my Ph.D. from the University of Sussex looking at the relationship between cultural values, conflict management strategies, communication styles and success ratings of negotiations between Dutch and British managers.


I am interested in both research and applied aspects of intercultural interaction and identity. Areas of interest are: cultural intelligence, cultural values and conflict management, cross cultural education, and ‘person-nation fit’ (i.e., is there value congruence between the individual and the nation). I have been working as a consultant .


Do get in touch if you would like to discuss my research or consultancy work: n.van-meurs (at)




Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Continue Reading