Monday, April 26, 2010

Culture Savvy

You've probably heard about the idea of "EQ," emotional intelligence, but do you know about "CQ," cultural intelligence? It's basically the ability to read, interpret, and adapt to the behavior and expectations of people in a different culture.

A 2004 article in Harvard Business Review put it this way:
Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence, but it picks up where emotional intelligence leaves off. A person with high emotional intelligence grasps what makes us human and at the same time what makes each of us different from one another. A person with high cultural intelligence can somehow tease out of a person’s or group’s behavior those features that would be true of all people and all groups, those peculiar to this person or this group, and those that are neither universal nor idiosyncratic. (P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, "Cultural Intelligence," Harvard Business Review, October 2004)
Some people are clearly gifted in this kind of thing, but anyone can grow in it. Maybe it's like language learning. Most people can become fluent but some have to really work at it. And people may struggle with different aspects and find different strategies help them overcome the hurdles.

As I listened to a presentation on this recently, I thought of some of the things I'd experienced overseas, both personally and in watching others. The HBR article breaks it down into several helpful components. Evaluate yourself on this simple scale and see if it helps. It probably won't work if your cross-cultural interactions have been few or shallow, but give it a try. Like many self-evaluation tools it will do more to pinpoint your relative strengths and weaknesses than to show, objectively, how competent you are.

Rate the extent you agree with each statement (1= strongly disagree; 2=disagree; 3=neutral; 4=agree; 5=strongly agree)

___ Before I interact with people from a new culture, I ask myself what I hope to achieve.
___ If I encounter something unexpected while working in a new culture, I use this experience to figure out new ways to approach other cultures in the future.
___ I plan how I am going to relate to the people from a different culture before I meet them.
___ When I come into a new cultural situation I can immediately sense whether something is going well or something is wrong.

Got it? Now, add up the numbers and divide by 4. That's your "cognitive CQ." Now try this one...

___ It's easy for me to change my body language (for example, eye contact or posture) to suit people from a different culture.
___ I can alter my expression when a cultural encounter requires it.
___ I modify my speech style (for example, accent or tone) to suit people from a different culture.
___ I easily change the way I act when a cross-cultural situation seems to require it.

Again, add up the number and divide by 4. That's your "physical CQ." Finally...

___ I have confidence that I can deal well with people from a different culture.
___ I am certain that I can befriend people whose cultural backgrounds are different from mine.
___ I can adapt to the lifestyle of a different culture with relative ease.
___ I am confident that I can deal will with a cultural situation that's unfamiliar.

Divided by four, that's your "emotional/motivational CQ."
"Generally, an average of less than 3 would indicate an area calling for improvement,
while an average of greater than 4.5 reflects a true CQ strength."
So, which area is your strongest? Your weakest? What things about cross-cultural situations scare and maybe scar you, and what ones are kind of fun?

I think what I'm most attuned to is the physical area: I count on using those skills to connect with people, to endear them to me, to get them to open up to me. I envied a teammate in Morocco who, wherever we went, skipped language learning but put on a "Mexican accent" that somehow made his English easier for everyone to understand; I learned how to dress, walk, and carry myself to avoid harassment in India; I strove to practice the "shirin gapliklar" (sweet talk) and graceful movements of Uzbek women; I now automatically pronounce my own name differently when I speak to people for whom English is a second language; and I've watched with admiration as S. (the person I've traveled with the most) has found ways to show people, everywhere she serves, that she really loves and cares about them. (For example, she can sit and drink tea with someone aaaaaalllll daaaaayyyy loooooonnnggg!)

But I've also passed judgment on teammates who seemed incompetent or oblivious to the importance of these things, without doing all that much to help them. I decided they were just not very smart, or at least that they lacked self-awareness. Slowly, along the way, I've been able to put the CQ skills into words and actually teach people how to do these things better. But I'd like to grow in that as well, and help people get past the things that hold them back or cause frustration as they go into new situations.

The people I've admired and valued the most on my teams, the ones who blow me away with how good they are at this stuff? Those who had the courage, the confidence - the emotional CQ I have to work so hard to muster up - to seek out and cultivate cross-cultural friendships and overcome misunderstandings instead of chickening out as the rest of us are wont to do.

What about you? How's your CQ? What about other people you know - have you ever seen a CQ "genius" at work? Let me know if this is any help for you.

I'm hoping to study the topic more and will probably get back in touch with the man who pointed out the Harvard article. Again, the source is P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, "Cultural Intelligence," Harvard Business Review, October 2004, so cite that and not me if you do anything with this.

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