How is your Cultural Intelligence?

Prague Leaders Magazine, July 2012

Despite current economic and financial turmoil, the Europe that emerged at the turn of the new millennium was stronger and more unified than ever before in its history. The weak and divided Europe of sixty years ago had transformed itself into a supranational entity composed of many nations, languages and identities; and boasts as its greatest resource an unparalleled level of diversity.

However, while diversity has been Europe’s greatest advantage, it also became the continent’s greatest challenge. As people from all levels of society, business and government interact with one another with increasing regularity, the need for effective communication and understanding across Europe’s many cultures is more important than it has ever been.

Many Europeans often don’t pay enough heed to the importance that differences have in cross-cultural interaction. This is particularly true in business and government. Though Europe gained increased cohesion through the European Economic Community and the European Union, the financial crisis emphasizes the importance of attending to cultural differences.

Communicating efficiently across cultures is about far more than just mastery of language, grammar and syntax. In business and politics, bridging the communication gap with colleagues of different cultural backgrounds requires both rational and emotional understanding of who we are dealing with and where people come from, and to put their behaviors and attitudes into the context of their cultural value systems.

To interact and communicate well in various cultural contexts, those of us who work and live across the cultural spectrum can do well to understand and develop the human facility of “cultural intelligence”.

What do we mean by cultural intelligence? Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, authors of an article on the subject for Harvard Business Review, define it as “an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.” In short, being a culturally intelligent human being means being able to adapt to a variety of different cultural, organizational and professional cultures with little discomfort or difficulty.

Early and Mosakowski describe the three sources of cultural intelligence: cognitive, physical and emotional. While “Cultural Intelligence” addresses many of the characteristics of emotional intelligence, it goes one step further by helping people identify the specific behaviors produced by various cultures.

The Head

The cognitive aspect of cultural intelligence is what we use to distinguish the beliefs, customs and taboos of other cultures. This is also the aspect of cultural intelligence that prevents us from making possible gaffes or being misunderstood when communicating with others. The business world is full of examples of how an individual’s cultural background, and the expectations that background gives way to, reveals how culturally savvy he or she is.

An example I recently heard of was about an Israeli businessman who tried to negotiate the purchase of conference services in Prague, over the phone. Not aware of how Czechs approach negotiations, the Israeli began pressuring the Czech sales representative for better pricing, expecting a straightforward answer.

The Czech saleslady not comfortable about confronting the client with what she knew to be an unrealistic demand, said she would see what she could do and followed up by email the next day stating that the businessman’s price could not be met and asking if some other accommodation could be made.

In the end, the Israeli businessman walked away, believing that the Czech representative was playing games with him. The Czech seller was convinced that the Israeli didn’t value her efforts or acknowledge that she was making the best offer possible. Both lacked the cultural understanding to recognize that their approaches to negotiations were fundamentally different. Instead of analyzing the situation and adapting their communication styles to find a compromise, both parties gave up on what had the potential of being a mutually beneficial agreement.

People are often concerned they have to put a foreign culture ahead of their own in the face of these cultural differences. Appreciating and accepting another culture doesn’t mean renouncing our own and acceptance does not have to mean agreement. Instead, it means being flexible and accommodating enough not to let your own cultural identity get in the way of another’s. We can respect a variety of different cultural characteristics without incorporating them into our own lives.


The physical aspects of cultural intelligence require that our actions and behaviors demonstrate that we are capable of entering into another cultural context. Our ability to read physical signals and habits, and willingness to venture outside our physical comfort zones, allows us to adapt our behaviors to new surroundings and people.

As a business coach, I have learned that to successfully work with clients from different cultures, my ability to identify physical cues, be they overt or subtle can make my interactions go more smoothly. And physical manifestations of cultural intelligence may start right from your introduction to someone from another culture.

An American will appreciate a firm handshake and a smile. Czechs are more reserved and a smile may not come until they know you better. But the neutral expression a Czech delivers at a first introduction is just that – neutral, not unfriendly or distrustful. They are just waiting for more information on which to base a decision. For the culturally mindful, that initial lack of smile represents an opportunity to create a good impression.

The Heart

This is the emotional facet of cultural intelligence. While the ability to accept and adapt is key to personal and professional success in another culture, one must truly have the desire to follow through. Aligning our heart with our thinking and behaviors will allow us to better deal with the differences we are exposed to.

To facilitate communication between cultures, one must have the desire to connect mentally and emotionally and to be prepared to “walk in theirs shoes.” I really began to connect with Czechs the day I recognized their supreme need for comfort. Their innate need for comfort, translated as pohoda, signifies much more than simple physical pleasures. It refers to harmony both within one’s self and one’s environment. To deal successfully with Czechs, I first had to understand that personal comfort as well as comfortable relationships is at the core of their value system, and then harmonize my communication style appropriately.

The integration phase occurs when we are able to hold different frames of reference in our minds at the same time. When we understand and use the frames of reference of the people around us, we can accommodate ourselves to customs and habits different from our own and come to terms psychologically and socially with a diverse range of cultural realities.

Working and living in a different culture is a challenge for anyone. However, by taking the time to understand the values and motivations that drive a group of people, newcomers to a culture will see their efforts to connect and communicate pay off over and over.

We can develop our own cultural intelligence by constantly immersing ourselves in new and culturally diverse situations and environments. By accepting, adapting and integrating to various cultural differences, our identities become a dynamic synthesis of the cultures around us.

In years to come, Europeans will see the importance of effective communication across cultures. To facilitate cooperation and understanding in an enlarged Europe and increasingly integrated world, well- developed cultural intelligence will be key to the success of people at all levels of society, business and government. And we can only hope that all our leaders will make more culturally intelligent decisions about the fate of our global economy and community.