Life & Style | Culture

Knowing your inter-cultural intelligence

Cultural sensitivity has never been more important than it is here and now. Move over emotional intelligence, inter-culutral intelligence is the new buzz word

  • By Sudeshna Ghosh, Features Editor, Aquarius
  • Published: 14:40 January 10, 2011

  • Image Credit: Getty
  • Everything, from how we greet office colleagues in the morning to what we expect from a house-maid, can vary, depending on where we come from – culturally, not geographically.

Culture is not easy to define. According to socio-linguist Helen Spencer-Oatley, author of Culturally Speaking: Culture, Communication and Politeness (Continuum), “Culture is a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behaviour.”

While we may not be aware of it, not only is our own behaviour coloured by our culture – which includes our background, upbringing, racial heritage and current environment – but so is our perception of other people, their behaviour and situations around us.
So, even if we use English as a common language to communicate, two people from different cultures could well be speaking two completely different languages, for all practical purposes, when it comes to the peripheral aspects of communication.

Everything, from how we greet office colleagues in the morning to what we expect from a house-maid, can vary, depending on where we come from – culturally, not geographically. Which is why, inter-cultural intelligence is ever-important in an increasingly globalised world, and particularly in a multi-cultural society such as the one we live in, in the UAE.

According to Marco Blankenburgh, director of KnowledgeWorkx, a consultancy specialising in inter-cultural coaching, “A lack of inter-cultural intelligence can cause a rift in any relationship, from business mergers and placements to friendships, marriages and even parent-child ties. “Every person has a unique perspective – if we can harvest that in a constructive way, the world would be a much better place. And this has an effect at every level, from international politics to everyday work and home life.”

To criticise or to learn?

When it comes to inter-cultural intelligence, the world is divided into two kinds of people: the Cultural Critic and the Cultural Learner. The Cultural Critic is typically impatient, judgmental and usually thinks about things only from their own frame of reference. The Cultural Learner is someone who is usually analytical, empathetic, and curious. Clearly, the person with the higher inter-cultural intelligence quotient would be a Cultural Learner, but the good news is, these skills can be learnt.  So, the next time you get annoyed at your colleague’s over-friendly email embellished with smiley faces and flourishes, just stop to think about why they are communicating in this manner. Maybe it is just their way of being friendly and polite, and not sycophantic. By the same token, if your new colleague in accounts seems cold and unfriendly because he doesn’t stop to chat every time he walks past your office – maybe it is because he feels it an unnecessary intrusion on your time, once he has greeted you at the start of the day.

The main motivators

“Increasing inter-cultural intelligence levels is closely related to self-awareness and emotional intelligence,” says Marco. He applies the triple A approach – Awareness; Acceptance (internalising this awareness); and Adaptation. These can be further broken down into a five-step programme. But before that, it is important to understand what factors define and shape our cultural perspectives and motivators. According to anthropologist Roland Muller’s research, most societies in the world can be grouped into one of the three world-view categories. It is key to remember that most societies have a blend of more than one view – with one of them dominating. It is also worth noting that all cultures evolve over time, so what characteristics applied 50 years ago, may not necessarily be as relevant today. And the most important thing to keep in mind when adapting in an inter-cultural situation is that, while ethics as we know them may vary and we need to be open to that possibility, there are some universal, humanity-based rights and wrongs that should apply to everyone.

These are the three main world views:

>> Guilt versus Innocence world view: Traditionally, this would include most Western societies such as North American and North European. This is a society that is very much about clear right and wrong notions, established on the basis of elaborate laws and regulations. People from these societies see most things in black and white, rely heavily on contractual agreements, and communicate in a direct and straightforward fashion.

>> Honour versus Shame world view: Traditionally, this would include most Arab, Indian and certain Asian societies. This is a very community orientated society, where honour of the person or social/religious group is paramount, and is the main factor in deciding what is acceptable behaviour. Ways of communication and interaction, as well as business dealings in this sort of a society is very relationship-driven. People may often appear to work in an unstructured – but not in any way less effective – manner, with a lot of focus on inter-personal relations and verbal commitments.

>> Power versus Fear world view: Traditionally, this includes pockets of Europe, Africa and North Korea. These sort of societies are led by strong authority figures, and it is quite a hierarchical society, in which people maintain power through instilling fear in others. People from these societies may use  fear as a mechanism for establishing authority, and the system can be abused in dictatorial situations.

Five steps to upping your ICI

Step 1. Become self-aware: If things are not going smoothly when you are dealing with someone from a different culture, look inwards to evaluate if you use a lot of judgmental phrases like, “That’s weird”, or, “That’s wrong!”. Instead, try saying, “Oh, that’s different”.

Step 2. Ask positive why questions: Making the phrase “I wonder why…” an integral part of your vocabulary will go a long way in opening your mind to other cultures and how they operate. Be curious, do some research, ask questions. Most people will appreciate you wanting to learn about their culture, as long as you do it with respect.

Step 3. Peel off labels: Labels are nothing but value judgments, so you need to rid yourself of preconceived, stereotyped notions. So, instead of assuming all Arabs are ‘non-committal’ because they respond to a request with Insha’Allah, or all Spanish are procrastinators, because of their Manana, manana refrain, stop to question why it is their habit – and the answer may surprise you. While their culture may lead them to be fatalistic in their speech, that does not mean they are inefficient, incompetent or will not deliver on promises.

Step 4. Accept differences: It is essential to understand that, in most cases, there are no hard and fast rules dictating right and wrong, so you need to come to terms with the fact that your way of doing something may not work in a certain environment. The longer you try to fit a square peg into a round hole, the more frustrating it will get. And the sooner you open your mind to the possibility that a new way of operating can not only be as effective, but possibly even more so, the better for you.

Step 5. Create a third cultural space: After you have established and accepted various cultural differences, the final step is finding a solution that works for everyone. This involves incorporating new ways of doing things, so it should be a collaborative process. Finding a happy medium is a learning phase, so try different approaches and be prepared to make mistakes along the way. The end results will make the
journey worthwhile.

Marco Blankenburgh is founder and international director of KnowledgeWorkx, a UAE-based consultancy service for inter-cultural organisational and people development. Visit or call 06-5578113.