For those of us who travel and live in different countries on a regular basis, learning about our destinations is essential. What can I expect when I move? What will be different? What will I have to adjust to? What are the people like? How does their culture differ from mine?
These questions can go on and on. Some of us try to answer them by researching in libraries and on the internet; others go through cross-cultural training; and yet others tap into whatever expertise the online expatriate community can offer. All these sources are wonderful and they provide a wealth of information, however, they often form no more than just a base of the information required for us to become really knowledgeable about the culture, and particularly about the people we interact with.
The concept of cultural intelligence goes beyond the laundry list of do’s and don’ts. It provides you with tools that help decipher – wherever you are – what’s important to people you interact with, what makes them who they are, and what you can do to strike friendships, make business alliances, and establish partnerships. Cultural intelligence takes a more individual approach to learning the culture. After all, we are not made out of the same mould even if we were born and grew up in the same country. In fact, all of us represent a multiplicity of cultures – a mix of ethnic, religious, corporate, socio-political, gender and many other layers of cultures.
So, what are the tools that can help?
I. Be an active observer. I know this sounds simple but unfortunately in today’s world the life is so fast that we often rush and pay no attention to our surroundings. Yet if we stop and make it our objective to observe, it’s amazing how much we can actually learn. Just imagine that you have permanently perched yourself in one of those European sidewalk cafes where all you do is “people watch”. What do you notice? How do people interact with each other? Which situations bring up anger and frustration? Which situations bring up positive emotions? If you are new on the job, what is the corporate environment? Which professional habits are worth taking note of? Observing will help you learn more about your surroundings; will help you understand which issues you may want to avoid with certain people and which issues you may want to explore; and, finally, observing will get you in the habit of noticing the “energy” of your companions. This energy is one of the most important indicators of what’s really important to a person. What do you observe when you want to notice the energy? You want to pay attention to the (1) breathing; (2) body language (including mimics); (3) gestures; (4) voice; and (5) eyes (movement, look, blinking, direction).
II. Leave your assumptions and judgments at home. The vast majority of us look at the world through the prism of our own culture, our upbringing, and our background. This interpretation of things based solely on our own experience creates assumptions and these assumptions impede learning because we think “why learn if we already know”. Unfortunately this also rings true with some forms of cross-cultural training that often create assumptions through statements such as “all Russians do …”, “all Americans like …”, “all French are …”, etc. These assumptions (and the process of assuming) effectively build a wall between us and the others. The key to avoiding it is simple – self-manage. Notice that you are assuming. This act of noticing will help in distancing your assumptions from what is real.
Another thing we do often is judge and compare ourselves to others. We judge and compare appearance, intellect, social behavior, and even cultures. However, each comparison is an illusion – an illusion that creates either a superiority or inferiority complex. Both of these contribute to misunderstandings between people; prevent them from truly knowing each other, and from building bridges and friendships. Again the first step here is to notice. Are you being judgmental? Are you thinking that you are better (or worse) than the person in front of you? Once you noticed that you are judging or engaging in a shallow comparison, self-manage. It’s a simple yet powerful technique.
III. Really listen. When we are in conversation with someone, an individual or a group, we often find that our attention wanders. We may think of our lunch plans, we may be writing a to-do list in our heads, or we may be remembering a situation when whatever the speaker is talking about happened to us. By drifting in and out of “really listening” we loose vital information – and not only the information that the words convey but also the information that the speaker’s “energy” is giving us. This kind of listening, the kind when we hear but we don’t really listen, can be called internal listening for all that we are doing here is listening to ourselves. The external listening is the opposite of the internal listening. When you listen externally, your listen “between the lines”. Your entire attention is directed towards three things: (1) what’s being said, (2) how it’s being said, and (3) how it affects the environment. You hear the speaker’s words; notice the speaker’s demeanor; and pay attention to the “energy” of the conversation. External listening helps us pick up the nuances of different behaviors and cultures much more so than the internal. How do you listen externally? You self-manage. First you learn to notice when you drift off into internal listening. Then, as soon as you do, you snap yourself back to the external level.
IV: Be curious. Learning about another culture requires a special brand of curiosity. But the truth is that we forgot how to be curious. We either lack the interest, don’t want to spend the time, or consider those things insignificant. Yet people love and appreciate being asked. It shows them that you are interested and you care about their country, traditions, and culture. What kinds of questions do we ask when we truly want to know? Do you remember that when you were a child all you asked was what, when, how, and why? Close-ended questions were probably very rare in your repertoire because you truly wanted to know something. Yet as adults all we seem to do is ask close-ended questions, which, as the name rightly suggests, end the conversation before it even starts. We can learn much more if we ask curious, powerful questions – the questions that are open-ended and the questions that follow the speaker’s “energy”. Where is your companion most alive? Where do her eyes sparkle? Follow that aliveness with open-ended questions and you are likely to learn quite a bit about her.
V. Look for values. Values are what we honor and cherish in our lives. A value is an individual concept and, even though it’s often affected by the many cultures and traditions we belong to, our own personal values are different from those of our neighbors, friends, or our co-workers. Our values drive our energies and direct our actions. Therefore, learning to read and identify the values of others is an important tool to connecting with what drives them – and with who they are. But how do you read another person’s values? As you listen, observe, and ask questions, watch for that “energy” we talked about. If your new acquaintance is talking about her recent trip into the rain forest and you see the eyes sparkle, chances are that adventure is one of her values. If your friend is complaining about a rude treatment he received in a store, it might be his value of respect that got stepped on. If your co-worker shines when she gets praised for the good job that she does, one of her values might be recognition or acknowledgment. When you start living within another culture, knowing what’s important to your neighbors and helping them honor those things will make you new friends and prevent conflicts.
The Cultural Intelligence process is based on a premise that to succeed in the foreign-to-us culture we need to learn, appreciate, and honor cultural differences. The components we discussed break the process into five easy-to-adopt steps and help make it part of your every day routine.