CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE

April 7, 2016


I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively across the world as an employee of General Electric and as a consulting engineer.  While at GE, I worked in the International Group, specifically the Latin American Pole.  My specialty was the combustion of gaseous flues and those agency codes that govern the safe use of gas burners, gas transfer manifolds, and the controlling hardware necessary for successful and long-lasting use.  My wife and I also love to travel, and we have made numerous trips to various countries over the years.   With this being the case, I can tell you what you already know—culture can be significantly different from country to country and region to region.  The importance of those differences can be critical in an office and/or team environment.  More than ever today, we see cooperation between team members in different countries, and it is not strange to have team members in cross-functional groups within a company in the United States.

When you are working in an international environment, you need to make a concerted effort to understand the cultural backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes of the people around you.  If you do not, you will struggle to get things done.  We all need to develop “cultural intelligence”.  Cultural intelligence may be defined as follows:  “Cultural Intelligencecultural quotient or CQ, is a term used in business, education, government and academic research. Cultural intelligence can be understood as the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures. Originally, the term cultural intelligence and the abbreviation “CQ” was developed by the research done by Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne as a researched-based way of measuring and predicting intercultural performance”. There are many reasons to develop cultural intelligence but two of the most important are:

  • To aid working effectively with people who are different from you.  Whether you are working abroad or leading a culturally diverse team, it can mean the difference between success and failure, and the difference between solving problems and creating them.
  • Cultural intelligence is a predictor of strong job performance in a new culture.  Research shows that professionals with a high degree of cultural intelligence are more successful in international assignments.  They certainly can work more effectively with different groups, and they adjust more easily to living and working in the new culture.

I would like to demonstrate now just how diverse various cultures are and can be.  I will then close with suggestions on how to improve and develop cultural intelligence.

  • In China and Japan, gesture “come here,” with all of your fingers pointing down. Beckoning someone with a bent finger is considered impolite.
  • In Vietnam, point with your whole hand, not just one finger.
  • In South Korea, stay quiet on public transportation.  Noisiness is considered very rude. (Can you just imagine the culture shock when a South Korean visits the subways of New York?)
  • In India, you are expected to refuse your host’s first offer of a drink or snack. You will be asked again!
  • In Germany, use utensils, not your fingers, to eat—even with foods like pizza and fries. The one exception is bread. It can be eaten with your fingers.
  • In Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world, eat your food with your right hand, not your left. The left hand is reserved for bathroom hygiene so using it for eating is considered unclean.
  • In Indonesia, while eating, keep both hands on the table at all times.
  • As a dinner guest in Kenya or Germany, finish everything on your plate or the host will be offended and think you didn’t like the food. NOTE: My wife and I also ran into this while in Italy.  The gentleman who waited on us was greatly offended that we did not “clean our plate”.
  • In China, if you clean your plate, the host will be offended because it is a sign that you didn’t get enough food. Likewise, in Afghanistan and India, leave a little food on your plate when you are full because an empty plate will be filled again!
  • In Pakistan, arrive about fifteen (15) minutes after the scheduled start time of a meal, and up to one hour after the start time of a party.
  • If you are invited to a Danish home, be punctual!
  • In Kazakhstan, you will be served tea, but only half of a cup. A full cup is a sign that the host wants you to leave! Later in the meal, when you have had enough tea (or broth), turn your cup over to show that you are finished.
  • A superstition in Azerbaijan is that spilled salt means you are about to quarrel. Sprinkle sugar on the salt to counter this.
  • In Kuwait, when the host stands, the meal is over.
  • In India, do not wink or whistle in public.
  • In Vietnam, do not touch someone’s head or shoulder. Also do not pass things over someone’s head.
  • In Brazil, avoid purple lipstick as it is associated with funerals. Purple is fine for clothing and accessories, though.
  • In numerous countries like Libya, Slovakia, and Norway, greets a colleague with a handshake. But in Russia, do not shake hands or conduct business over a threshold—step all the way in or out of the doorway.
  • In China, it is bad luck to let your date borrow your umbrella to go home. This is because the word for umbrella in Chinese sounds like the word for “to break apart.” Instead, take the time to walk your date, with your umbrella, to the door—a gesture that goes a long way in many cultures!
  • In Thailand and in Arab countries never point your shoe/foot to another person. The shoe/foot is the unclean part of your body.
  • In Thailand, don’t touch the head of someone older than you, or, in general, don’t touch the head at all.
  • If you are in an African country and have an occasion to talk with a tribal chief, make sure your head is lower than his. It is considered disrespectful to be elevated above him.
  • If you are a male, don’t try to shake hands with an orthodox Muslim (covered) woman.
  • Don’t forget to say “takk for maten” (“Thank you for the meal.”) in Scandinavia. It is a MUST!
  • Never eat while standing in Indonesia
  • Never chew gum in public in Austria, Italy, Germany, or Malaysia.  This is considered disrespectful and calls you out as a “tourist”.
  • Don’t cut your grass on Sunday in Switzerland
  • Don’t bring wine as a gift in France. They consider themselves expert in this area and it would be somewhat rude if you indicated you knew more than they. Just don’t do it.
  • In Germany and the United Kingdom, it is frowned upon to spit in public.
  • Don’t give an even number of roses as a gift for a romantic occasion in Russia.
  • Don’t stretch or yawn in public in Spain. It is considered extremely vulgar.
  • Don’t touch a Mongolian’s head, hat or horse.
  • Cambodians believe you should not take a photo of 3 people.
  • It is considered bad luck for a building to have a 13th floor in the United States or a 4th floor in China.
  • In Nepal, never share food from the same plate; once it’s been touched by one person its considered disgusting to be eaten by someone else, which is the total opposite of Korean dining.

Asian cultures tend to be full of taboos, though many are fading away.  The more interaction western culture has with eastern culture, the more eastern culture relinquishes the “old ways”.  If you are in an eastern culture, it is best to know the following:

NEW YEAR

  • Normally you clean the house before New Year’s Day in the Chinese calendar.  Cleaning after this day is inauspicious as it may sweep away fortunes.  In other words, don’t go calling on your Chinese neighbor the day before New Year’s Day.
  • Certain colors are considered inauspicious. White tends to be associated with mourning and death while red is considered a very auspicious color normally prominent in festivals, weddings and other happy occasions. It’d be sort of taboo to be wearing a white dress to a New Year celebration.
  • In Brazil, the ladies ALL wear white dresses on New Year’s Day.  It is the custom.  (You now see how confusing this can be.)
  • In very traditional areas, which you are more likely to find in the backwaters of Malaysia where traditions from centuries ago live on, you never throw out trash until the 5th day of the year, traditionally called Powu. Throwing out trash discards good fortune. It’s a good exercise in reusing and reducing waste during the New Year which sadly is seldom followed anymore and has begun losing to disposable items at New Year parties.
  • Traditional people also do not talk of death during New Year or say the word 死 si, which means to die, at all, not even in reference to it, during the New Year time period. Though this is well-followed on television and major celebrations, many people outside of S.E.A. don’t pay extreme attention to this rule; with our generation this is a fading taboo.
  • Traditional people also do not go out on the 4th day to meet friends. (I don’t really know how this could work in a commercial environment but nevertheless it must be true.)

EATING

  • Chopsticks are not to be stuck vertically into anything while eating, as this is only done in making an offering for deceased ancestors.  (This is true of Korean and Japanese cultures as well.
  • Chopsticks should also not be crossed and as much as possible not be placed to point at other people on your table, though I think few people realistically bother with the latter today.

GIFTING

  • Do not give pears to anyone. Especially do not give pears to couples and do not split a pear with a friend — eat it all yourself. (The word for pear, 梨, is pronounced identically to the word 離, which means to leave or separate).
  • Do not give clocks to anyone, as clock 鍾 sounds like 終 end.
  • Do not give shoes or slippers especially to older ones.
  • Do not give umbrellas.
  • Do not give green hats (a symbol of prostitution since ancient times).
  • Do not give sharp objects.

OK, now that we have some idea as to how things work for other cultures, let’s take a look at suggestions on how to become more intelligent from an international standpoint.  According to Dr. David Livermore, an expert in cultural intelligence, the process of becoming culturally intelligent consists of four components:

  • DRIVE:  Being motivated to learn about new cultures or settings
  • KNOWLEDGE:  Studying how culture shapes people’s behaviors, values and beliefs.
  • STRATEGY: Being able to factor culture into longer-term planning.
  • ACTION:  Behaving in a culturally sensitively manner, including being able to think on one’s feet in difficult situations.

There are five (5) Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication

  1. Create Proactive Communication: Stay out of the reactive cycle. Focus on positioning yourself, your product, and your company so that it facilitates partnerships and trust. This is an important first step before jumping into the business at hand.
  2. Rapport Secrets: Adapt your marketing material, sales style, and business approach to the cultural preferences of the customer.
  3. Organize Productive Interactions: Work towards collaboration and a ‘win-win’ outcome for all parties. This helps to avoid conflict and cultural sensitivities. It establishes trust, and influences decision-makers.
  4. Strategies for Relationships: Create strategies based on cultural expectations, and incorporate the appropriate level of formality. Understand the business hierarchy, the decision making protocol, and the timing necessary for sales cycles.
  5. Success Leaves Clues: Learn the Dos and Taboos of the country and cultures you sell to and partner with. Notice what works and what doesn’t. Change your approach based on the results, and enjoy the process!

I have discovered there are many opportunities to engage those of other cultures in their country or in ours.  I think it’s fascinating to discover the differences.  Hope you enjoy this one.

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3 Responses to “CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE”

  1. Suaylia Says:

    Thank you for giving this awesome tremendous cultural list!

    Wow! So many things contradict with each other across cultures.

    Btw what is the significance behind, “Don’t cut your grass on Sunday in Switzerland.”?

    That doesn’t make sense to me.

    Like

    • cielotech Says:

      Hello Suaylia, Thank you so much for your very kind comments. I was blown away when I started looking at the various customs. It took a while to research this post but it was definitely worth it. According to Swiss law–It is considered an offense to mow your lawn on a Sunday because it causes too much noise. That’s a law in Switzerland. I suppose it does make some sense. Again, many thanks. Bob

      Liked by 1 person


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