How Well Do You Understand Culture?




Bonjour. I hope you are well. Welcome back to the different intelligence measures mini-series. I know, I need a catchier name. On today’s menu: Cultural intelligence, also referred to as CQ. What is CQ? The definition I’ve found most often is: “CQ measures your capability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations.” That’s pretty straight forward and very workable. Now you might be thinking that the definition and workability of cultural intelligence very much depends on your definition of culture. And you know what? You’d be dead on. When digging slightly deeper there seem to be multiple definitions popping up segmenting different cultures, such as global and domestic culture and their respective intelligences: “Global CQ can best be described as working and relating effectively across international cultures” whereas domestic CQ is defined as “working and relating effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds in your own country.” Good luck!

So what is CQ then in practice? In the workplace this can take many forms. You might be working with people from different backgrounds, meaning different cultures. The most studied cultural dichotomy is that of East vs. West. We know people who have an Asian background do not work the same way that people with a Western background do. This is evident in the work culture overall, but also in the individual work ethic and perception of what constitutes a good work ethic. But East vs. West is a bit blergh as a distinction. Asia is not a culture or nationality. It is made up of several countries with their own unique past and resulting heritage of that past. The customs vary widely once you cross the borders. You don’t even need to cross the borders to find differences between cultures. Especially large countries such as India and China have such a vast landmass that there are bound to be regional differences which also influence culture. And as a result, influence how people approach work. The West, is even more of a mess, as it’s not even a single continent: it constitutes several continents (US, Europe, Australia) that also consist out of multiple countries that have very different perceptions of work. So this stuff really isn’t that easy. The only advice I can give on this one: do your bloody research. Geert Hofstede created a world renowned model for a reason. Loads of people don’t get this stuff and it’s hard. It’s already quite difficult to figure out which culture, or maybe nationality, responds well to which type of management style. Let alone diving in deeper into social interactions, time management and use of language. I’m not saying you need to overhaul your management style because you just hired a Dutch or Chinese employee. I’m just saying they might have very different perceptions of what the hierarchy at work looks like, should look like and how it works (the Dutch have (one of) the flattest hierarchies in the world, whereas the Chinese have on of the steepest). This will influence how they approach colleagues, those they manage, and their own managers. A Dutch person expects clarity, directness, and is used to working alone. If they have questions they will go to their management directly, also if they have complaints. In China, these things are almost reverse. You can’t go up to your superior and tell them they did shit in a meeting (these are blatant generalizations of both cultures).


As with the previous article on AQ, the adaptability coefficient, this is quite easily linked to the Big Five. I’m not even a massive supporter of the personality measure tool, but you cannot ignore the damn overlap. Within the Big Five this would probably resemble openness the most. Maybe with a hint (a very vague hint) of extraversion. But openness to new experiences does tend to make you less judgmental, and to some extent maybe even more emphatic (there is a relation to EQ here).


Applying CQ in the workplace is being aware of everyone’s background, and how it interacts with their own personality traits (hello EQ!). If you have people in your team who never speak up, that might be a personality trait, but it could also be a cultural thing. Not speaking up in group meetings can be a hierarchy issue (being the newest, youngest member in the team), being an underrepresented phenotype in the team (gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, (dis)ability), can be a sign of individualism (preference for working alone, not needing to contribute to team meetings) etc. etc. This is all different depending on culture. It can be any of the above. Or a mixture! The reverse can obviously also occur: if you have someone in the team who constantly talks and never gives anyone else a chance, that might be a cultural thing as well (or they just love the sound of their own fucking voice…). Whatever the case, if you’re a manager, you need to deal. But be aware that what you’re looking at might be something which has been thoroughly ingrained into someone through their culture, and that’s not something you can just switch off. There’s no flip switch for culture.



CQ can also easily extend beyond the company’s workplace as well. Which is something most companies will be aware of. Once you start working with international clients who are significantly different from you (according to Hofstede and co.) you might want to do some more research. How do you organize these meetings? Who talks first? What is meant by certain things? Can you use direct language or not? Are these team meetings or individual meetings? What is the expected timeline for this project (time perception is a big deal in some cultures). Etc. etc. No one said this would be easy. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a form of intelligence. Do your research. If you’re a manager, do even more research. Start with Hofstede, take it from there. Make sure to check out the origin of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), and what is known about non-WEIRD. You need to at least know hierarchy adherence and communication styles for the people you are working with. As a final tip: don’t be a twat. Just because it’s not your culture doesn’t mean it’s wrong or less than. You just might not get it (yet). Big deal.


Links: An actual useful article by Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_intelligence

Cultural Intelligence Centre: https://culturalq.com/ Harvard Business Review on CQ: https://hbr.org/2004/10/cultural-intelligence Geert Hofstede’s work: https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/