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What Is Cultural Intelligence?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Improved technology has enabled many corporations to operate internationally. As these companies have entered foreign markets, the need for cultural sensitivity among workers has increased. This need has driven many businesses to include cultural intelligence as a qualification for promotion and employment. In response to this growing need, professionals in organizational psychology have developed ways to measure and improve an employee’s cultural intelligence quotient (CQ).

CQ is generally evaluated using written assessments similar to intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. These tests measure an individual’s desire to be culturally sensitive as well as his or her knowledge of situations in which extra care may be required. CQ testing also measures the effectiveness of an employee’s plans for dealing with sensitive situations as well as that person’s ability to put those tactics to practical use.

Unlike IQ, which is largely unalterable, cultural intelligence may be improved with training. The most successful candidates for training score highly on the portions of CQ testing that measure drive. These individuals are generally accepting of belief systems other than their own. Those with ethnocentric and provincial ideologies may be able to learn about other cultures, but generally, they lack the respect needed to apply that information.

Improving cultural knowledge is generally considered to be the easiest way to increase CQ. For those with only occasional contact with members of a certain group, one night of reading may be enough to learn the basics of polite behavior and the major taboos of that culture. Those employees who will be making frequent trips, or those relocated to different regions, may need to do more in-depth research. Online reading, conversations with people from the vicinity, and visiting museum exhibits featuring art from those areas are good ways to improve cultural intelligence.

After learning about cultural differences, those with high CQ often develop plans to apply that knowledge to social interactions. Often, these individuals examine their typical behaviors and compare them to the norms of another culture. For example, a person who usually greets business associates with a handshake and a clap on the back would attempt to predict the effects of that behavior with members of a society that is more protective of personal space. A culturally intelligent person would then plan to modify his or her behavior accordingly.

The final measure of cultural intelligence is the ability of a person to implement his or her tactics successfully. To extend the previous example, the employee realizes that an enthusiastic handshake may be uncomfortable to the visitors and makes plans to be more reserved during introductions. At the meeting, he or she stands farther away than usual and waits for each visitor to extend a hand. The resulting handshake is much briefer than normal but comfortable to all parties involved.

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Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Nov 22, 2014

Cultural intelligence isn't only important for business. Military personnel need to have it too. There were so many instances of military personnel making conditions worse in Iraq and Afghanistan because they did not have cultural sensitivity.

I remember one example when locals in a town in Iraq were very upset because American soldiers were blasting American music during the call to prayers. This is seen as a huge disrespect to Islam and Muslims and it certainly didn't improve how the locals viewed American soldiers. Similar issues occurred with Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. PRT members were apparently given one single day of cultural training before they were sent to Afghanistan. Obviously this is not enough.

We have to realize that in order to be respected by others, we have to respect them and try to understand them.

By stoneMason — On Nov 21, 2014

@ddljohn-- I agree with you. My dad visits Japan often because his company does business with Japanese companies. There is no way that one can learn all of the knowledge required to understand Japanese culture overnight. Even a small mistake while dining can have negative consequences. There are actions in America that mean nothing of importance to us but are very insulting in Japanese culture.

My dad worked very hard to improve his cultural intelligence. He took seminars and courses on Japanese culture. He even took a course on how to make sushi so that he would know how to properly dine when he visits Japan.

By ddljohn — On Nov 21, 2014

I think that cultural intelligence is directly related to a person's knowledge of another culture. Some cultures are relatively similar in terms of worldview and traditions. It is easier for individuals in these cultures to interact ad work together. For example, it is easier for businessmen from Canada and US to work together, then businessman from Cambodia and US. In the latter case, it is necessary for the individuals to do some research about the other country and what their values and traditions are.

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