The Power of Cultural Intelligence
Depending on the person, where they live and where they come from, I know whether to greet by shaking hands, giving a hug or with one, two or three kisses on the cheek (in some places even four!). If I am invited to someone’s home, I will know whether to arrive on time or 15 minutes after the arranged time.
I am in no way unique; there are thousands of people like me in the world and particularly in Luxembourg where individuals who grew up there had foreign parents, were exposed to bilingual French/German education, worked in a community that consists of 50 percent non-natives and, given the small size of the country, generally spent their holidays abroad. I did not really learn any of these languages and habits; I just absorbed them over time.
According to HBR1, this is known as cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would … People who are somewhat detached from their own culture can more easily adopt the mores and even the body language of an unfamiliar host.
I tend to feel comfortable with cultural fluidity. My normal has always been a nebulous and shifting thing so I’ve grown at ease being in situations that others may find challenging. That ability to observe and absorb languages and cultural norms developed with me as I grew up in a country where so many cultures come together, and it has become a true asset in my professional career, particularly at State Street, where my team and clients are scattered around the globe.
So can you actively learn cultural intelligence?
In the end, you don’t have to speak multiple languages to communicate with colleagues or clients.
To me, cultural intelligence is being mindful of subtleties and accepting that there are multiple ways of doing and saying things around the world.
A focus on cultural intelligence makes us more aware of the differences in how people behave. When I moved to our Paris office in 2005, I quickly spotted that despite having worked with French colleagues in Luxembourg, working with the French in France was a different experience. Even a shared language isn’t the same as a shared culture! Cultural intelligence means that, when finding ourselves in a new environment, we actively look for non-verbal cues and patterns to help us adjust our behavior and body language. This requires tolerance, empathy, mindfulness and a conscious effort.
For instance, seemingly common idioms in one language—especially sports analogies—are often lost in translation. Many words have very different meanings and can put a conversation on the wrong path. For example, in some cultures “eventually” means “possibly,” not “finally,” and “a demand” is simply “an ask.” Emails with lots of exclamation marks may be misunderstood as aggressive in countries where punctuation is used less extensively and expressively.
Developing cultural intelligence is especially helpful for those trying to adjust to a totally new culture, as it provides them with a way to pick up on the nuances of their new home. As BBC.com reported2, “…expat bankers moving to the Middle East and Asia appeared to have fully adjusted to their new life in just three months, while without the [cultural intelligence] training, it normally took expat employees nine months to become fully functional.” Understanding how to be aware enables employees to pick up on subtle social and environmental cues that would otherwise be hard to name, but would dramatically impact ones day-to-day experiences.
In the end, you don’t have to speak multiple languages to communicate with colleagues or clients—but you do need to be aware that what you say, how you say it and what you mean might not be the same thing to the person around the table or on the other end of the line. Forbes called this3 “cultural mindfulness.” As the article puts it, “Being culturally mindful means one is aware of the cultural context, consciously analyzes the interactive situation, and plans courses of actions for different cultural contexts.”
The purpose of all of this is to create a better basis of understanding, which in turn improves collaboration. And that’s the global language we all need to be fluent in.
1. Earley, P. C., & Mosakowski, E. (2004). Cultural Intelligence. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2004/10/cultural-intelligence
2. Robson, D. (2017, October 13). Capital - The 'hidden talent' that determines success. Retrieved April 05, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20171013-the-hidden-talent-that-determines-success
3. (2015, March 24). Why You Need Cultural Intelligence (And How To Develop It). Retrieved April 05, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/iese/2015/03/24/why-you-need-cultural-intelligence-and-how-to-develop-it/#133f4f8717d6
Olga Jordão is a Managing Director and Global Program Manager at State Street. She is responsible for delivering complex multi-year and cross-functional onboarding projects, as well as establishing a global operational service delivery structure for new clients, spanning all of State Street’s business lines and geographic locations.