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Beyond “When in Rome”: Developing True Cultural Intelligence

On the surface, it would seem that the proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” would serve as a good motto for practicing cultural intelligence. However, cultural intelligence is more nuanced and complicated. And, following that motto, can be problematic.

Think about the countries around the world where exchanging “gifts” for business (often called bribes in the United States) is the status quo. In those instances, adhering to the “When In Rome” philosophy could get you thrown into jail.

Or, think about being responsible for team members who are used to the Command and Control style of management—a style you abhor. Despite your best efforts, team members seem to struggle with your more inclusive style. Given the deadlines and deliverables, could or should you adapt to a “harsher” style because it’s the team’s cultural norm?

The more you study cultural intelligence, the more you begin to appreciate that navigating cultural differences is hard work and demands more agility than simply mimicking another culture’s customs and behaviors.

The problem with the “When in Rome” approach is that it can come across as inauthentic. Think of the manager whose team is used to command and control leadership. If command and control is not your authentic style, “acting” harsher will in all likelihood come across as what it is…an act. Everyone suffers. The manager feels duplicitous; the team members don’t see the leader as trustworthy.

While most people are tolerant and will forgive our cultural missteps, they are less likely to be forgiving if they think we are mimicking them or being inauthentic.

Missteps are part of working in a global marketplace. Increasing your cultural intelligence (CQ) can mitigate those missteps. CQ is comprised of four key factors.

The first is motivation. In order to increase your CQ, you have to have some desire to improve your understanding of cultural differences. Most important, you have to enjoy being in cross-cultural situations.

Motivation is not enough. You have to have knowledge of different cultures. That means understanding the similarities and differences between the new culture and your own in three key areas: business, interpersonal, and socio-linguistics.

You need a strategy to demonstrate your CQ. To successfully implement a strategy you first have to be critically aware of the level of your own cultural knowledge. Then you need to have a plan on how you are going to engage in a culturally diverse situation. Finally, you have to continuously check and adjust your assumptions of the other culture.

Finally, you have to demonstrate your CQ by your verbal and nonverbal communication.

A colleague shared a story about her first visit to China. She was very excited to do this training and spent a great deal of time doing research about the culture. She had a plan on how she would demonstrate her respect.

Then, they took her to dinner. Chopsticks were provided. At the time, she was not proficient in using chopsticks, and she fumbled. Not only was she embarrassed, but that embarrassment grew when her host insisted that everyone eat the meal with Western cutlery so as not to make her feel uncomfortable.

As my friend explained, “I was mortified and knew I had failed. My intent was there, but my actions weren’t what they needed to be.”

The power of studying cultural intelligence is that it enables you to develop strategies on how to successfully work with other cultures without sacrificing your own values and beliefs. Most importantly, it helps you develop strategies on how to reverse your course when you inevitably do something that clearly demonstrates you are from a different culture.