Few days ago one radio channel invited me to give an interview and to talk about the cultural intelligence (CQ). As this topic and the whole agenda of cross-cultural work is very new to the audience in my country, I gladly accepted the invitation.
After decades of isolation from the West the Central and Eastern European countries opened their markets to the world, not so long time ago. Since then a huge number of people are experiencing an interaction with various cultures on regular basis. Some of them are very successful when working across cultures, some see differences in the way other cultures behave but don’t know how to approach this and some just think that “the others” are weird. But what they all have in common is that they use their intuition when working with people from different cultures. They are not aware of any specific tool that would help them dealing with cultural challenges in a conscious and systematic way.
This is the reason I spend lot of time talking to individuals and organizations and explaining what it takes to become culturally intelligent. So did I during that radio interview as well. With the host we discussed how critical someone’s motivation and interest in intercultural situations is for the overall success of the interaction with other cultures. We talked about how cultural values shape the behavior of people and how it translates into their actions. And we agreed that it is important to prepare ahead of an encounter with other culture building strategies and plans, and practicing various behaviors which might be widely used in another culture.
And then I was asked this question “I clearly see the benefits of high cultural intelligence in the business context, but should an ordinary person pay attention as well? And can you tell who is culturally intelligent just looking at the person?” I started answering the second part of the question explaining that nobody can evaluate someone’s IQ, EQ or CQ just looking at that person and an academically validated measurement has to be conducted (although there are some indicators which tell us that someone might have a higher cultural intelligence). Only after the interview I remembered the first part of the question “should an ordinary person pay attention to cultural intelligence?” It reminded me of a situation I experienced few months ago during my business trip to Belgium.
When I arrived to the Brussels airport, I walked out of the arrivals hall and took a taxi to the city center. The taxi driver asked me where I was from and then he told me many things about my home country, Slovakia. As he was not fluent in French I asked about his origin and he answered “I’m from Africa, Sir.” When I asked what country exactly, he said “There’s no way you can know my country, Sir. I’m from Burundi”. So I said “well, each time I drink a Burundian coffee I hope the situation in your capital, Bujumbura, gets calm after the upcoming presidential elections and that those thousands of people who fled the country, will feel safe again and return home”. When I was leaving the taxi, the driver said “Sir, thank you for allowing me to be a Burundian for a moment and not just an African. I’m glad my country is not completely invisible”.
As I was reflecting about the whole conversation, I realized that sometimes being culturally intelligent translates into very simple acts. Cultural intelligence is not only about being able to work effectively across cultures. It transforms the way we see the world, read the news, educate the kids and build relationships. It helps us to make the world a better place.