What, exactly, is cultural intelligence? Although difficult to define, cultural intelligence goes beyond learning the cross-cultural basics. It requires embracing respect for cultural differences and understanding both verbal and non-verbal communication styles and cultural idiosyncrasies. Beyond a knowledge base, cultural intelligence encourages self-examination. A look in the mirror and work to understand how others perceive us is critical for those who aspire to be “Citizens of the World.”
Americans, in particular, can benefit tremendously from a heightened sense of self-awareness. As citizens of a superpower nation, many Americans are unaware of other cultures simply because they don’t feel they need to concern themselves with other parts of the world. One of my favorite adages, “The Minority knows more about the Majority than the Majority knows about itself” comes into play when examining American global apathy. The adage rings clear; people in other parts of the world often know more about Americans than many Americans know about themselves.
In addition, it’s not uncommon for many Americans to look at the world through an ethnocentric and superior cultural lens that suggests “our way is the best way.” Certainly Americans haven’t cornered the market on ethnocentrism. Many cultural members feel their approach is the best way; but for some reason, Americans have mastered the exceptionalism attitude on many levels. However, over the last several years, there is growing evidence that America is slipping in global prominence in many arenas, including social measures like education and business rankings like GNP (Gross National Product). The data is very clear. America and Americans can learn much from our friends and neighbors around the world.
So, when it comes to cultivating a global mindset, it’s important that we, as Americans, look in the mirror, observe our communication styles and become aware of what our words and actions might communicate to other cultures. Another approach is to take an objective position and after learning about other cultural values, norms and traditions, ask ourselves: “What would I think if I were to observe myself through another cultural lens?” This type of self-examination serves Americans well as we strive to connect with international peers in global business settings.
In The Evolving Globe Series, I focus on how Americans can assure we are perceived as respectful, sophisticated and refined when interacting with other cultures in a diverse business setting. There are five main points to consider and I’m going to share two of those points here today. These points (3 & 4 from Sales Evolution, Cultural Vision for Strategic Leaders) touch on the critical level of self-awareness needed to succeed in the increasingly interactive global marketplace.
“3. Become Comfortable With Silence
Since we tend to move at such a fast pace, Americans often misinterpret lulls in conversation as uncomfortable situations and we often respond by filling in the conversation with unnecessary babble. Meanwhile, indirect communicating cultures often perceive non-verbal communicative gaps as an opportunity to digest the earlier discussed material and ponder their response. Give them their space and squelch your natural desire to react. Take the time during lulls to focus on the other party and in particular, hone your skills to become more aware of body language. While these are very foreign concepts to Americans, the other parties’ gestures and non-verbal reactions are often very insightful.
“4. Become More Formal
Our culture is an informal one and we often approach other cultures based on the norms of our own—an all too common and big mistake. For example, one American executive decided to make an impact in Japan on his first visit abroad by greeting Japanese executives by their first name followed by a friendly slap on the back. The executive’s friendliness collided with the more formal Japanese culture. Not unlike most Japanese, in Germany, individuals address others by their surnames until receiving permission to do otherwise and touching another in a social situation is considered inappropriate and invasive. Remember George W. Bush’s social gaffe with Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel? Upon greeting her at a large conference, he called her Angie and started to rub her shoulders. She quickly cowered away in disgust. Err on the side of caution and enter each cross-cultural relationship in a formal, docile and respectful manner.” From Sales Evolution, Cultural Vision for Strategic Leaders
Those attributes we see as strengths have been ingrained in us by our cultural mindset. It’s great to have such ease with conversation but, at the same time, other cultures see it as a weakness to always feel compelled to fill the silence. Why not examine how it could actually be, at times, a sign of our cross-cultural insecurity?
Of course, the same is true for our informal approach. We enjoy the ease of a friendly attitude, often treating our international peers and business partners as pals. But the drawback for some cultures is that our approach feels disrespectful to them. Our informal repertoire often appears too casual and feels unrefined to those who hail from more formal cultures. Instead of wondering “What’s wrong with those people?” as many Americans do when in a formal cross-cultural interaction, I encourage Americans to ask “How can I see the validity in a formal culture’s values?” And then take it a step further: “How would I benefit from adopting some of these values myself?”
Cultural intelligence encompasses many layers and influences, each requiring time, attention and awareness in order to fully embrace the cross-cultural nuances in the business world. Just these two simple adjustments can make a huge difference in your interactive style on the global stage. In fact, these minor adjustments could be the beginning of your journey not only into a global mindset, but a distinctive World Citizenship passport.