Stress Tests your Cultural Intelligence

davidlivermore | October 2nd, 2012 8 Comments

Most people I meet acknowledge the need for cultural intelligence. There’s growing consensus that life in our globalized world requires respect for one another. But the comment I often hear is, “Isn’t this pretty much common sense?”

Respect people’s opinions, follow others’ cues for how to behave, and never criticize someone’s family or culture, even if they do it themselves.

I agree that common sense and social intelligence will get us through many of the cross-cultural situations we face. Although I can’t resist pointing out that it’s not a given. For example, “following people’s cues” presumes you know what the cue means in the first place–e.g. Does someone giggling mean “I’m amused” or “I’m really embarrassed right now”.

But as soon as we’re stressed, annoyed, or under pressure, “common sense” won’t cut it cross-culturally.

An Annoyed Customer
The other day I was walking through a shop in Singapore and the shopkeeper hovered around me at every turn. I was dead tired and the tight quarters in the shoebox-sized store were already making me claustrophobic. I suddenly felt so annoyed by having a shadow that I abruptly turned and walked out of the store.

I’m quite sure the shopkeeper wasn’t worried about me shoplifting. More than likely, she felt her best way of serving me was to be very attentive to whatever I might need. Now that I step away from the experience, it hardly seems like something to get worked up about. But in a moment of tiredness, I didn’t take the time to temper my internal frustration.

Fortunately, I don’t think much damage was done by my momentary impatience. But what about when these things happen with someone we encounter regularly? We need cultural intelligence most when we’re stressed or when we experience something that seems “rude”. We have to stop, take a deep breath, and consider the true intention of the Other-something that requires growing amounts of CQ.

An Annoyed Country
Singapore as a whole is getting more stressed and annoyed by different cultures. A few years ago, many Singaporeans would hear about the work we do in cultural intelligence and would respond, “CQ isn’t needed much here. Singapore is such a harmonious place where so many ethnicities get along great.”

Over the last few years however, the population has nearly doubled and most of the growth has come from foreigners. A growing number of Singaporeans are feeling like second-class citizens and their increasingly frustrated by the way Western expats are driving up the cost of living. And many locals are annoyed by foreign workers from neighboring countries who some believe are messing up the pristine city-state and crowding up the public transit.

Racial harmony and multiculturalism seemed great until it got annoying dealing with the influx of foreigners.

Annoyed Church Members, Work Teams, and College Students
I’ve seen this same phenomenon occur in religious communities.A church gets excited about the prospect of becoming more multicultural until the worship and teaching have to change and the teenagers from different ethnicities start dating each other.

Work teams are happy to work with their colleagues spread across the globe until they have to keep explaining the same procedure to an overseas team week after week after week. In a nice, sterile training room, it’s easy to say, “Oh I get it. Their culture is ‘high uncertainty avoidant’ so we just need to be patient with their endless questions.” But when the fiftieth email comes through asking for yet another assurance, apart from cultural intelligence, the “common sense” question is, “Why don’t they trust us?”

Or how about on campus? Most of today’s college students have grown up in the age of multiculturalism. They welcome attending a university with cultural diversity. But when a roommate starts cooking something “smelly” or when “all” the students from a certain culture never join in on the dorm room banter, a growing chasm grows between “us” and “them”.

Or just watch how a group of passengers respond to someone “cutting in line” during the boarding process. It’s amazing how quickly this triggers broad sweeping statements about entire cultures.

Common sense isn’t enough to help us sort through the jarring impact of cultural differences when we’re stressed or offended. There are indeed times when someone is simply being rude or selfish. But by consciously applying cultural intelligence, we’ll be better able to discern when it’s inappropriate behavior and when it’s simply a matter of cultural difference.

8 Responses to Stress Tests your Cultural Intelligence

  1. Very practical and cuts to the heart of our selfish, sinful nature. Thanks for the caution.

    • Eldon
      I agree and the challenge is to get everyone on the same page.It is still an individual choice to treat others with respect, a choice that begins in the heart. Regarding the above article – it is similar where I live on the islands – foreigners(Western values) have changed the underlying belief of Aloha where we just lived the concept of sharing and respect.In the past it simply was how one lived here and was very much a part of living in Hawaii. On the other hand, foreigners moving in has also increased prices on real estate, rentals and food and most goods and services, as noted in the above article. In addition, from my observation of where I live, a certain group that has influence, leans toward educating and trying to influence people that culture (and indigeneous) is not important and that we must do away with it because it is causing (new age idiom) separation.I believe in cultural intelligence and that it will help to alleviate this disparity. It is very simple – no matter the paradigm, it ultimately boils down to “respect.” This is something that I have for a long time been trying to teach and it is surprising that people have no idea what that means. But if you grew up in a culture that supports respect as in a tribal culture , then it is not hard to live it. Respect for father, mother high regard and respect for grandmother,the extended family, ancestors, the elderly, children are sacred, love for brothers and cousins and love and respect for the earth and for your lineage – seems to make it easier to live with the value of respect.There is a difference between an individualist culture and a collective one.

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  3. Excellent points Wilda. And as you know, an additional challenge is decoding what “respect” looks like for various cultures and individuals.

  4. Funny but you could replace Singapore with Geneva in the whole description and it would be almost exactly the same (except for doubling the population). With a percentage of over 43% foreigners, Geneva also has a very unique situation in terms of multiculturalism. I am pretty sure a lot of empiric comparisons could be made between the two cities.
    Regarding respect, I also fully agree. I have never met anyone not considering respect as one his/her main values. Anyway, what you will integrate within this notion differs massively and understanding it is one of the pillar of cultural intelligence in my opinion.

  5. Thanks for this one. Seeing your response under stress is a great way to judge how adapted you’ve become.

  6. Bravo. Indeed, how we react under stress defines us, no matter where we are in the world. But when you throw in cultural differences, well, then it matters even more. Mindful living helps, as do reminders like this. Will definitely share this – thank you!

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