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How does it feel to be part of a culturally intelligent team?

davidlivermore | August 12th, 2021 No Comments

Over the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about our research that found diverse teams typically perform worse than homogeneous teams do. Why? Because it’s harder to get things done on a diverse team. What makes sense to you, might not make sense to me, whether it’s the purpose of a team meeting, a logical way to tackle a project, or decision-making. 

Thankfully, this same body of research found there’s more to the story. Diverse teams with moderate to high levels of cultural intelligence (CQ®) outperform homogenous teams on a number of outcomes—productivity, cost-savings, innovation, and the list keeps going. Cultural intelligence is what makes the difference. It provides team members the motivation, understanding, and strategies for not only tolerating but actually using their differences to get the work done.

But how does it feel when you’re part of a culturally intelligent team? Here are a few recurring characteristics:


Information is power, and whether you’re privy to information from the top or given a chance to share your input on key decisions, being in the information loop plays a critical role in whether you feel included.

Culturally intelligent teams solicit each other’s input, freely share insights with each other, and receive a steady flow of communication from senior leadership. You may not always agree with the information provided and there may be times when leadership isn’t at liberty to share information that may jeopardize the organization or other individuals. But whenever possible, culturally intelligent teams have a healthy exchange of information. When information needs to be withheld, there’s enough trust established to understand that not everything can be shared with everyone all the time. 

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to share information the same way. Some individuals will prefer thinking out loud in the midst of a team meeting, others will prefer to reflect independently and offer their input in writing, while others may prefer to come up with a collective response with a sub-group of the team.

Here are a few ways to improve information sharing on a diverse team:

  • Ensure each team member has an opportunity to share their ideas (this may mean asking some not to speak first).
  • Offer varied ways for team members to share information (e.g. in a group, one-on-one, written, spoken, etc.).
  • Offer the option for team members to provide input from multiple team members (e.g. one written submission reflecting the group’s consensus).
  • Schedule a private conversation with individuals who are averse to direct conflict to solicit their point of view, rather than asking them in front of the entire team.
  • Clarify whether input from everyone is expected and if so, by when and how.

Homogenous teams don’t need to spend a lot of time defining how to make decisions. There are some taken for granted protocols that everyone understands. Diverse teams, however, may have vastly different assumptions about how a decision should get made and who ultimately makes it.

Culturally intelligent teams have explicitly created a process for decision-making, whether that’s attempting to reach consensus, voting, entrusting the team leader to use everyone’s input to make the final decision, or some combination. There’s no one culturally intelligent way to approach decision-making and some team members may prefer to avoid the weight of making the decision. But when you’re on a culturally intelligent team, you know your perspective was considered and used in making the final decision. 

Here are a few ways to improve decision-making on a diverse team:

  • Classify decisions as big bet, mid-range, or every day and develop processes for each kind of decision. Big bet decisions might be things like acquiring a new company or eliminating a line of business. Mid-range decisions might be something like switching to a new database solution or adding a new product line. And everyday decisions are the judgment calls staff make as an everyday part of their jobs.
  • Develop an explicit process to analyze a situation and generate possible solutions. Clarify who will ultimately make the decision and how implementation will be handled. 
  • Ensure every individual in the organization has clarity about the following: What am I authorized to decide on my own? When should I solicit input before making a decision and from whom? What am I not authorized to decide on my own?
  • Add an empty chair to meetings to represent a diverse customer’s perspective. To what degree do we understand their perspective and how do we justify this decision in light of it?
  • Determine how the decision will be communicated and to whom? This relates back to the information sharing routines.

Finally, who goes out together after work? Who gets invited to a team member’s wedding? Different levels of personal relationship exist on any team, but diverse teams have a harder time knowing how to handle informal socializing together. Cultural differences are hard enough at work, but they become amplified in social settings.What kind of food (or drink!) is appropriate, what do we talk about besides work, and what questions are appropriate to ask? 

On a culturally intelligent team, you feel free to opt out of socializing when you don’t want to participate but you know you’re invited. The relationships we develop together away from the office help lubricate the work we do together all day long. Having said that, I’m still reflecting on the editorial Marsha Ramroop published with us last month where she challenged the notion that everyone wants to “belong” at work. So this is tricky. Some teammates may have no desire to socialize together outside work, while others can’t get enough of it. And as more teams work from different locations across the country or world, being invited to informal social events is going to require creativity, including virtual meet-ups that are truly social. 

Culturally intelligent teams create opportunities for everyone on the team to socialize together outside work while having enough trust to allow for different kinds of relationships and preferences across the team. 

Here are a few ways to improve informal socializing on a diverse team:

  • Build small amounts of interpersonal exchange in team meetings (“What’s one fun thing you did this weekend?” “What’s your idea of a perfect day off?”)
  • Exchange ideas about the kind of informal social events each individual enjoys.
  • Create social work functions that are mindful of the backgrounds on your team (e.g. dietary preferences, holidays that are irrelevant to some team members, times that are ill-suited to parents, activities that are impossible for some individuals).
  • Create a “no shame” policy for individuals who don’t have the interest or time to participate in non-work events.
  • Check out online resources that provide ideas for how to socialize on remote teams. Just remember to apply CQ to these ideas since these lists tend to be biased toward a US audience.

No two culturally intelligent teams look alike. Some might spend several hours a week working collaboratively on a project with a standing happy hour every Thursday. Others might limit meeting together to 15 minutes a week while exchanging information online and working autonomously toward a shared objective. Whatever the approach, all culturally intelligent teams have developed strategies for persevering through the increased challenges of their diversity (CQ Drive), they understand the ways their differences affect the work they do together (CQ Knowledge), they create explicit routines for using their differences to improve the work they do together (CQ Strategy), and they adapt to the team’s shared practices while bringing their unique perspectives to the team (CQ Action).  

Cultural Intelligence In The Real World: How Organizations Bring CQ To Life

davidlivermore | May 20th, 2021 No Comments

We recently crossed a ten-year milestone at the Cultural Intelligence Center. In some ways, it feels like we’re working in an entirely different universe than the one in which we started. Yet, there are some consistent themes I’ve repeatedly heard from our partners around the world, all of which play a strategic role in how we think about our next ten years together.

Here’s a snapshot of some of those themes:

“You had me at ‘Knowledge isn’t enough.’”

An executive at Herbalife said this to me several years ago. She told me she’s always supported the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness, but she was concerned that a lot of the money spent on teaching people about cultural differences had little impact on whether teams actually collaborate more effectively. When I mentioned that “cultural knowledge” is only one of the four capabilities of cultural intelligence, she was intrigued. She had been looking for an approach to global engagement and diversity that focused on skill development. We worked together to make that a reality.

Cultural intelligence is a learned skill. It’s not innate. Our research shows, again and again, that knowledge about racism, cultural differences, and unconscious bias does not translate into behavior change. Yet even for us, there are many times in the last ten years when we’ve over-emphasized teaching more information at the expense of developing the motivation, meta-cognition, and behavioral flexibility that comprise cultural intelligence. It’s tempting to default to just a few more PowerPoint slides and videos at the expense of hands-on learning. In today’s information age, there’s little need to bring people together for long lectures. Our learning and development team are working hard to enhance our skill-based learning by flipping the classroom and ensuring that live sessions prioritize interaction, practice, and reflection.

“We need a diversity approach that isn’t so US-centric.”

Starbucks has been working on diversity, unconscious bias, and global collaboration for over twenty years. But one of the things they found in cultural intelligence was a coherent model that could be used across the company without forcing everyone to apply it the same way. Many of Starbucks’ global offices had resisted their previous diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs because they were too US-focused. The topics weren’t relevant to being a barista or store manager in Hong Kong or Dubai. With cultural intelligence, everyone had a consistent language and model with the freedom to apply it to the realities in the local context.

Starbucks initially adopted CQ as part of their diversity work, but they soon saw the connections of CQ with talent management, supply chain, and organizational culture. Fiat Chrysler initially adopted cultural intelligence as a way to help their global IT teams develop a shared set of operating guidelines while acknowledging the regional differences between the teams in Italy, China, and the Americas. But they soon saw that all their frontline employees needed some measure of CQ to work together and support their diverse customer base. At Ohio State University, CQ began as a tool to support study abroad programs, but it eventually expanded into their diversity initiatives and as a way to measure student outcomes. The application of CQ continues to grow because the research continues to expand. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been particularly focused on what CQ looks like at the organizational level (e.g., Can you be a culturally intelligent organization?”). We’re on the cusp of rolling out some tools that apply CQ to cultural transformation initiatives and developing culturally intelligent systems and practices. 

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“How can we measure impact?”

One of the most surprising things to me over the past ten years has been the enthusiasm for CQ in places like tech, finance, and big pharma. Everyone told me that “numbers people” have little tolerance for soft skills like cultural competence. But the fact that our research allows us to quantitatively predict one’s effectiveness working in a complex, global environment piques the interest of the hard skills people. Whether it’s engineering students at University of Michigan and Seoul National University, scientists at Roche and Novartis, or financial analysts at Goldman Sachs and Bank of American/Merrill Lynch, we’ve seen some of the greatest enthusiasm for cultural intelligence come from people I was told would never jump on the bandwagon.

From the very beginning, the CQ assessment has been used as a pre/post measurement to assess the effectiveness of things like study abroad programs or diversity initiatives. But throughout the years, we’ve gotten better at working with our partners to develop metrics that are more meaningful and relevant to them. IBM wanted to know how the change in their CQ scores correlated with customer satisfaction ratings. The US Special Forces asked for help in mapping CQ scores to commander’s strategic decision-making abilities. And many leading health care organizations, airlines, and government agencies have asked us to help them analyze CQ scores alongside metrics like employee engagement, retention, and team performance.

“I had to learn this through the school of hard knocks.”

It’s been humbling to facilitate seminars on cultural intelligence with executives who have lived and traveled all over the world. The reality is, people have been working with different cultures long before any of our research began. I was worried seasoned executives would shrug off learning about CQ, but in reality, I’ve consistently encountered leaders who are voraciously curious and intrigued to find out what more they can learn about the topic. While I occasionally have the privilege of giving them insight on something they haven’t considered before, more often, what these individuals find in CQ is a model and language to help them transfer their learning to others they lead.

There’s no substitute for the school of hard knocks. But preparation can mitigate some of the mistakes and provide a way to more effectively learn from them. Cultural intelligence gives leaders and mentors a scientifically-based model for sharing their insights with mentees rather than just downloading endless stories and expecting them to apply them. 

“We need a personalized approach.”

The first context where Coke implemented CQ was in their high potential program. As an assessment-driven, coaching-focused program, CQ fit with their priority to have their up-and-coming executives focus on the areas of cultural intelligence where they had the most opportunity for growth. Like many leadership development programs, they wanted to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and prioritize individualized development. Cultural intelligence allows for personalized development by allowing each person to assess their skills against the benchmark of the worldwide norms. They can then create an action plan that is customized to their skill set and goals.

One time I spoke at a conference immediately after Marcus Buckingham made a compelling case for a strength-based approach to professional development: Leverage your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. In my session, I talked about finding out where your cultural intelligence skills are weakest. In the Q&A that followed, someone asked me to reconcile my presentation with Marcus’ admonition to focus on strengths. Marcus was referring to hard-wired traits like the ones measured in the StrengthsFinder InventoryBut cultural intelligence isn’t hard-wired. It’s a skill anyone can develop. So it makes no sense to ignore your CQ weaknesses. Anyone can get better at CQ.

These are the kinds of themes that are critical to our ongoing research and development at the CQ Center. I’m enormously grateful for more than a decade of supporting a diversity of organizations and executives all over the world in applying this work. But we want to get so much better at this. We have so much more to do. We’re not interested in coming to you with pre-packaged answers to the complex issues of working and leading in our multicultural, globalized world. Instead, we want to work with you to design solutions that address your challenges and opportunities. Let us know how we can help. And together—we can build a more culturally intelligent world



Using Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to Compete with Robots

davidlivermore | March 22nd, 2021 No Comments

Listen to many futurists, and you would think that robotic engineers and therapists will be the only jobs left in ten years. There’s plenty of reason to pay attention to the massive disruption from the automation of work. But if you’ve ever attempted to do a virtual chat session with a customer service robot or talked to a voice-activated receptionist, you know there’s still plenty of work left for humans.

CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta says the human brain can perform in a way that no computer ever will. In his new book Keep Sharp, he writes, “No matter how sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes, there will always be some things the human brain can do that no computer can.” 

But just having a brain isn’t enough. It’s using the power of this small, mighty organ to do what technology can’t do nearly as well—adapt and create. 

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, says students need to be prepared to work alongside smart machines. Rather than taking a dystopian view of a world overrun by robots, Aoun argues that humans should focus on what we alone can do—exercise our cognitive abilities to invest, discover, and create something valuable to society. And in his view, this comes down to developing human literacy—flexible thinking, creativity, and cultural agility. In other words, cultural intelligence.

AI is notoriously bad at adapting to change.  Cheaper processing and the availability of data have certainly improved technology’s flexibility to address myriad problems that arise. But AI lacks the human agility to address unforeseen contexts and circumstances. A culturally intelligent individual, however, can take what’s learned from one context and apply it to another. We have the ability to build relationships, work together, create artistic masterpieces, and come up with cures for devastating diseases. Cultural intelligence allows us to leverage the superpowers of the human brain. There will be plenty of work left for us to do in the world of automation. But it’s going to require unlearning how we work and relearning new ways.

Here are a few examples of how CQ allows us to compete with robots:

Reading People

One of the critical skills needed in a world characterized by robots and increased diversity is the ability to accurately read people. If you can read people, you have a secret power that will not only mean great things for your career but broaden your friendships and networks. Pretty much any job involves reading peoples’ cues and figuring out how to respond. Teachers’ ability to understand a student, graphic designers’ grasp of a client’s wishes and nurses’ conversations with patients are all affected by how accurately they read people.

This is the kind of skill that Qatar Airways has prioritized in training their cabin crew. They recognize that luxury equipment and products don’t set them apart from Emirates or Singapore Airlines. It’s the ability to provide five-star service from a crew who can read their customers and serve them with a personal touch that will truly set them apart. 

Understanding cultural values is one of the best ways to get better at reading people. It’s less important to memorize which groups have which cultural value preferences. Someone’s behavior, particularly in the work environment, maybe more strongly shaped by their organizational culture or role than their ethnic or national identity. Instead, look for cues that indicate their value preferences and respond accordingly. 

Presenting Yourself

People are reading you just as much as you’re reading them. First impressions emerge within the first seven seconds of meeting. In fact, one study found that we only have a millisecond before people size up whether we’re trustworthy.

Articles across the web repeatedly tell us the behaviors we need to make a good first impression, including how to dress, the kind of handshake to use, and what kind of informal conversation is appropriate. But these tips are biased toward certain contexts. The first time I showed up at Google with a tie on, my host said, “You need to take that off unless you want it to be cut off and added to our wall of shame.” But when I walked into Qatar Airways on a Saturday afternoon to set up for an upcoming training, I quickly observed that I was the only one in the building not wearing a suit, including others who were carrying boxes and moving tables with me. Far too much advice about professional etiquette assumes one-size-fits-all. 

Or what about small talk? One of the most significant ways we create the first impression is the communication that occurs informally when we meet someone. International students tell me that the most intimidating part of a job interview is the unscripted portion. What do you say when you’re sitting at the table waiting for the interview to start? What about when your host walks you to the elevator or has lunch with you? They’re right to be concerned. A job candidate’s likability and trustworthiness may be judged far more based on how they behave informally than during the formal interview. It’s not fair. Robots aren’t judged for their likability and trustworthiness, but we are. CQ will help you present the best version of yourself for a diversity of audiences.

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One more example of how CQ helps us compete with robots is problem-solving. I’ve always been relentless with my teams about never presenting a problem without also suggesting a solution. But problem-solving might be over-rated. Algorithms and sophisticated technology have become very good at analyzing problems and creating solutions more efficiently and accurately than humans do. And even if you don’t have a robot at your disposal, the Internet is full of information about how to solve everything from using Excel to having a difficult conversation with your boss. But where CQ is needed is in finding what the problem is in the first place, particularly if it’s a problem that hasn’t happened before and can’t be identified by running an automated diagnostic. 

We don’t have to look far to find corporate examples of failed problem-finding. Best Buy and Walmart’s failures in Western Europe stemmed from an assumption that the market wanted big box stores. Kodak, Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Nokia misread technological trends and needs. 

Unclear solutions begin as unclear problems. The ability to identify problems and come up with innovative solutions is the secret to any good business. And it’s at the core of good medicine, education, engineering, and more. The 21st Century workforce needs culturally intelligent humans who are adept at problem-finding for a diversity of people and contexts. The skills we develop to read people are the same ones we exercise to find problems—slowing down, using perspective-taking, questioning assumptions, and understanding the invisible values that shape behavior.

Always Adapting

Darwin’s 19th Century words are relevant for how we compete with robots: “It’s not the strongest that survives, not the most intelligent. It’s the one that is most adaptable to change.” If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that adaptability is critical. CQ not only makes you more competitive in the job market, but it also gives you the skills to adjust to the constantly shifting world surrounding us. Employers and universities know it. Robots know it. But do your priorities show that you know it?

[Adapted excerpt from David Livermore’s next book, due to release in 2022].



What I’ve Learned From 10 Years Leading The CQ Center

davidlivermore | January 19th, 2021 No Comments

Ten years ago, I left my day job at a university to devote my full attention to leading the Cultural Intelligence Center. We officially incorporated the Center in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2011 that we set ourselves up as a fully viable organization. This was the same year that Osama bin Laden was killed, the Arab Spring emerged, and riots were occurring across the UK, Myanmar, and the US. The time was ripe to take cultural intelligence beyond the ivory tower and into the real world.

I was scared and excited. Would there be enough work to support my family? Were enough people committed to improving how they work with people from different backgrounds to support an organization solely focused on cultural intelligence? Apparently yes! Ten years later, I’ve logged millions of miles, taught thousands of leaders, and been joined by dozens of staff and associates who are taking this work further than I ever dreamed.  

As we cross this ten-year milestone, I wanted to share a few of my personal reflections, not in any particular order. 


People often ask me for advice on how to take an idea like cultural intelligence and monetize it. There are experts who teach that kind of thing, but I never set out to be a business owner, author, or speaker. I’ve been fascinated by people and cultures for as long as I can remember. That’s what drove me to pursue the jobs I had, the research I did, and eventually, the books and speaking that emerged. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspect of leading the CQ Center, but the work we do is what got me started and what keeps me going. 


Soon Ang, Linn Van Dyne, and I are incredibly humbled by the way CQ has been adopted by so many individuals and organizations around the world. But we sometimes encounter individuals who are more dogmatic about the benefits of CQ than we are. The research supporting CQ’s predictive validity is astounding. But it’s not a be-all, end-all to the complex issues of colliding people and cultures. CQ provides a critical link for offering individuals and organizations the foundational skills for working effectively with diverse groups. We do a disservice when we present CQ as the silver bullet. 


I’ve learned a lot about addressing issues of racism, privilege, and intercultural understanding over the last decade. Sometimes I’ve kept the conversation too clinical and safe, and other times, I’ve let it get too heated. Some will disagree with me, but I haven’t seen any lasting benefit from shouting at people about their ethnocentrism or privilege. I’m not afraid to make people uncomfortable—that’s where real growth happens. But I haven’t seen any lasting impact from shaming diatribes. We have to find the zone of productive disequilibrium. 


I’ve learned far more from my critics than from my fans. But there have also been too many times when I allowed one dissenting voice in a seminar to overtake the whole day. One of the first CQ seminars I taught had so much negative energy in the room, and I just couldn’t figure it out. I knew there were some things I could improve, but I felt pretty confident I did what the client wanted. Only later did I learn that a couple of the participants had just learned they were being laid off but weren’t allowed to discuss it. We never know what other dynamics are going on for someone. Reflect on criticism, learn from it, and then keep going.


The first few years, our staff was just me and a couple of other individuals. Our small team did everything—answer inquiries, printing, and shipping, training, billing, etc. In the last four years, our staff’s size and diversity have grown exponentially, with people from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and skillsets joining us across multiple time zones. Just like we teach, our diversity has made us stronger but wow! It’s a whole lot easier to teach CQ to other organizations than it is to apply it to ourselves. We’ve made some mistakes along the way, and we’re committed to continuing to grow in our own pursuit to BE a culturally intelligent organization! 


Call me an idealist, but I expected the intercultural industry to be a place that welcomed and celebrated different models, assessments, and training approaches. After all—isn’t that what we teach? Instead, what I’ve found is a highly competitive and, at times, antagonistic dynamic between many intercultural consultants and organizations. I hear way too many stories about intercultural training organizations pitting themselves against others doing the same work. There’s so much work that needs to be done, so why not cheer on any effort to improve the way we bridge our divides? Julia Middleton from Common Purpose, Ted Dale from Aperian Global, and the late Geert Hofstede were people I was told were competitors, but in reality, I found them to be friends and colleagues I’ve come to know and trust. I could list many others as well. Comparing notes with others in the field has been nothing but fruitful.


So much of what happens in the name of diversity and cultural competence training is an emphasis on self-understanding and dialogue. If we don’t first understand our own cultures, there’s little hope we can work and relate effectively with someone from a different culture. But simply knowing that I’m more individualist than you doesn’t give me the skills I need to work effectively with you. We have to keep getting better at teaching skills and developing solutions that bring a lasting behavior change. 


I’ve lived most of my professional life with one foot in the academic world and the other in the applied world. Those divergent worlds characterize our work at the CQ Center as well. Linn Van Dyne and I are ruthlessly committed to research that is robust and relevant. As a world-leading psychometrician, Linn holds me accountable to ensure we’re remaining true to the research. But she’s equally open to hearing my input on ways to present the research to ensure it’s meaningful and relevant to practitioners.


I talk with many CQ practitioners who are frustrated by how hard it is to get organizations and leaders to invest in cultural intelligence programs. The best tool for “selling” CQ is our own CQ! The perspective-taking and adaptation of language that we exhort people to use when working with a colleague from a different background need to be used when we talk with an HR director or dean about how CQ is relevant to their organizations. We need to beware of demonizing an individual who wants to know the bottom-line impact of CQ. Organizations have real-time and budgetary constraints, and it’s on us to make a case for them in a way that resonates.  


I recently went back and read my journals from the last decade. I think I learned as much from re-reading them as I did from when I wrote them. If you’ve read anything I’ve written or listened to me speak, I can guarantee those thoughts were worked out first with my pen and my running shoes. I journal and run almost every day, wherever I am in the world. These habits allow me to be free from my phone, ruminate on ideas, and take in my surroundings. 

I’m enormously grateful for the work we’ve been able to do over the last decade, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. Everything suggests our world will be even more interconnected over the next ten years than it is today. That’s sure to bring growing collisions of different ideologies, people, and cultures. But it also offers incredible potential. CQ is bigger than any one of us. But together, cultural intelligence provides a way to improve the ways we live together, solve problems together, and recognize one another’s dignity. Here’s to another ten years of striving to build a more culturally intelligent world together.

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The Group Excluded from Diversity Programs

davidlivermore | November 11th, 2020 No Comments

Whatever you think about the outcome of the US election, it’s clear. The US is a divided nation. The Left believes bigotry and racism are tearing the country apart. The Right believes identity politics and political correctness are tearing us apart. I think both are right. And I’m increasingly concerned that many diversity programs may actually be contributing to the problem. Instead of promoting inclusion and belonging for everyone, some groups seem to be excluded, with people from the so-called working class at the top of the list.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what politically correct term to use to describe this cultural group. “Poor” sounds too derogatory, as does “blue-collar” or “rust belt.” And as with any cultural grouping, the working class of the US isn’t a monolith. Socioeconomics is only one dimension of our identities. But the point is, working-class families have had the lowest upward mobility rates in the US for the last several decades. And for whatever reason, to many white working-class individuals, it felt like the only person listening to them was Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, he somehow tapped into a group that felt like they’ve been left behind by the American Dream run by cosmopolitan elites flaunting their liberal ideas. Many working-class people have had enough, and they made that known in the last two presidential elections.

Diversity leaders have done an excellent job of broadening the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation beyond race and gender. Most DEI initiatives include other marginalized groups like those who are differently-abled, religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community. But what might it mean for DEI programs to reach further to include class diversity more consciously?


First, we need to familiarize ourselves with some of the data. Despite the global scope of our work at the Cultural Intelligence Center, I’m focusing for the moment entirely on the US context, some of which may apply elsewhere. Over the last two decades, there has been some improvement in closing the gap on US racial and gender inequity, albeit Covid-19 has demonstrated that those inequities continue to be monumental. But the disparities associated with class have gotten progressively worse over the last twenty years.

Towns all across the US have been gutted from the loss of manufacturing jobs. For many years, manufacturing provided a decent living so that people without college degrees could easily live a stable, middle-class life. But that’s not the case anymore. For average workers in the US, wages haven’t increased beyond inflation for 30 years, while incomes for high-wage positions have soared. 

If you’re born into a family that is struggling financially, it’s harder than ever to break out of it. A person born in the bottom 20 percent of family income only has a 4 percent chance of making it into the top 20 percent. So much for the American Dream! 

Robert Putnam, a sociologist whose work has deeply shaped my thinking, provides powerful insights on life in many of these hallowed manufacturing towns across the country. He describes his hometown in Port Clinton, Ohio, as a “place of stark class divisions where wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school parking lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in.” Rich kids have significantly more access to extracurricular activities, particularly as more schools have “pay to play” sports programs. And consider this: Wealthy kids with the lowest standardized test scores have a better chance of finishing college than poor kids with the highest test scores do.

Of course, being poor and Black is a double strike against the chances of upward mobility. There’s an uneasy correlation between economics and racial disparities. 58 percent of America’s poor are racial or ethnic minorities. And unfortunately, working-class whites are too often pitted against working-class people of color, rather than seeing their many shared needs. 


One of the only research-based strategies for developing cultural intelligence (CQ) and mitigating bias is perspective-taking, the ability to perceive a situation from another group’s point of view. Those of us leading DEI work and cultural intelligence efforts should be leading the way in promoting perspective-taking, but when it comes to understanding the working class, and especially the white working class, I’m not sure we’re rising to the challenge. 

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang describes the negative reaction he received when he talked with truck drivers, retail workers, and servers in diners across the US and told them he was a Democrat. For Yang, Democrats are the party of the working class. But he says, “In their minds, the Democratic party has taken on this role of the coastal, urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.”

The CQ community is diverse politically. I’ve sat in many lively discussions with colleagues and friends debating issues like wealth creation versus wealth distribution, the government’s role in legislating lifestyle, and affirmative action. But let’s be honest. Much of the diversity conversation in the US leans left, and with that comes some blind spots.

What does it mean for DEI leaders to engage in perspective-taking with individuals who voted for Trump? One Trump voter said, “Maybe I’m just so sick of being called a bigot that my anger has pushed me to support this seriously flawed man.” (Chua, 189). To what degree can we talk about the Trump voter in non-evaluative terms? I’m not suggesting we should shy away from calling racism what it is. Nor am I suggesting that polite conversations that treat all viewpoints as equally valid are the answer. But we have to stop and consider why so many working-class individuals feel like diversity programs teach people to tolerate and include everyone except them. 

Let’s take the topic of white privilege, for example. I teach and write about the realities of white privilege in places all over the world, acknowledging that I myself am a picture of privilege. But what’s the culturally intelligent way to teach about privilege to a white person who is barely hanging on financially? I’m not sure. But something doesn’t sit right with me when I hear a DEI leader tell a person who just filed bankruptcy that they need to “Check their privilege.” Do white, poor people have privileges than black, poor people lack? For sure, because of all the systemic reasons that go with racial discrimination. It’s also true that someone with Stage 2 cancer is better off than someone with Stage 4 cancer. But it’s not very compassionate to tell them that. Many working-class individuals believe progressives and diversity advocates have compassion for everyone but them. Might they be right?


Kimberlé Crenshaw, the originator of the enormously useful concept of Intersectionality, worries that her work has been misinterpreted and used to divide people into more and more sub-groups while missing the point of what she was after. She says her work has been taken too far to become “identity politics on steroids.” We’re right to caution against group blindness (e.g., “I don’t see color”), but at some point, we seem to have lost the value of calling people to see our shared humanity.

One group of researchers found that diversity practitioners are remarkably dogmatic. Most DEI leaders identify as global citizens who celebrate humanity everywhere, but when it comes to flag-waving patriots in rural regions, many workshop facilitators allow things to be said that would be immediately called out as inappropriate if it was said about another group. For workshops that are supposed to engage in openness to different points of view, participants quickly sense that there are many “right” and “wrong” perspectives when it comes to diversity agendas. This kind of approach does little to foster understanding, acceptance, and belonging.

For starters, let’s cancel the “cancel culture” movement where only certain views are celebrated and, instead, create safe places where we can have honest dialogue about many diverse perspectives. There are, of course, times when we need to exert leadership and protect marginalized groups from being further traumatized by hearing bigoted perspectives but hopefully, that will be the exception rather than the norm. I’m calling us to facilitate creative discussions where we can be for Black Lives Matter and support the police. We can dismantle systemic racism and care about the individual realities many people face. We can have compassion for working-class white people and establish policies that address racial inequities. 

This is a far more US-centric article than I usually write. But CQ is lived locally. While I’m not originally from Midwest America, it’s where I live today. I feel my own impulse to rush to judgment when I drive through certain communities or overhear conversations from people who probably perceive me as the coastal elite. But in my quest to build a more culturally intelligent world, I want to do more to hear them, understand them, and ensure that our work includes the working class as well as the many other identities we seek to include.



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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Is CQ Enough?

davidlivermore | October 19th, 2020 No Comments

“We’re dealing with really serious issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I’m not convinced cultural intelligence is enough.” 

We’ve heard this more than once from DEI and HR leaders. And it’s a fair concern. Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is the capability to function effectively in any multicultural situation. The definition is broad, and our research-based philosophy and approach are straightforward. We help businesses, institutions, schools, and governmental agencies worldwide develop the cultural intelligence of their teams, employees, students, etc. But how does this support DEI work? In more ways than you might assume. In fact, CQ is the strategic link to creating diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environments

Here’s a brief breakdown of how CQ can be used as a strategy to support your DEI work:  


When most organizations say they want diversity, they are talking about representation — attracting and hiring people from different cultural backgrounds and identities. This is good. But whether you are trying to recruit diverse talent or ensure the hiring process is unbiased, it requires cultural intelligence to do it effectively. Some organizations have made more progress increasing diversity than others have. But even those who have done well may not be fully reaping the benefits. Research consistently demonstrates that diverse teams with low CQ are outperformed by homogenous teams. You can have employees from a wide range of diverse cultures and backgrounds, including different gender-identities, races, nationalities, generations, differently-abled people, etc. and still not understand how to leverage those differences. Why? Because working with people who are different creates misaligned expectations and conflict, and apart from CQ, increased diversity creates gridlock and reduced productivity. However, the research demonstrates that when diverse teams have high CQ, they outperform homogeneous teams in every area, including innovation, decision-making, building trust, and leadership effectiveness. 

PRO TIP: Are you new to Cultural Intelligence? If so, watch this short video explaining how Cultural Intelligence and Diversity work together to create better solutions.

So what’s the bottom line? Diversity is important, but by itself, it has limited benefits. CQ is the multiplying factor. Facilitate CQ and unconscious bias trainings with your teams. Challenge them to demonstrate how they will leverage the diversity of their colleagues and peers to come up with innovative solutions to challenging problems. In classrooms, have students map out the cultural values of their classmates and require them to show how they will use the differences to work on team projects. In workplaces, facilitate perspective-taking to enhance dialogue and collaboration. Equip people to move beyond political correctness while using language that is respectful for everyone. These cultural intelligence strategies position you to make diversity so much more than just a beautiful mosaic of people from different backgrounds. CQ ensures everyone has the skills to work together effectively. 


While Diversity is about representation, Inclusion is the process of welcoming diversity and creating an environment where everyone thrives. We recently participated in a webinar with Above Difference, our strategic partner in London. It was a fascinating discussion with businesses and health care leaders across the UK, and it shed light on some of the challenges around creating inclusive organizations, particularly in the era of Covid-19. One of the things discussed was how the global pandemic and economic recession is highlighting how quickly many organizations abandon their DEI commitments. In times of crisis, there’s a tendency to retreat to what’s safe, which often means retaining and promoting the people you know you can trust and excluding those you aren’t sure “get it,” which is often code language for people who are different. Virtual meetings begin to occur that inadvertently resort back to the safety of homogeneous groups. It doesn’t take long to lose whatever strides have been made in recruiting and including diverse people. Inclusion is not only welcoming everyone, but it’s having a culture and a set of organizational routines that are explicitly inclusive. What does that look like? 

Last year, the Academy of Management reported the top three factors that influence whether diverse staff feel included: participation in decision-making, information sharing, and informal networking. It’s easier and more efficient to make decisions with a group of like-minded people, but you lack the diversity of insights that come from involving diverse perspectives. CQ allows you to develop a decision-making process that manages bias, enables a variety of ways for a diversity of individuals to share their point of view, and ultimately reach a decision. The same is true for information sharing. Cultural intelligence ensures that knowledge sharing is inclusive and multi-directional. And while not everyone is looking to be best friends with their colleagues, we all want to feel like we belong. There are important links between CQ and diverse groups building collaborative, trusting relationships that go beyond simply accomplishing work tasks. “Inclusion” has been the buzzword in DEI for more than a decade, and in recent years, “belonging” has been added to the mix. In addition to helping people feel they can be authentic at work, CQ provides a proven, research-based strategy for including people in the areas where they most want to be included so that they’re set up to succeed.


Last week, Starbucks announced they are tying diversity targets to executive pay. Whether you agree with their approach or not, it highlights their commitment to measuring what they espouse to value. While the primary objective is to increase representation (diversity), a secondary benefit is how this decision influences equity. When reviewing employee demographics, they determined more was needed to help employees from culturally diverse backgrounds develop and advance into leadership roles. This culturally intelligent decision moved them one step closer to creating an organization committed to creating equitable experiences and opportunities for all employees.

For the last two years, we’ve partnered with Dallas Independent School District, one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the US. With over 150,000 students and 22,000 employees, the entire focus on our work has been to use CQ as a strategy to address racial equity. Part of the strategy includes requiring all staff, teachers, and administrators to participate in CQ and unconscious bias trainings. Each employee is accountable for creating and implement individual development plans. To measure progress, everyone will complete a post CQ Assessment. We are also reviewing systems, policies, and practices that may be contributing to inequities among students, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

This is what it looks like to measure what you espouse to value. Both Starbuck and Dallas ISD are identifying inequities and implementing culturally intelligent action steps to mitigate them.

In sum, DEI without CQ has limited effectiveness. When we build in CQ solutions, the outcomes are significant and sustainable.

We agree that CQ is not the only strategy for supporting DEI work. There are several critical components. However, cultural intelligence is foundational, and it’s a critical part of any process designed to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment.

We hope you find these ideas useful. But don’t just take our word for it. Join us on Thursday, October 29, at 11:00 AM EDT / 3:00 PM GMT and hear firsthand how our partners and clients from around the globe are integrating CQ into their DEI efforts. You can register for this free webinar below. Seats are limited, so sign up today!


We’re In A Crisis! Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

davidlivermore | October 19th, 2020 No Comments

A global pandemic has done little to bridge our tribal divides: Maskers vs. Anti-Maskers, Nationalists vs. Globalists, Police Supporters vs. Black Lives Matter…and the list keeps going.

If there was ever a time to put aside our differences, it’s now. We need the creativity, resources, and discipline of all of us to fight Covid-19 and its myriad spill-over effects on mental health, economical progress, education, and the list goes on.

Research from a variety of studies, including some of our cultural intelligence findings, points to a seemingly simple solution—Get divided groups to talk to each other to solve a shared problem. It sounds a little too Pollyannaish to be true—right? If the back and forth on social media is any indication, voicing different opinions is doing little to reduce tribalism. And the sound of manila dialogue about racism, economic fallout, and national elections leaves me bored. But that’s not the kind of conversation I’m after. We need culturally intelligent conversations that use our differences to get us out of this mess.

Let’s begin with a refresher on Muzafer Sherif’s classic Robber’s Cave Experiment. Sherif and his colleagues brought two groups of 12-year-old boys to camp. They were all white kids from similar middle-class backgrounds, and none of them knew each other prior to the study. Each group arrived at camp, unaware of the other group’s existence. The first week, they bonded with their respective groups by hiking, swimming, sharing meals, and doing all the fun things you do at camp. They named themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers.

The second week, the two groups were introduced to each other. Competitive activities were set up like baseball and tug-of-war, with the level of competition gradually increasing. Awards were given to the winning team. The competition escalated from name-calling into burning each other’s flags, vandalizing each other’s property, and getting into physical fights. In a matter of hours, the boys did what we all do by default—they created us vs. them tribes. 

The researchers began to work on ways to break down the divisions between the campers. Fun activities were planned for the two groups to do together—shared meals, watching movies, and pairing up boys from each group to swim, hike, or play ball together. It didn’t work. The minute the boys were back in their groups, they resorted to food fights, name-calling, and brawling with the other side.

Next, the researchers created a number of obstacles that the groups had to work together to solve. The camp’s water supply was shut off, and a truck bringing the campers food wouldn’t start. At first, the groups immediately resorted back to their rivalries as soon as the challenge was resolved. But over time, the continued pursuit of shared goals began to reduce the conflict. Name-calling stopped, meals began to reflect intermingling between groups, and Eagle and Rattler friendships began to emerge. By the end of camp, they all rode the bus back home together, singing and laughing as one group.

There’s compelling research that spending time with the “other side” and engaging in goal-oriented conversations is a critical part of building a more culturally intelligent world. This was an idea first developed by Gordon Allport, something he called “Contact Hypothesis.” Allport offered guidance on how to use solution-focused dialogue to reduce conflict and discrimination:

  • The members from both groups need to have equal status. If one group is treated as subordinate, the interaction makes things worse.
  • There has to be a common goal (such as saving as many lives as possible during a global pandemic!).
  • The members of both groups have to commit to DOING something together. It’s the act of solving something together that begins to change attitudes about one another.
  • Institutional support is needed (e.g., all of this depends on culturally intelligent leadership guiding and supporting the contact between groups).

Each of us can start by applying this social science interpersonally. Think of someone who has a diametrically opposed view about something you both care deeply about. Agree to get together with the goal of seeing if you can accurately understand one another’s perspective and to identify something you can do together to address the issue you both care about. In-person contact is more effective than virtual, but given our current circumstances, virtual still works. 

Use these rules of engagement:

  • Argue like you’re right. Listen like you’re wrong. I first heard Adam Grant say this, and I use it all the time to frame our leadership meetings at the CQ Center.
  • No name-calling or labels. We can do better than that. And it does nothing to move the conversation forward.
  • Avoid media-scripted talking points. Formulate your own point of view. If you never disagree with your trusted media sources, consider whether you’re being duped.
  • See if you can neutrally describe each other’s point of view. No evaluative or judgmental language allowed.
  • Identify a challenge you can work on together.

Next, bring the insights of “contact hypothesis” theory into your professional life. If you’re a teacher, facilitate this kind of goal-oriented dialogue in your classroom. If you’re a manager, use this approach to address work-related differences and then find appropriate ways to get your team engaging in goal-oriented conversations about politics, religion, and social issues.

It’s going to take more than polite conversations to bridge our political divides and tribalism. But the first step toward evolving beyond our tribal camps of us vs. them is spending time with the other tribe. If ever we’ve had a common enemy that doesn’t come from anyone geopolitical place or political tribe, it’s Covid-19. This virus doesn’t care if you’re red, blue, Qatari, Emirati, Arab, or Jew. Our diversity won’t solve this global pandemic. Left to our tribal differences, we’ll continue to act like a group of 12-year-olds fighting over who gets to eat first. But our diverse perspectives, combined with culturally intelligent dialogue and action, can help us move beyond the “cancel culture,” “lockdown or not,” debates to creating solutions we all need.

Many of our appointed leaders across the globe aren’t leading us with cultural intelligence. They’re using this moment to deepen their tribe’s loyalty rather than transcending their in-group perspectives to fight this thing for us. So let’s figure this out on our own. And for those us voting in the coming months, let’s elect individuals who have the cultural intelligence to guide and support difficult, goal-oriented conversations that leverage our differences rather than using them to further destroy us. If a group of 12 year-olds can do it, so can we.

For more information about the book check out this Q+A with Dave below!



Coronavirus Insight: “I’m More American Than I Thought!”

davidlivermore | May 26th, 2020 No Comments

By David Livermore, PhD

My parents were Canadian. And I’ve spent a great deal of the last thirty years living and traveling across the globe. I’m a US citizen, but I don’t think of myself as a very typical American. And people outside the US often guess that I’m European, Australian, or even Middle Eastern before they peg me as being from the US. But times of crisis bring out the core of who we are. The COVID-19 crisis makes me realize I’m more American than I typically think. I’m not suggesting this is good or bad…It’s just been a time of reckoning to reflect on my reactions in the midst of a crisis. 

Here are a few examples:

1. You can’t tell me what to do!

I’m 100% committed to social distancing and the necessity of restricting travel, movement, and more…but it strikes at the core of my inner locus of control. I’ve found myself internally rebelling against being told that I have to stay home. My autonomy and freedom are important to me, and I want to be able to control what I do, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the right for you to do the same. This is the classic American narrative.

My friends in Singapore often say that their highly regulated, rules-based society is a small price to pay for safety, financial security, and more. I respect their collectivist ideals and often view them with great admiration. But in times like this, I’m reminded that my autonomy is a prized value for me. Tell me that there are choices I can make for the benefit of myself and others, and I’m much more motivated to do social distancing than just telling me to do it because you said so. That’s very American of me.

2. I just want this to be done already! 

Two weeks of no-travel and working from home?! Okay. No big deal. I can do this. But now as two weeks become four, six, and eight, I’m thinking, I’m so over this. When can we get back to normal?

Americans are notoriously short-term oriented. We like quick fixes, and we celebrate quick turn-arounds. Most US publicly traded companies insist on quarterly results. In contrast, companies like Sony and Panasonic make decisions in light of 100 year+ strategic plans and will often suffer losses for what outsiders might perceive as a long period of time because of a long-term orientation. Both mindsets are a critical part of success. But they change how you approach times of crisis.

I’m confident we’re going to get to the other side of this, but there isn’t a quick fix. And I want one.

3. What just happened to all my hard-earned investments?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future—How can we introduce cultural intelligence to 10 million people by 2030? What kind of team will we have at the Cultural Intelligence Center in five years? How can I help my daughters prepare for the future? How should we invest in preparing for the kind of life we anticipate in 15 years?

When the current crisis began hitting the financial markets, I decided I wasn’t even going to look at my investment accounts. I invest for the long-haul, so there’s no need to panic in light of short-term losses. But eventually, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing how bad things were. My long-term vision evaporated. I can’t believe I lost that much money in 4 weeks! I worked so hard for this, and it’s gone.

Many people, Americans included, think about the future. But I’ve often thought of myself as an anomaly from “typical” Americans in that I think about it a lot and plan accordingly. I pride myself on saying that I’m not overly worried about immediate successes, but I might not be as future-oriented as I think.

4. Can we please hear something positive?

I grow impatient with friends and acquaintances who tune out the news because it’s too negative. I’m sorry you can’t handle hearing about the atrocities in Syria because it’s too dark. C’mon already. Are we really that self-centered? But the bombardment of bad news over the last few weeks leaves me longing for something, anything, that’s hopeful.

Americans like a happy ending. Longfellow wrote, “Be still, sad heart!… Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” Ronald Reagan built his re-election campaign by saying, “It’s morning again in America,” an approach that fits well with the American psyche. Contrast that to a more typical German approach, where the norm is to look at the downside of things and to linger in that reality. Goethe wrote, “Let me pass the nights in tears, As long as I want to cry.”

I don’t want to be in denial about the enormous loss of life all across the globe as a result of this pandemic. But like most of my fellow Americans, I’m craving something positive…something, anything!

5. I’m an exception!

The virus is following me. I was in Asia for most of January and February. While I could see the growing devastation unfolding, particularly in Wuhan, I silently wondered if the response elsewhere in Asia was an over-reaction. There were virtually no cases in Singapore, but my temperature was being checked everywhere I went. In Seoul, I walked by a massive department store that was closed indefinitely because a customer had been exposed to the virus. Subconsciously I was thinking, I’ll be fine. There are 7+ billion people in the world, and I’m not going to lose sleep over catching this.

I don’t espouse American exceptionalism. Why can’t we be proud of who we are without having to be the “best nation in the world”? But I’ve been reflecting on how quickly I resort to exceptionalism personally. I dismissed my wife’s concerns that I was going to come home from Asia sick. I didn’t think the realities of Italy and Iran would be happening across our own metropolitan areas. It turns out the virus doesn’t care if you’re Chinese, American, royalty, or homeless. Granted, privilege is amplified by how things like social distancing and exposure to the virus play out. But no one is an exception to getting the virus, Americans included.

The very fact that I think of myself as being “not very typical American” is a very American thing to do. Americans are proud of what makes us stand apart from each other. It’s rooted in our desire for uniqueness. While our nationality is only part of our identity, it has a profound, powerful influence on our underlying values.

During this time of disruption, reflect on how your responses expose your cultural identity:

  • How much sacrifice should healthy individuals be willing to make for the sake of others? (Individualism/Collectivism)
  • Should executives take a steeper pay cut than their staff? If so, should they also be paid more during good times? (Power Distance)
  • Are you inclined to wait and see how this all plays out or proactively take charge of your situation? (Being vs. Doing)
  • How does your view toward receiving economic relief from the government align with your espoused views toward socialism vs. capitalism? (Cooperative vs. Competitive)

Now more than ever, we need to function as a global community. Being global citizens doesn’t have to conflict with our national identities. But we each have to hold the two identities in tension. There’s no turning back from globalization. COVID-19 has made that exceptionally clear. We’re all connected. We have a common enemy, and our only hope is to fight it together.

In the words of Queen Elizabeth last week,

“We join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science, and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed. And that success will belong to every one of us.”


If you have extra time on your hands during this unprecedented crisis, check out MyCV (My Cultural Values), an online tool that includes a survey and personalized feedback of your cultural value preferences. Or you might want to enroll in MyUB™ (My Unconscious Bias), our online course that explores the fascinating science behind implicit bias and how cultural intelligence helps you manage your bias.


A Guide To Asking Culturally Intelligent Questions As You Travel

davidlivermore | May 26th, 2020 No Comments

Guest post written by Emily Livermore, Content Developer, Cultural Intelligence Center

I was 10 years old the first time I visited China. I had spent significant time in Southeast Asia before that, but my family’s trip to Kunming was one of the first times I remember noticing the significant “Otherness” of the food, city, and culture. My parents always sought out opportunities for our family to engage with culture no matter where we were. This trip to China was no different. 

Upon arrival in Kunming, I’m exhausted and already missing my friends back home when my dad tasks each family member with coming up with 10 observations about this new place by dinner. (It really wouldn’t be a Livermore family trip without some sort of CQ® homework assignment.)

On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I stared out the window collecting observations. I remember observing the overwhelming number of street dogs, the masses of motorbikes, and cars that had every window tinted black. The great thing about actively making observations is that they inevitably lead to questions. Why are there so many stray dogs? Why is the motorbike the preferred mode of transit? Why are drivers allowed to tint all of their windows? 

The nice thing about being 10 years old is that you aren’t expected to have a filter yet. loved asking questions, and being in an unfamiliar place was a breeding ground for this innate curiosity. It was a constant cycle of observing my surroundings and asking whatever popped into my head. 

Today at 22 years old, so many of my questions can be directed to Google but, for the ones that can’t, what’s the etiquette for asking questions as an adult when you’re in an unfamiliar place?

Though my parents don’t “assign” my sister and me cultural exercises anymore, observing and asking questions is still core to how we continue to explore the world together. But there are new approaches I’ve learned as an adult to ensure this practice is both meaningful and culturally intelligent.

What are the right questions to ask? 

In my experience, the most meaningful questions open dialogue or lead to additional questions. A meaningful question has answers that give you value beyond a tidbit of new information. 

Let’s say you are working in Indonesia with a Muslim colleague who is gay. You may be wondering about this colleague’s experience as a gay individual in the most populous Muslim country in the world. This is definitely a meaningful question, but it’s also tricky because it can be a sensitive topic. To address this, try de-personalizing the question. Instead of asking about their personal experience coming out, start with something like How do most parents here respond when they learn their child is gay? If this colleague is an indirect communicator, you may want to distance the question even further by asking What’s something you wish more people realized about your culture? And you can always give your colleague an out by adding No need to answer if it makes you uncomfortable

The other thing to keep in mind in asking meaningful questions while you travel is making sure the question you are asking does not make an assumption of its own. We make assumptions all the time without even knowing it. 

For example, one of my first times in Costa Rica, after a couple of meals out, my family noticed that the servers were bringing the check to my mom instead of my dad. This prompted my mom to ask, I wonder if the woman is considered the head of the family here?  The question was prompted after only two instances. In my mother’s defense, this is extremely easy to do. We all actively look for patterns to learn more about the culture surrounding us when we travel, and when something unusual happens a couple of times in a row, it can prompt some assumptions. One way to turn this kind of observation into a more meaningful insight is to take a step back. Try asking your server or another friendly local, So in my culture, the bill often goes to the most senior person at the table. Is there any standard practice regarding who receives the bill here? Alternatively, you could broaden the conversation to other Ticos you meet throughout your trip. What assumptions do people make about who pays the bill at a restaurant? Does the type of restaurant influence the custom? What if it’s a foreign family versus a local one? The answers will reveal more about the culture and may even teach you some local customs as compared to if you had stuck with my mom’s original question, in which case the only takeaway may be that you just jumped to conclusions too quickly. 

Knowing the right questions to ask is just half of the challenge for the culturally intelligent traveler. It’s just as important to understand…

When is it right to ask them?  

Determining the right and wrong moments to ask your questions falls almost entirely on one key factor: Context

What’s your relationship with the individual(s) you want to ask? Are you at a business meeting or in a social setting? Are you in a cultural context where gender may make a significant difference? How familiar are you with the cultural context? 

These are all questions you should be asking yourself to determine if and when you are in an appropriate context, ask someone a cultural question. 

Questions can make people feel defensive, but without them, we learn little from our travels. There are no hard and fast rules about the right and wrong moments to ask someone a cultural question, but there are some guidelines you can follow to help you distinguish between safe and risky contexts for your questions. 

Here are two lists to help you:

Safe Contexts for Asking Questions

  • You are with a small group of locals or one-on-one
  • You are with peers
  • You have established a friendly relationship with the individual(s) 
  • The context is relaxed, low stress
  • You are aware of communication style differences in the room
  • The individual(s) you are with are already discussing their culture/customs

Risky Context for Asking Questions

  • You are with a large group of people
  • You are with professional superiors or elders
  • You just met the individual(s) involved 
  • The context is high stakes (e.g., negotiating a business deal)
  • There is a language barrier, and you are not sure you can communicate your question clearly

Cultural intelligence allows you to pick up on social cues and body language to give you the information you need to decide when to ask your questions. And even if you misjudge a situation, usually the worst that will happen is an awkward moment that makes for a good learning experience. I’ve certainly had my fair share of miscommunications but not nearly enough to cancel out the cultural insights I’ve gained from persistently asking questions as I travel around the world. 

This article is inspired by some of the content in David Livermore’s newest book, The Curious TravelerFilled with anecdotes and practical advice, the book discovers the links between curiosity, CQ®, and travel. Available for purchase now. 

Read more from Emily Livermore here

For more information about the book check out this Q+A with Dave below!




When Is It Appropriate To Yell At Someone? Depends On Where You’re From!

davidlivermore | December 17th, 2019 No Comments

By David Livermore, PhD

Someone cuts ahead of you in the security line at the airport. It’s the same woman who cut in front of people at the check-in counter a few minutes ago. Do you say anything, shake your head in disgust, or take a deep breath and ignore it? Some of us would be quick to let her know that we’re all in a rush, and she needs to step back and wait her turn. Others of us would bite our tongue and say nothing. 

Do you scold her loudly on behalf of everyone else in line? Or do you quietly confront her in a more measured way?

What’s the right way to respond to this kind of situation? It depends!

First, there are different cultural norms surrounding queuing. And we need more information about why she’s doing this before we jump to conclusions. But the issue I’m most interested in considering is the wide variance in what we deem as “appropriate” ways to express frustration. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks. Many of the workplace challenges I observe are related to the cultural value difference we describe as Neutral versus Affective. Neutral cultures believe that minimizing emotional expressiveness is a sign of dignity and respect, whereas Affective cultures value expressing feelings. 

Go through a security line in a Japanese airport, and the staff says virtually nothing, other than “Kindly place your jacket in the bin” or “I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected for a random screening.” Go through the same kind of line at a New York airport and TSA agents start yelling at you as soon as you get in line: “Laptops out. Empty your pockets. No water bottles… Some of you aren’t paying attention! Laptops out…” And on it goes. Most Japanese are Neutral communicators. Most New Yorkers are Affective communicators. 

Neutral communicators might view New Yorkers as rude and mean and Japanese as kind and hospitable. Affective communicators might view the New Yorkers as efficient and clear, and the Japanese staff as shy and lacking confidence.

Okay, so some cultures yell at you more than others. It can be irritating, but it’s not a big deal. However, there are some situations where this difference can be a big deal.

Many of the hospitals we work with have safety policies where medical staff is instructed to note their concern if they believe a patient may be violent. Many of the patients who are labeled as “violent” come from different cultural backgrounds than the hospital staff. If nurses come from a Neutral orientation, they believe disappointment and anxiety should be discussed in calm, measured ways. Tears are understandable, but losing your cool isn’t. Many of the patients who are labeled “violent” are Affective communicators. Their response to bad news often results in yelling, crying uncontrollably, and what some might describe as wailing. Are these patients really more violent, or are they just openly expressing their emotions? Once you’re labeled as violent, there’s an implicit reluctance by staff to provide the same level of care. 

A psychologist working with one of the largest police departments in the US describes a similar situation. His chief responsibility is focused on assessing and mitigating threats across a diverse population of over 10 million people. He says, “I believe 75 percent of what we deal with requires high levels of cultural intelligence. Our officers have not been trained to know whether someone from a different cultural background is exhibiting a behavior that should be considered a potential threat, mental illness, a culturally derived emotional response to a crisis, or some combination thereof.” A great deal of what he describes comes back to the difficulty of discerning Neutral versus Affective behavior.

To avoid misjudging someone’s character or behavior, here are some ways to think more specifically about these differences:

Affective: Emphasis on expressive communication and sharing feelings

People with an Affective orientation use a wider range of facial expressions and physical gestures during everyday conversation.

Neutral: Emphasis on non-emotional communication and controlling emotions

People with a Neutral orientation strive to control their emotions. Reason may influence their behavior more than feelings.

  • They talk loudly when excited, and enjoy animated arguments and debate
  • They’re more enthusiastic and spontaneous
  • They consider emotions and intuitions in the decision-making process
  • Statements are often emotional and dramatic and may often be exaggerated simply to make a point. “This is a complete train wreck.”
  • They are more likely to disguise what they’re thinking or feeling
  • Being cool and in control is admired, although sometimes this leads to unexpected outbursts which become all the more jarring
  • Speaking is usually done in a more monotonic manner and lacks an emotional tone
  • Expect others to “stick to the point” and keep to specific, predetermined topics

Examples: African American, Italian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Working Class, Marketing

Examples: Chinese, Ethiopian, German, Japanese, Native American, Upper Class, Engineering

The Canadian home where I grew up was a Neutral environment. We used formal manners at the dinner table, fine china was on the table for Sunday dinner, and there was a very strong rule that you should never interrupt someone. This rule about not interrupting guided our family protocol, and it informed the way we evaluated other people’s behavior. To this day, I become anxious when someone starts interrupting because that was such a taboo in my family. In Neutral cultures, interruptions are rude unless an emergency really calls for it. Whereas in Affective cultures, interruptions are okay, but silence is awkward.

In many Neutral cultures, particularly throughout Asia, silence is not only okay, it’s welcomed. Silence is a sign of respect, and it allows both parties to reflect and take in what has been said. In many Affective cultures, the “silent treatment” is viewed as punitive.

Nurses and police officers may wrongfully label someone as violent based on an Affective response, and overlook someone who is violent because of a Neutral response. Some terrorists never scream and shout. And there are people who scream and shout who aren’t violent. 

Managers may assume a Neutral staff member is disengaged when, in fact, they may have a different way of expressing their enthusiasm. And team members may assume a teammate has a temper when, in fact, they may simply have a different value for how openly and passionately to voice their opinions.

What should we do?

The first step for addressing this communication difference is emotional intelligence. You have to understand your own emotional state and gain the ability to regulate emotions in yourself and others. But emotional intelligence isn’t enough. You may wrongfully identify others’ emotions based on your cultural interpretations of those emotions. 

Cultural intelligence (CQ®) is the only way to effectively understand someone from a different cultural background. With CQ, you have a growing repertoire of tools and strategies for reading a situation, discerning if and how culture may be influencing the situation, and then determining the best strategy for responding respectfully and effectively. 

In the meantime, watch how this cultural value plays out over the holidays. Different family members have different orientations on Neutral vs. Affective communication styles as well as people from different parts of the country. And if you’re traveling, keep yourself occupied in the security line by identifying whose Neutral and whose Affective. And if someone cuts ahead of you, it’s usually better to start with a more Neutral response and regulate your expressiveness accordingly. 

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