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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