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Cultural Bloopers & Misgivings from an Experience in America

davidlivermore | April 11th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Helga Evelyn Samuel

So, you speak English and you think a trip to an English-speaking country cannot be that hard, right? Surely not, because you’ve been there several years ago. On a recent work trip, I discovered, however, that such assumptions are quite careless at the least.

After a couple of days in a room full of North Americans (well, almost!), eating out with the group and socializing in the process, staying at a Canadian-Venezuelan’s place, and navigating through unfamiliar streets, here are some observations from my brief tryst with the American culture:

1. Assumptions are unwise. Never assume that everything is going to be like back home just because the people in the country presumably speak the same language as you! Expect everything to be different: right from the pedestrian crossing symbols to the way people cross roads to the food habits to mannerisms and customs, to the way people mean and interpret the same English you speak!

2. A little preparation goes a long way. Do your homework! So, you think why should you go prepared for a short work trip? What could possibly go wrong in just a few days, right? Actually, anything could go wrong depending on what the purpose of your trip is, who you are meeting, what important deals you are signing et al. When you go abroad on a work trip, you represent your company, and often times your country. You need to do some homework on what you could expect: talk to others who have been there before you, take some reading material on the country you are visiting with you on your plane ride. Also: know enough about your host country you are currently residing in if you are an expat.

3. Allow room for little surprises. How do you lock the bathroom door in your host’s old apartment? Which way do you turn the knob and why doesn’t it lock when you do it the way you do in Europe (panic attack!)? Step into the shower–now, which way does this knob turn? After fumbling a while and breaking into a cold sweat in the process, you manage to solve this great mystery! You later discover after a demo from the host on locking the bathroom door, that the last couple of times you had actually been very unsuccessful! Thankfully, nobody was home at that time! (Phew!) In the kitchen, you debate whether the water from the faucet is safe to drink, and when you reassure yourself that it cannot go wrong, you look in disgust at the very murky, gray-white liquid you’ve collected and are unsure if drinking it is going to kill you! (your gracious hosts later inform you that although water from the tap is safe, they filter it in this fascinating looking water container- and presto, that murky effect magically disappears!) Then you decide to make a sunny side up for breakfast, only to find that the mechanism of turning the knob on the stove is slightly different from what you do back home in Europe. Because within seconds you are nauseous by this overpowering smell of cooking gas. Not intending to set the host’s house on fire, you decide to safely settle for a banana for breakfast that morning! Fast forward to the day of conference. You need a coffee fix, and wander around looking for a stirrer. You find these strange, narrowly constricted white hollow tubes with bright red stripes that resemble straws. Surely these couldn’t be stirrers. They remotely bear any resemblance to the wooden, flat stirrers you are used to. Not wanting to look like an idiot, you politely ask a new friend where the stirrers are: he informs you that those narrow straw-like things are indeed the stirrers (hot flush of embarrassment!) Later you find out that the very same hotel has placed the familiar flat wooden stirrers on a shiny, jet black tray carrying your all-day coffee/tea (aka caffeine fix) supplies! Ha! You look at the familiar with a large toothy grin and run your fingers down the wooden stirrer and go ‘Sigh, just like back home!” The familiar somehow makes the heart very happy. Even something as small and silly as a mundane coffee stirrer! (tears of joy!)

4. An overdose of friendliness. The contrast is so stark that you simply cannot miss it! In The Netherlands, smiles are only reserved for people you know, people do not normally smile at strangers and very rarely exchange small talk. Those travelling by public transport always appear solemn and seldom indulge in any chitchat. A train/bus/tram ride to anywhere can be eerily silent (comfortably if you are used to it!), unless friends or family members ride together. Then you travel to the United States where everyone right from the doorman, the chauffeur, the Target store shop assistants, to even random strangers on the street are SO friendly and warm! On your first day, you are a bit suspicious since this behavior is not normal to you. By the end of the week however, you enjoy the warmth of the people so much that you suffer a temporary memory lapse at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam: you flash a big smile and offer a ‘Hey, how are you?’ to a total stranger waiting in line at the immigration. However, your polite overture is met by a shuffling of feet and a suspicious sideways glance (Ha, she probably thought you were nuts!)

5. Unfamiliar pedestrian signals. At first you are confused by the unfamiliar ‘white man walking’ and ‘red hand’ road crossing signals. In The Netherlands, these are a ‘green man walking’ and a ‘red man waiting’. And what does the countdown after the red hand mean? That this is your last chance to run for your life across the road? You look to fellow pedestrians for cues and find some sprint across quickly. You step forward to follow suit when you notice a car turns into your road during the countdown. A bit baffled and shaken, you adamantly decide to freeze in position on the sidewalk till you see the safe ‘white man walking’ signal again (shudder!). You do want to make it home in one piece after all! In The Netherlands and particularly in Germany, most people adhere to the pedestrian crossing rules. People respect the ‘red man waiting’ signal that they rarely cross–not even when there are no vehicles on the road!

6. Shocking supermarket facts. You wander around in Target trying to spot familiar groceries, let out an audible gasp at the unbelievably overpriced feta cheese, peppers, and salad ingredients. You are surprised by the numerous bread assortments–everything appears intriguing and some look rather unappetizing. You are impressed by the very friendly woman at the counter who even bags your grocery contents. In The Netherlands, the customer must hurriedly transfer her grocery contents into bags, so the next customer can be served immediately thereafter. A newcomer to the country has to learn to quickly shove grocery contents into shopping bags or be prepared to meet some impatient, disgruntled customers waiting in line. (Don’t tell anyone but you recruit your kids to bag the groceries with an ice cream bribe. It works like a charm every time!)

7. A warning to the foodies. Oh, the food! You are utterly delighted by the sinful array of culinary indulgences in the U.S. and eagerly dig into the large portion sizes. This is foodie H(E)AVEN (caps on intentionally)! Having been raised Indian, it is unconsciously ingrained in your mind to never waste any food on your plate (“Remember the many starving poor in India!”, your parents solemnly reminded you while growing up) and you gladly oblige–this is good stuff, after all! A week later though, when it is time to fly back home, you discover when your jeans tightly hug your lower body like a boa constrictor how quickly those extra pounds add up. Yikes!

8. Now, did you say English is universal? After a wonderful few days of getting to know new acquaintances and friends, you go around saying your goodbyes. Remember those familiar yet vital four and a half words that you reserve only for people you really like and want to sincerely make an effort to be in touch with? The magical “Let’s keep in touch!” You generously dish it out to a couple of people in the room with absolute genuineness. Only to find out much later that this sentence actually means “Goodbye, I DON’T like you that much!” in America! You recoil in horror at the subtle message you’d sent that week to the amazing, warm, friendly people whose company you had thoroughly enjoyed! (Oh nooo!)

9. Are colleagues friends? You learn that in America, colleagues rarely socialize or stay in touch as friends. They make acquaintances easily but rarely make ‘friends’ among colleagues. Such a stark contrast to The Netherlands where colleagues socialize every Friday night over the famed Dutch ‘borrel’: when drinks and conversations freely flow over raucous background music. Even strikingly different from your experience with former German colleagues you briefly worked with, who have been in touch since nearly twenty years when life took you places and are cherished friends. Some so close that you fondly call them ‘family’. Now, how do you define the connections with these delightful people you briefly hung out with in America? Colleagues? Acquaintances? Friends? How do you follow through on your word to ‘stay in touch’ with them? Your brain is certainly muddled dealing with this.

10. A little lesson on culture. Now, what do you do when the opportunity arises to travel back into the same country? A culturally intelligent person learns from previous mistakes, mentally readjusts to expectations, and applies past learnings to new experiences while still keeping an open mind to learn something new. It is important to remember, however, that your past experiences are not standards for others to gauge theirs against. Your experience does not necessarily have to be similar to another’s. It is also absurd to base your opinion on a country or its people from a few subjective experiences, so don’t be too hasty to translate your experiences into a “Do’s and Don’ts” list for that country. Be open to the sights, sounds and sensations that a new place brings. Dive in fearlessly, be prepared to fall on your face a couple of times, laugh about it, and learn from it. Have an open mind and a receptive heart. Savor the similarities. Respect the differences. Embrace the change.

Note: This article is purely based on personal experience and is merely written to entertain. However, some generalized content offers insight into learning how to deal with new and unfamiliar cultures.

  Helga Evelyn Samuel is the Founder & CEO of Curry & Culture Company based in The Netherlands, as well as a CQ Certified Advanced Professional.

We’re All Scared of the Same Things…or Are We? Emotional Differences Across Cultures

davidlivermore | December 13th, 2016 No Comments


Last week I had the misfortune of seeing a Chinese man jump from a tall building in Shanghai to his death below. My heart stopped. What could possibly lead this guy to such immense despair?

What happened next traumatized me almost as much as the actual suicide sighting. Several people gathered around and were quietly laughing. Some took pictures and others were calling to their friends to come see what happened. I was so unnerved by the whole scene. Why were people laughing? Why wasn’t anyone covering his body? Moments later, the police showed up and I went on my way.

Times like these bring our humanity up close. How do we respond to the existential questions of life? And how do we face tragedy together? Yet these situations also highlight our profound differences.

Paul Ekman’s groundbreaking work sheds some light on the similarities and differences in how all 7.5 billion of us react emotionally to the same events. Ekman is a clinical psychologist who has spent the last several decades researching how to read emotions through facial expressions. Among the many seminal findings from his work, there are a couple critical points that are relevant to cultural intelligence:


First, there’s a set of universal triggers that elicit the same emotion in nearly all of us.

  • The sight of something coming straight at you triggers fear, regardless of your personality or culture. From people in rural China to urbanites in London and Capetown, the sight of an oncoming car elicits the “flight” response (“Danger! I need to move out of the way”).
  • A similar trigger occurs when experiencing unexpected, rough turbulence in flight. Even seasoned flight attendants admit that when they don’t expect it, a sudden jolt in the air frightens them.

Ekman claims that every human being has an auto appraisal system that monitors when we’re in danger. With practice and experience, some overcome these universal fears. But a primal response has evolved within all of us toward a certain set of triggers.

Second, there are unique triggers that are a result of how we’ve been socialized. Individuals from some cultures feel extremely annoyed when people cut in line while it doesn’t even faze others. People from some cultures are irritated when people speak loudly and others couldn’t care less about that. Some cultures are afraid of the oceans. Others seek it out. These variances stem primarily from how we were brought up. In addition, there are other triggers, which are rooted in our unique personalities and experiences (e.g. post-traumatic stress).


Next, Ekman contends that people across all cultures have a universal way of expressing seven emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness.

Initially this claim didn’t ring true to me. Surely we can’t say that Germans, Chinese, and Italians all express happiness the same way. Isn’t nonverbal communication culturally conditioned? Yes and no.

Through a series of renowned, peer-reviewed studies, Ekman makes a convincing case that people all over the world signal happiness with the corners of their mouths up and their eyes contracted. Anger is expressed with the corners of the mouth down and sadness is expressed with the eyelids drooping. Even individuals who have been blind from birth manifest the same nonverbal expressions.


How does this explain the fact that some cultures (e.g. African Americans and Italians) are usually far more affective in expressing their emotions while others cultures (e.g. Japanese and Germans) are far more neutral.

Cultural differences come into play by promoting the rules for how to appropriately manage emotional expressions. Parents teach children the appropriate display rules for various occasions, which get reinforced at school, through the media, and with peers. When should you show emotion, when should you exaggerate it, and when should you mask it? Our cultures teach us how to manage our feelings and we learn which emotions are appropriate for which situations. We develop mechanisms for masking seemingly inappropriate expressions.

This brings me back to the horrific suicide I witnessed last week. It may well be that the giggling by my fellow bystanders was a disguise for their horror. Fake laughter and giggles are a very common response to nervousness and discomfort among many Asian cultures. In all fairness, others looking at me in that moment would have had little idea that I felt a sense of grief and despair when encountering this event. I stood there for a moment with a very staid, neutral response given that my parents taught me that a neutral, stone face was the appropriate response to solemn occasions. Someone who learns how to read microexpressions can discern when a facial expression is masking something else.


Cultural intelligence stems from the same body of research as emotional intelligence (EQ). Emotional intelligence is the first step in improving the way you work and relate with others. There’s little hope we can interact effectively in culturally diverse settings if we first can’t understand and regulate the emotions of ourselves and others like us. But cultural intelligence allows us to have those same social sensibilities when interacting with people who display their emotions in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Giggles may mean laughter in one culture and embarrassment in another. Some individuals have been socialized to express anger by yelling while others simmer in silence.

When you’re irritated by a behavior that seems rude or awkward (last month’s topic), consider alternative explanations for the behavior (e.g. giggling may not mean someone thinks a tragedy is funny). In addition, careful consideration in the midst of an emotional trigger can diminish the power of the trigger when used repeatedly. If you consistently reflect on whether turbulence really puts you in danger or whether a spider is really going to harm you, you can begin to diminish the power of the emotional response. The same is true for behaviors that annoy you. If you reflect on the intent behind a loud talker or someone who spits in public, it can diminish how much it upsets you.

We’re remarkably different in how we go about our profound similarities. When your counterpart seems foreign, start with what you have in common. And perhaps our shared humanity is the starting point for providing one another with the hope each of us needs to get through one day after the next. After all, we’re in this together.


Use the Cultural Value Profile to assess the degree to which you and your teammates have a more “neutral” vs. “affective” approach to managing your emotions.

Cultural Intelligence and the Afro-centric Worldview

davidlivermore | April 14th, 2015 10 Comments



Guest Post by Buhle Dlamini

Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world right now. Forget the news headline like “Ebola in West Africa”, and “Violent Militants in Africa”. The reality is that these challenges pale in comparison to the amazing opportunities this vast continent has to offer.

Corporations looking for growth in emerging markets are opening offices in multiple sites across the continent. This is where cultural intelligence comes in, and in particular some understanding of the Afro-centric worldview is essential in order to succeed.

Being a native of South Africa and a Zulu raised in rural Zululand, I have an inside scoop on the different ways that Africans see the world. While not every African holds this Afro-centric worldview, most will identify with it. And we take this view for granted until we’re exposed to something different. In my cross-cultural marriage to my wife Stacey, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, I started to note the ways we held different worldviews.

Take for example the differing views when it comes to how time, family and ownership are perceived from an Afro-centric perspective.

The majority of people with an Afro-centric worldview see time very differently from Westerners. Africans operate from the “Event-time” orientation, meaning the emphasis is put on the event and the person rather than an artificially imposed time. Time is negotiable. This is why events in an Afro-centric setting tend to be much longer than in other cultures.  It is considered disrespectful to allow time to get in the way of interacting with each other. If you run into a friend or family member on the way to work, surely you will take the time to greet them and ask about their family.

  • When working in an Afro-centric context allow more time for the unexpected rather than simply scheduling everything into a rigid timeframe. In a “clock-time” oriented culture the watch dictates when things start and end, whereas in an Afro-centric setting, people dictate the length of an event.

In some cultures, family is narrowly restricted to focus on the nuclear family and a limited extended family. The Afro-centric definition of family is far more reaching and even extends to anyone who shares a similar surname. This can be confusing, especially because people may refer to extended family members as uncles and aunts when there actually is no direct connection in the way that other cultures would understand those terms.

  • ‘Ubuntu’ is a collective and shared identity, or togetherness, which links everyone’s humanity to the connectivity they maintain with other humans. As a result weddings, funerals and other important events tend to be a much bigger affair and open to a much bigger group. Turning down an invitation to a co-worker’s family event may be a much greater offense to an African than it would to co-workers from many other cultures.

Ownership in an Afro-centric worldview is very collective. When I first bought a car and drove it back to my village, everyone responded, “We have a car! We have a car!” In the majority of Afro-centric contexts there is a community ownership of everyone’s resources. This often translates into ‘what is yours is ours’.

There is an unspoken expectation that when you succeed in one-way or another you have to carry the rest with you. If one owns a car and others don’t, one is expected to use it for the benefit of the rest.

  • Failure to comply with these expectations quickly earns one the reputation that they are selfish and ‘un-African’. Consider how HR policies may need to be adapted when expanding into Africa. Understand the expectations an employees’ community will have on them.

These tend to be extremes of the Afro-centric worldview and many younger leaders are beginning to adopt more Western values. But before assuming a young leader lacks confidence because he won’t look you in the eye or a staff member is irresponsible because she shows up late for a meeting, stop to consider what competing values they may be facing. Don’t too quickly judge their motives and find ways to discover more.  Most of us Africans are quite welcoming and eager to share our culture but when rebuffed in our attempts we may hold back. The key is to be open-minded and use cultural intelligence to be surprised by the rich things you can learn.

Africa awaits! Wozani Nonke—Come All.

Buhle Dlamini is based in Canada and South Africa and is available to offer speaking, training, and consulting to help organizations develop a culturally intelligent approach for working in Africa. He’s a CQ Certified Facilitator and is founder and chair of Young & Able, a consultancy offering CQ training in Africa.

Respect Is Not Enough

davidlivermore | October 20th, 2014 6 Comments


Most every time I speak on cultural intelligence, someone asks “Isn’t this basically a matter of respect? If we would learn to respect each other as fellow human beings, most of our intercultural conflicts would go away.”

Yes and no.

I’m happy to agree on “respect” as the driving motivation for cultural intelligence.

But respect is not enough. We can’t always see intent through behavior. You might intend to be respectful when you speak to me in a very blunt way, thinking, I respect you enough to tell it to you like it is. But if I come from a culture that says respect is best conveyed by saving face and speaking more indirectly, what you intend as respectful may actually come off as rude.

Respect is a noble motivation for cultural intelligence. But the way we demonstrate respect is culturally conditioned. Let’s explore a few examples:

Deli in Iowa versus New York
You walk into a deli in New York and you’re greeted with, “Next? What do you want?”. This is the kind of greeting that causes many outsiders to view New Yorkers as rude. But the unspoken principle in a New York deli is to respect customers’ time by getting them in and out as quickly as possible. However, if you walk into a deli in a small town in Iowa and you’re greeted with, “Good afternoon. How you doin’ today?” followed by some friendly chit chat, some customers will view that as welcoming and others will perceive it as rude, inauthentic, and as a disregard for their time.

Royal Treatment versus Green
Last week I talked with an event planner who was organizing a formal dinner in the Emirates to raise awareness and funds for environmental responsibility. The event is hosted by one of the royal families. In reviewing the details of the dinner, the Sheik wanted to ensure that there would be extravagant, large bouquets of flowers on each table. The event planner told the Sheik, “But Sir. It would not send a good message to have a ‘green’ event that includes huge bouquets that will simply be tossed away.” The Sheik was incredibly anxious about the disrespect it would communicate to his guests if the dinner lacked this kind of extravagance and attention to detail. But the organizer convinced him to give guests a potted bamboo plant they could take home with them and nurture.

Respecting a Professor
Or what if you’re a student and your professor comes from a high power distance orientation? Respecting her might mean greeting her by her formal title, standing when she enters the room, and not eating in class. Whereas respect for a professor coming from a low power distance culture would be better demonstrated by coming to class prepared, being on time, offering input, and perhaps reducing the level of formality used in addressing the professor. Respect is conferred and received differently based upon the value orientations of the student and professor.

I applaud any effort to elevate the importance of respect for one another. Respect rests in your intentions and that’s a critical part of cultural intelligence. In fact, CQ Drive–your interest and motivation to adapt to different cultures is the first of the four CQ capabilities. But respect is not enough.

  • Customer service reps need the skills to accurately interpret an interaction and respond effectively and respectfully.
  • Negotiators need culturally intelligent strategies to build trust and close deals across cultures.
  • Organizations need global standards that are applied universally while allowing flexibility for how regions enact standards like responsibility, innovation, and integrity.

These are the kinds of skills we’re privileged to help leaders and teams develop in organizations around the world.

Cultural intelligence has to be driven by respect or it’s simply a tool to manipulate others. But it’s overly simplistic to think what your default social skills and what you intend to be respectful will be enough. The greater the cultural distance, the more likely your respect won’t be interpreted as respect. But as we consciously develop the skills to read a situation, take the perspective of others, and behave with cultural intelligence, we’ll make great strides in being both respectful and effective in our increasingly diverse, globalized world.

Contact us to use a CQ Assessment, schedule a Developing Cultural Intelligence™ Workshop or to create a customized strategy for building cultural intelligence skills.

We also offer Certification in cultural intelligence.

A Culturally Intelligent Way of Handling the Elephant in the Room

davidlivermore | August 18th, 2014 4 Comments


I’ve always been a fan of directly addressing the elephant in the room.[1] I don’t enjoy conflict but I loathe avoiding it even more. In this way, I’m terminally a New Yorker. Don’t dance around the issues. Shoot straight with me and tell me what you think! Yet for most of the world, conflict is best addressed more subtly. Harmony and saving face are the driving values.

Direct versus indirect communication is one of the biggest challenges faced by multicultural teams. And the conflict is exacerbated when most of the communication takes place virtually. A blunt email, an obtuse response, or a silent team member can erode trust and productivity.

Most of the teams who take our CQ Assessment have a wide range of preferences regarding direct versus indirect communication, even if they’re a relatively homogenous team. Many things influence how directly you communicate, including your age, gender, personality, upbringing or cultural background. And the more culturally diverse the team, the more likely communication differences will chafe at you.

You might be familiar with Edward Hall’s work on this cultural difference, something he called low versus high context. A direct, “low” context individual draws very little meaning from the context and just pays attention to the words spoken. An indirect, “high” context individual pays as much attention to the context, body language, and to what’s not said as to what is said.

Here are a few thoughts on how to understand either end of the direct-indirect continuum followed by some specific phrases you can try with your teammates.

Understanding Indirect Communicators (High Context)
Direct communicators should beware of assuming indirect communicators are passive-aggressive or dishonest. There’s certainly a possibility that someone is “beating around the bush” to keep you in the dark; but there’s just as much chance the individual sees this as the most respectful way to communicate with you. Most indirect communicators will be hesitant to give you bad news and will avoid giving you a direct answer because they were taught that speaking this way is more polite. They will change the subject or tell a story when put on the spot. To communicate disagreement, an indirect communicator might say something like, “That will be difficult,” or “Let me get back to you on that.” Meanings are implicit and silence is typically used as an expression of respect.

Understanding Direct Communicators (Low Context)
On the other hand, indirect communicators should beware of assuming direct communicators are insensitive and rude. Again, there’s the possibility that’s true but someone who speaks explicitly may just as well be coming from an orientation that says I respect you enough to tell it to you like it is. The assumption is that everyone should be brutally honest because that’s the most efficient, healthy way to work together. Eye contact communicates trust and confidence. Even most direct communicators still value some measure of diplomacy and kindness but they will go to great lengths to be sure everyone “Says what they mean and means what they say”.

Handling Direct vs. Indirect Communication on Your Team
So how do you handle these differences on a multicultural team? Who adapts to whom? It’s difficult for any multicultural team to function in an entirely indirect way. Even if all the team members come from a high context (indirect) orientation, different contexts presume different meanings (e.g. the meaning of who sits where around a conference table may mean you’re the leader in one context and it may mean you’re an outside guest in another).

A few important strategies to address this on your team include:

  • Spend time understanding one another’s preferred communication style. A few minutes doing this can save hours of time and frustration. The Cultural Values section of the CQ Assessments can be an ideal way of doing this.
  • Create a set of communication guidelines for the team. What should be handled via email, phone call, etc.? Be specific and clarify each team member’s understanding of the guidelines. It’s not enough to simply say “Be respectful in your communication” because some define respect as “being upfront” and others define respect as communicating through a third party.
  • Ask those on the extreme ends of the Direct—Indirect continuum to adapt their style as needed. Very direct communicators need to soften their blunt edge and very indirect communicators may need to be more explicit to ensure the rest of the team understands them. Here are a few examples:

The team leader needs to model a culturally intelligent approach to helping multicultural teams address these communication differences. The leader should demonstrate the agility to communicate directly and indirectly as required by the situation, task, and team members involved. Being conscious of these differences combined with an intentional plan for bridging them will improve your team’s productivity.

Direct versus indirect communication surfaces everywhere—office communications, classroom discussions, and family interactions. What strategies work for you to effectively approach the elephant in the room?


[1] An English idiom that refers to ignoring a problem everyone can see.

Don’t Treat Your Customers the Way You Want to be Treated

davidlivermore | March 20th, 2014 No Comments

–Guest post by Julie Slagter with David Livermore


If you have culturally diverse customers (and hopefully you do), consider adding the following to your customer service training manual: “Don’t treat customers the way you want to be treated”. This may break the golden rule of customer service, but applying it may help improve your customer satisfaction ratings.

Small talk may be considered a waste of time to some task-oriented cultures and endearing to others. Friday might seem like a great time to suggest a phone meeting for some but not for a customer whose weekend includes Friday (e.g. most Middle Eastern cultures). Given the variety of customer preferences, it might be dangerous to ever assume a customer wants the same thing you do; but it’s especially dangerous when the customer comes from a different culture. Here are four tips to begin thinking about culturally intelligent customer service:

1. Adapt Your Communication Style. “Good” communication differs depending upon the customer.

  • When emailing, respect cultural differences in relation to how you address people (e.g. “Mr.” versus “John”) and refrain from using slang or abbreviations. It’s best to start more formal.
  • Sometimes it’s the little things that set your customer service apart. For example, changing the way you write the date for various contexts (20 March or March 20) or referencing something specific about the customer’s context (e.g. Chinese New Year, a recent election, etc.) can demonstrate your not just communicating robotically.
  • Proof your marketing materials extra carefully and consider what particular photos or colors might communicate to other cultures (e.g. White symbolizes “clean and pure” in the Anglo cultural cluster and “death and mourning” in the Confucian Asian cultural cluster).
  • Use humor cautiously and avoid sarcasm.
  • If your customer’s primary language is different than yours, slow down your rate of speech, clearly articulate your words, and pause frequently to allow space for the other person to process the conversation or ask for clarification.
  • Determine whether a customer wants you to “get to the point quickly” or prefers more details.

2. Don’t Take it Personally. Remaining neutral and optimistic when a customer is upset is not an easy task. But assessing the situation through the lens of cultural intelligence can help. For example:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly when a customer appears upset. The reaction could be cultural (e.g. Some individuals have been socialized to raise their voice in order to be heard but it might not mean they’re upset with you).
  • Some cultures teach the importance of saying “Thank you” after you’re served. Others suggest it’s an insult to say “Thank you” to someone who expects to serve you.
  • Some individuals are trying to “go over your head” when asking to speak to a manager. Others come from a culture where it’s assumed you would prefer to defer this to someone more senior.

At some point you may determine that a customer is just being rude; but it’s important to start with considering whether it may simply be a cultural difference. Take a deep breath and think about how culture might be influencing the interaction with the customer.

3. Resolve Conflicts Creatively. Cultural intelligence will also help resolve conflicts more creatively.

Take the following situation for example: Two of your customers aren’t happy with one of your products and you have a no-refund policy. John, a New York City native, demands a full refund and won’t take no for an answer. Sanjay, born and raised in Mumbai, continues to give you a lengthy explanation about the crisis his family has just experienced since he initially placed the order. Based on these cultural differences, how might you handle these two customer complaints?

  • Listen actively with appreciation and tact. Acknowledge their point of view and ask constructive questions to help you better understand their perspective.
  • Learn how to express empathy for various cultural contexts. Some simply want to be heard. “I’m sorry” or “I understand” will go a long way with them. Others want some kind of action, even if you can’t offer a full refund. Read some of the important findings from this study that looked at how call service employees in Singapore expressed empathy across cultures.
  • John needs a confident response referring him to the terms and conditions he agreed to. However, Sanjay needs some affirmation that terms and conditions don’t always account for circumstances like his. See if you can offer any flexibility and even if you can’t, acknowledging that this is an unfortunate situation can help defuse the conflict.

4. Don’t be too quick to Adjust. All these suggestions can be dangerous if used without cultural intelligence because you end up assuming all New Yorkers or Indians want to be served the same way. It’s a delicate balance. You want to acknowledge that Friday might be a bad day for someone in Dubai to do a conference call but you also don’t want to imply that everyone in the UAE is a practicing Muslim. Likewise, wishing someone a happy Chinese New Year can be a “small thing” that makes a difference; but it can also seem patronizing.

Improve your cultural intelligence and use your increased understanding about cultural differences as your hypothesis for how a customer is likely to respond. But be ready to adjust your approach when you receive cues that suggest you should go a different direction.

As you adjust your assumptions and responses to various customers, you create a better customer experience. Don’t assume your customers want to be treated like you do. Find ways to approach each customer with cultural intelligence and simultaneously enrich your own fulfillment by encountering the vast world of differences at your reach.

Culturally Intelligent Chit-Chat

davidlivermore | January 15th, 2014 7 Comments

Sometimes we spend so much time deliberating the ideal skills for cross-border negotiation and intercultural communication that we overlook one of the most important ones—small talk! What you say during a formal interview or meeting is important. But your overall likability and trustworthiness may more likely be judged based upon your informal conversation in the elevator or over lunch.

Some dismiss chit-chat as an unnecessary and annoying waste of time. But casual conversation is an essential part of connecting with friends, colleagues and people we’ve just met. Yet informal interactions are when we often experience the greatest sense of cultural differences.

What questions are appropriate?

Should I say anything about what just happened in that meeting?

Should I share this about myself?

Is it okay to ask about his/her family?

Will they understand this humorous reference?

How am I supposed to eat this?

In today’s increasingly, multicultural world, it’s impossible to learn the do’s and don’ts of appropriate chit-chat for every culture you’ll encounter. And even if you did, those stereotypes might not apply to your conversation partner. But there are few things we can do to engage in culturally intelligent chit-chat:

1. Prepare like an introvert going to a cocktail party
I was amazed when I learned that many introverts prepare for a social gathering by planning possible conversations ahead of time. Anticipating who would be there, what they could ask, and remembering various details of their lives is a social coping strategy utilized by many introverts.

All personality types will be well-served by using this kind of approach cross-culturally. If you know you’re going to be interacting cross-culturally, spend some time to think about what and how you should communicate. The ideas that follow are part of what you can do as you prepare.

2. Monitor the following
Draw upon your understanding of cultural norms (CQ Knowledge) and your ability to read cues in the midst of conversation (CQ Strategy) to monitor the following areas:

Many personalities and cultures fear the “awkward silence”. For some, “silence” suggests there’s not much chemistry or interest in the interaction. For others, silence during a conversation is golden. It allows time to reflect and simply be in each other’s presence.

Anticipate the meaning of “silence” for your interactions. Don’t panic when things get quiet. But for those who prefer silence, realize that excessive periods of silence will be unnerving for individuals from many cultures.

Social Distance
In egalitarian cultures, an administrative assistant asking a visiting executive about his weekend is simply viewed as warm and friendly. But in a more hierarchical culture, most people prefer that authority figures remain socially distant from subordinates and vise versa. Monitor what level of personal disclosure is appropriate for your cross-cultural interactions. In some cultures, openly sharing about one’s divorce, even to a complete stranger, is viewed as endearing and personable. In other cultures, that kind of disclosure is reserved for the most intimate of friends, and sometimes isn’t revealed for several years.

Family or Work
To what degree are work and professional accomplishments core to most people’s identity in this culture? In many Western cultures,  asking “What do you do?” is the most comfortable way to begin talking with a stranger. But in many other cultures, a discussion about one’s family name and background is a better way to make connections. Beware of assuming someone has kids or is married and look for subtle ways to pick up on whether family or work is a better topic of conversation.

Harmony or Debate
The norm in some cultures, such as many Germanic ones, is to have a vigorous debate about politics or even religion. You demonstrate your credibility and likability by being able to hold a position and debate it thoughtfully. In other cultures, politics and religion are taboo, particularly among new acquaintances. And in still other cultures, a harmonious interaction with limited conflict is really important, particularly among new acquaintances. Before you engage in sarcastic banter or challenging someone’s idea, monitor what that will communicate to everyone involved.  Even if you’re being sarcastic with your same-culture friend, it may send off a different signal to others as they observe it.

3. Observe, Observe, Observe
Where do you get the information to help you monitor the areas listed above? You can start with resources like Hofstede’s cultural values dimensions, or our recent book, Expand Your Borders, an overview of the norms for the ten largest cultural clusters in the world. But nothing better teaches you about how to effectively engage in chit-chat cross-culturally than watching how others do it.

Pay attention to what kinds of things people discuss. As always, beware of generalizing your observation from one or two encounters to an entire culture. But this is your best source of information on how to do chit-chat. Ironically, introverts may do this more naturally than extroverts because the introverted person is naturally wired to quietly take in what is going on around her.

4. Get some local news
Even brief mention of some relevant, timely information about a culture or city goes a long way to demonstrate interest and awareness of one’s context. And it’s usually a safe place to begin conversation because it’s already been in the public eye. Ask what an individual’s perspective is on a particular situation. If the local sports team has just played in the world cup, or a national election is forthcoming, even some brief mention of it demonstrates you have some personal interest in your conversational partner’s context.

5. Ask, “Where are you from?”
Instead of starting with “What do you do?” try “Where are you from?” I know some people are going to challenge me on this one. It’s not a simple question for many people to answer—particularly if they’ve moved around a great deal or find themselves living in a place that doesn’t very well reflect their true heritage. But the point isn’t so much the precise answer they give—but to see how they respond. Some might speak very literally about the neighborhood in which they live and grew up, while others might speak about the long-term heritage of their extended family.

Many of our regular readers are seasoned travelers and cross-cultural experts. Please weigh in with your own conversational strategies!

Why You Shouldn’t Adapt to Other Cultures

davidlivermore | November 6th, 2013 10 Comments

Cultural intelligence doesn’t mean being a cultural chameleon. Sometimes when I attempt a Japanese bow, I notice my Japanese counterpart extending her arm to shake my hand. It’s a bit like a middle-aged adult trying to act, dress, and talk like a hipster. It doesn’t turn out well for anyone.

When should we adapt to another culture and when is doing so inauthentic or worse yet, insulting? Clearly there are times we must adapt to different cultures. That’s at the crux of cultural intelligence. But is adaptation always the right choice? Here are a few questions I ask myself when making that decision:

1. Is it a tight or loose culture?
Michelle Gelfand from the University of Maryland studied “Tight vs. Loose” cultures. This refers to how strong the social norms are within a culture. It’s a society’s level of tolerance for people who deviate from its preferred norms.

Places like Japan and Saudi Arabia are “tight” cultures. They emphasize conformity to their dominant social values and norms. In contrast, Thailand and The Netherlands are “loose” cultures, where the emphasis is upon you behaving as you wish, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon someone else being able to do so as well.

When deciding if and how much you should adapt to a different culture, reflect on how tight or loose it is. Look at the research on the 33 nations included in the Gelfand et al. study. And use your own insights and network to get a sense of the expectations upon whether you should adapt your behavior.

2. Am I Compromising Myself?
I have a set of values and convictions that I’m not willing to compromise just to fit in with another culture. I suspect the same is true for you. Some people would be compromising their health or religious beliefs to participate in the excessive drinking that sometimes occurs at Chinese business dinners. And some companies, such as Bloomberg, forbid employees from accepting gifts of any kind, including having dinner paid for lest it compromise journalistic integrity. That policy runs against the grain of the cultural values of hospitality and gift-giving in many places around the world.

But cultural intelligence is not simply play-acting and performing based upon others’ preferences and expectation. It has to be rooted in a strong sense of your self. You need an inner compass to help you discern when adapting goes beyond your core values.

3. How can I best express my intentions?
By this point, the inevitable question is, Then why don’t we just let everyone be themselves? It sounds great. But in reality, your behavior might mean one thing to you and an entirely different thing to someone else. For one person, “being yourself” might mean being blunt and speaking boldly. To them, that might express conviction and passion. But for someone who has been socialized differently, it might come off as rude and aggressive. So we have to ask whether the behaviors we use accurately communicate the intentions we want to convey.

Many say it’s just a matter of respecting each other and allowing an inclusive space for our differences. But even what we consider inclusive and respectful is deeply embedded in cultural norms and behaviors. Good intentions are not enough. Behavior is the way people perceive intentions. And the behaviors that most strongly communicate are less how you pass your business card and whether you kiss, bow, or shake. And they’re more whether you’re willing to adapt the process for how you get work done, exercise flexibility in your policies, timelines, etc.

4. Will retaining our differences actually make us stronger?
Soon Ang and I are researching and writing an upcoming book on culturally intelligent innovation. Diverse teams innovate more than homogeneous teams do if there are high levels of CQ among the diverse team members. Therefore, if everyone tries to be the same, the team loses one of the most powerful drivers of innovation—the differences!

On the other hand, if every team member insists on “being themselves” and no one adapts, the team sits in gridlock. (U.S. congress anyone?!). Culturally intelligent teams draw upon their differences to find a third space where they can create innovative solutions that stem from the power of different perspectives and approaches.

Andy Molinski’s new book, Global Dexterity is an excellent resource that takes all of this much further. It provides research-based, practical ways to improve CQ Action—your ability to effectively adapt your behavior for intercultural environments.

When have you adapted too much? Not enough? What questions would you add to the list?

What’s Indian Culture? A dive into domestic diversity

davidlivermore | August 16th, 2013 3 Comments

–Guest post by Anindita Banerjee, a Certified CQ Facilitator and head of cross-cultural training at Renaissance Strategic Consultants

If you’re starting to work with a group in India, can you get by with a basic understanding of South Asians or do you need to narrow more specifically on Indians themselves? Or given the enormous population in India, might it be even better to focus more specifically on the region or city in India where the group with whom you’re working is located?

Given our interest in cultural diversity, the diversity practice at my firm recently initiated a study to understand domestic diversity in India and its impact on workplace practices. We looked at four broad regions (North, South, East and West). This is still a fairly broad brush approach. Keep in mind that many regions in India are significantly larger than many European countries put together. But some preliminary findings from our research offer some interesting insights:

Regional Differences
There are some clear characteristics across the four regions of India that are worth noting:

Region Strength Weakness
North Go getters; relationship oriented Emphasis on financial benefits
South Disciplined, simple lifestyle Don’t see the big picture; less flexible
East Intellectual ability Low task/ambition orientation
West Professional; ability to handle situations Always looking for a job!


Just as we must be cautious with how far we extend country-wide norms, so also we have to be cautious with how we interpret these regional norms. I have friends from North and South India who are far removed from some of the trends listed above and who would vehemently disassociate themselves from these descriptions. And there are many people from the North living in the South and visa versa. But as with all cultural norms, these are some broad generalizations that describe some contrasts across the country.

Marketing challenges
It may not always work to market India as one unified culture. The extent of relationship orientation can vary significantly across regions and averages may be misleading. A former CEO of a large manufacturing company in India said: “The dealers in north India are typically the happiest ones but are also the most demanding. In contrast, the ones in south may have issues but are less likely to admit they are unhappy or to articulate issues openly”.

India is consistently described as a place steeped in hierarchy but there are differences across India in this category too. North and South India are perceived to be more hierarchical of the four regions. We also found that although the manifestation for a hierarchical approach was the same across most of the country (e.g. subservience to authority) the drivers for that submissive behavior are different across various regions. For instance, in North India, the primary reason for submission to authority is fear of what will happen if you don’t comply with authority figures. But in the south, the reason stems more out of respect for age, position, and/or experience.

Career motivators
There are also clear differences in the career motivations that exist across the regions. In the North, upward mobility, improved lifestyle, and an entrepreneurial drive are the key motivators for most people. But in South and East India, stability is a far stronger motivator than getting ahead. And not surprisingly, we found that the retention rate is higher in East and South India.

India should not be thought of as one, unified culture. It abounds with diversity, which in turn drastically impacts the way to effectively work across India. Even we as Indians are challenged by some of the diversity across our country. In fact, some Indians would much rather relocate overseas than to a different region in India. An HR head of a leading Indian software company recounted a phone call from the father of an employee in East India. The father pleaded to have his son’s transfer to South India reversed. He was concerned that the different language, climate and food would just be too much.

We have to beware of the variances that exist across India and for that matter, within any national culture. It is nigh impossible to prepare for all the variances we’ll experience among different cultures and individuals. But that’s where the four capabilities (Drive, Knowledge, Strategy, and Action) of cultural intelligence will best prepare us. I’m simply calling for us to have a better appreciation for the importance of domestic diversity within a national culture.

Assessing CQ by how people talk

davidlivermore | June 12th, 2013 5 Comments

I’m constantly observing the way individuals’ cultural intelligence (CQ) comes through in their verbal interactions. I don’t mean whether they’re knowledgeable about many different cultures. I’m talking about whether they actually adjust the way they speak in light of the people with whom they’re communicating.

Here are a few specific things I monitor to assess CQ in how we talk:

1. Rate of speech
The other day, a non-native English speaker was ahead of me in the car rental line. He was having a hard time understanding the agent . But the agent just kept repeating the same thing in the same way, never slowing down or attempting to use different words. Speaking more slowly, clearly, and simply with individuals who aren’t familiar with your language or accent is a basic way to demonstrate some CQ.  But this is a little tricky. Because nothing is more insulting than speaking too slowly, loudly, or simply. So we have to find the balance.

2. Volume and Enthusiasm
I also observe how individuals regulate their volume and level of enthusiasm when speaking in various contexts. An African American executive describes the way he learned to speak in quieter, less boisterous ways in his office. He learned that his large stature and his skin color combined with his naturally loud voice was intimidating to some people. So he found he was better received by bringing it down a few notches. I use a different level of energy and volume when I speak at a conference in New York as compared to Tokyo. Some might say this is being inauthentic. And again, taken too far it can be. But some adaptation in light of the audience can eliminate unnecessary distractions.

3. Lingo and Jargon
If I’m working with a group of physicians or IT professionals, two fields that are way outside my expertise, I notice which individuals consciously stop to explain an acronym or idea to me that others are freely discussing. And in a similar way, I watch for the use of colloquialisms as people from one country or region talk with people from other places.  I also observe the use of insider language when we run cultural intelligence workshops with participants from a variety of disciplines and contexts, such as  people from corporate, educational, military and faith-based settings. Some of the participants adapt their language in light of the diverse group gathered and others seem to make little effort to eliminate or explain their use of terms and expressions that are unfamiliar to many other participants.

4. Double Voiced Discourse
And I pay attention to if and how people use double voiced discourse (DvD). This is an idea conceptualized by Dr. Amy Sheldon from the University of Minnesota who has devoted her career to studying how language is used in human interaction. Her work offers us a great deal when thinking about intercultural communication. She describes DvD as a communication style where you demonstrate a double orientation in how you communicate, both your own perspective and the perspective/s of the other/s with whom you’re speaking.

DvD is saying something like, “Given your expertise in ___, you know this better than any of us.” Or maybe you say, “This might concern you given what you went through last year.” Your statement indicates an understanding of the other individual’s perspective. If DvD is used too much or in the wrong situation or cultural context, it can be ineffective or even come off as insecure or manipulative. But when used appropriately, it reveals a core aspect of cultural intelligence—perspective-taking.

These verbal behaviors are most relevant to CQ Action—the degree to which you appropriately adjust your verbal and nonverbal behavior when interacting cross-culturally. And I could keep going with the kinds of behaviors that reveal someone’s CQ. Like how do you respond to the question “Where are you from?” Listing a specific town, unless it’s a globally recognized city, is not usually the best response when talking with someone who lives in a different country. Instead, start with naming your country or where you live or referencing your proximity to a well-known location.

During the next couple days, look for how these behaviors show up in your interactions. And I’d love to hear other behaviors you observe as a way to gauge CQ in yourself and others.


The Cultural Intelligence Center offers the only academically validated instrument to measure cultural intelligence. Learn more about CQ Assessments here or join an upcoming CQ Certification program.