Cultural Intelligence is the capability to work effectively in diverse cultural situations. Sounds like a must have skill, right? Ok, let’s say you agree and decided that you need this skill in your workplace environment, as an international student or teacher, in your diverse community or for travel to an unfamiliar country and culture. How does one acquire these skills?

The first step is to examine what motivates and drives behavior.  For any individual or society, this would be determined by many factors including some general considerations like your place of birth, your family’s discipline style, your education, religious affiliation and your social encounters. Have you ever wondered why you chose your career or educational path? Your friends or hobbies? Your likes and dislikes? Most people would be surprised that your personal cultural values, world view and Cultural Cluster* have more influence than you think.

*Cultural Clusters, or grouping countries according to 10 culture cultures are a useful way to categories similarities and differences across regions. But one must be skeptical to use these as rigid behavioral predictors, as there are country by country factors that make every society unique.

Cultural Intelligence and understanding a person’s cultural values helps you determine what motivates actions and reactions when communicating across cultures, in decision making and collaboration. But it isn’t that simple, especially in the UAE.  For example, thirty years ago, you may have been able to say that the GCCs most predominate cultural value is honor, with the opposite an avoidance to shame. When modern day anthropologist Muller devised the three worldviews he used the map below to parcel out the world into regions of Honor-Shame interpretations. Take notice that all societies have some form of honor and shame as motivating factors for behavior and communication styles. That technically makes every society at some level an Honor-Shame culture!

So, what’s the difference? The key to building your Cultural Intelligence skills is to understand HOW honor is defined in a specific culture as it motivates behavior. Knowledge and being aware is the first step to developing a strategy that helps you to lead or collaborate within multicultural teams. Here is an example of how honor is defined in two cultures and how it effects decision making.

In Japan honor means “saving face”, and dishonoring someone else would mean the loss of “face” for them as well as yourself.  This translates into very passive and polite social interaction and communication styles. For example, one of our clients mentioned that her associate thought a marketing pitch meeting went well. Her client was cordial and complimentary of the strategy she proposed and said they’d be in touch. The associate was surprised that the client did not contact her, and later when pressed declined the offer.  There was no indication during the meeting that they were not happy with the proposal.  Did the associate miss out on cues from the client that were overlooked because of cultural communication differences?

In Arab/Islamic culture, honor is related to symbols held in high esteem such as the Quran, Prophet Mohammed, rulers, certain occupations and those in authority. Therefore, there is an intense competition to defend as well as achieve the status and mannerisms of those figures, thereby achieving or maintaining your honor. Take for instance the most recent suspension of a columnist in Saudi Arabia for “over praising its ruler” . A misunderstanding of expected protocols when honoring leaders just cost him his job.  Understanding the fine line between honor and shame is critical when working in the GCC.

Evaluating one’s personal style and cultural values, combined with understanding cultural norms is the first step to becoming more Culturally Intelligent. For more information, contact us to learn how you can build your Cultural Intelligence and take the Cultural Values Assessment and CQ Survey.