All posts in “cultural intelligence”

What’s Your Default?


Did you ever wonder why some people seem to attract friends, business opportunities and seem to exude confidence even in unfamiliar situations? What’s their secret to success? Well, part of it has to do with their “default” or Cultural Intelligence. In the past we use to measure someone’s IQ and use it as a predictor of success in everything from educational achievements to financial success or notoriety in their field of choice. But, as David Livermore recently stated in his BBC interview this month, “The number one predictor of your success in today’s borderless world is not your IQ, not your resume, and not even your expertise”.  Cultural Intelligence it seems can give you an edge over anyone’s IQ, and quite frankly opens doors and windows to places you couldn’t image without it. Did you ever here the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know”? Well, that’s a bit like cultural intelligence. You can’t benefit from someone’s perspective if you can’t see it.

“Having the right knowledge, drive and openness towards other perspectives, an aversion to the trap of “group think” all contribute to creating an environment where everyone is valued, and new ideas and innovation is encouraged”, says Nasif Kayed, founder and CEO of The Arab Culturalist.

So, What’s Your Default?

Many people believe that simply respecting other points of view and cultures = Cultural Intelligence. But it takes more than respect to feel confident in multi-cultural environments, and even more to be able to see other perspectives as equal or for that matter better. Knowledge is key, second only to what you do with the knowledge. Do you use it to modify your behavior, or do you use it as a measure differences and barriers to connecting?

For instance, when encountering something new or different is your default to:

  • Be suspicious or curious
  • Be critical or suspend judgement
  • Contrast or compare
  • Ignore or find out more

By asking yourself some basic questions, you can begin your journey to improve your Cultural Intelligence and inter-cultural communication skills.  In our borderless world, cultural understand and awareness benefits you just as much as it connects people, encourages diversity and inclusion, and leads to innovation.  What’s your default?

The Arab Culturalist has developed a one of a kind workshop, which will be held on November 22nd in Abu Dhabi and December 6th in Dubai,  which is just the beginning of your journey to build you cultural intelligence.  Register Our programs  span a period of 25 years, teaching and advising businesses, government entities, community groups, law enforcement and students, in the US and Middle East on how they can create working and living environments that are inclusive and promote successful collaboration across cultures. Contact us to find out more at

Unexpected Consequences: How Should We Learn about Cultural Differences?

I recently met a group of university students traveling to the Middle East for a “study program” whose aim was to educate them about local culture and better prepare them for global positions.  They visited the most popular cultural sites and centers which including a trek into the desert and an authentic local experience.  I wasn’t surprised when I started to listen to some of their comments about what they thought they had learned and some of the questions that remained unanswered.  As a Cultural Intelligence professional, it didn’t take long to figure out that through the learning process the students didn’t become more culturally aware.  Instead their experiences had reinforced stereotypes about local cultural habits and norms, the outer and most visible aspects of culture one would find through “exposure” to these experiences without the proper guided discussion that should go along with it. Attitude matters too, but what’s more important is figuring out why they failed to build their Cultural Intelligence, and why these experiences left them with having more stereotypes than busted myths.

A recent study by Emma Buchtel (2014) posed the question: “Does learning about cultures improve cultural sensitivity, or does it strengthen cultural stereotyping?” Does it promote an “US vs Them” thinking that legitimizes stereotyping and supports prejudices? Butchel argues that with the wrong set of circumstances, attitudes and empty learning, what is meant to build cultural understanding and unity accomplishes just the opposite. True cultural learning is not as simple as trying local foods and learning about cultural dress and celebrations. This can be a great backdrop, but it’s not where the deep learning happens.  It requires a 360 approach to understanding culture with a conscious focus on the why not the how of things.

I have personally spoken to more than 20,000 students over a 6-year period, teaching and supporting learning about culture.  The anecdotal evidence I gained from that experience supports the theory that not every cultural experience succeeds in accomplishing the goal of cultural understanding. Some negative outcomes could be attributed to student attitudes throughout the experience.  But I observed that much of failures, not the successes had to do with the delivery of the information in a vacuum.  What I mean by this is when learning about local food or dress for example, the information is presented as a list of items consumed or worn without engaging the participant in critical thinking.

If we truly want to go beyond the surface, then we need to evaluate how we go about our cultural learning and invest in programs and experiences that succeed in accomplishing a true awareness and appreciation for our diversity as well as uniting us through the similarities that exist among all of us.  As Nasif Kayed, Founder and CEO of the Arab Culturalist says, “who were we before all of this (motioning with his hands)? We were all tribes and nations, exploring the vast expanses of the world, sharing ideas and learning about one another.”  Cultural habits did not grow without purpose, so we must learn about them through the deeper values that created them.  In discovering those values, we find the similarities that unite us. That’s when cultural exploration succeeds in teaching us to be culturally intelligent and better equip to navigate in a multi-cultural environment.

The Arab Culturalist has developed a one of a kind workshop, which will be held on October 25th, 1300,  which is just the beginning of your journey to build you cultural intelligence.  Register Our programs  span a period of 25 years, teaching and advising businesses, government entities, community groups, law enforcement and students, in the US and Middle East on how they can create working and living environments that are inclusive and promote successful collaboration across cultures. Contact us to find out more at

Cultural Intelligence and Honor Shame World Views

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.

Culture of Communication

Culture Matters. Did you ever wonder what you could have said or done differently when a business meeting fails to produce the desired results or sale of your product? Why did they chose “XYZ” company over you?  You may be surprised to know that what sets them apart is their ability to communicate in an atmosphere that builds trust and compatibility; elements that are integral to connecting in a multi-cultural world. For international companies, cross border success is tied to our ability to adapt our communication styles and plan for those differences within our business model. One way to achieve this is building Cultural Intelligence. The CQ model explains cultural intelligence  as  your companies’ ability to work effectively across cultures and is just one method to develop this essential skill. Understanding the cultural norms of a market or within your own organization may be the only thing stagnating growth, or killing the deal. Look at the advertisement below.  It was used by a foreign bank doing business in the Middle East to promote a new savings scheme.  See anything wrong with this picture? Building your CQ knowledge could give you the answer.

What steps can I take to build Cultural Intelligence and increase my chances of success on the international stage?

Once you understand the power of cultural intelligence, you can begin to take the necessary steps to adapt your strategy during negotiations, collaborate more effectively and efficiently with multi-cultural teams or avoid costly mistakes in marketing a product in a foreign market.  Here are some tips.

  • Have the Proper Motivation, (drive and interest in truly getting to know other cultures)
  • Build Your Knowledge about your team first and of course your client’s culture.
  • Plan for cross-cultural communication encounters by setting out a strategy.
  • Stay in the moment, look for non-verbal cues, and be ready to adapt your communication style to address cross-cultural communication “confusion”.

Here’s an example of how cultural differences are creating conflict within a team.

At your team meetings, Abdulla and Aruto,  junior team members are always quiet but have plenty to share via email and seem to have great ideas.  They are attentive and listen carefully but don’t contribute during the brain storming sessions. Other team members view their silence as a strategy to “keep their ideas” a secret, only sharing them directly with decision makers to out shine the others on the team. Abdulla and Arturo are new to the company, and haven’t yet figured out the “corporate culture”.  Other team members view their silence as awkward and an obstacle to collaborative spirit of the organization.  What’s going on here? Are these team members ultra-competitive or does culture affect their silence? How do they view power distance and the chain of authority among their team and leadership?

Understanding the answers will lead to improving your Cultural Intelligence.  Leading a multi-cultural team and motivating them to success can be difficult if communication styles affected by culture are not considered.  Building your cultural intelligence skills as a leader and as a team can help tackle these questions and create a cohesive collaborative, environment that leads to innovation and achieving the goals set by the organization. These skills can be used to have a better understanding of your company’s reach in the global market and can be the difference between an advertising campaign boom or bust.

Visit our CQ page to learn more about how to build your cultural intelligence.


Borders, Flags, National anthems, passports, visas, WALLS, boundaries and territories. It’s not just simple geography, it’s the mindset that creates our national consciousness or is it a means to divide and conquer?

Categorizing things is a skill that we develop starting from the day we’re born and reinforced throughout our education and environment. It is ingrained in our very being, and used to process the way we understand everything from math to the arts. We categorize people by gender, color, nationalities, culture, faith, political system or status, and the list goes on.

Is this just the way we are programmed to operate? If not, then how should it be?

Let’s simply look at the facts.

Yes, we are different, we do things differently and conceptualize things in ways we comprehend and are content with. So, what’s not acceptable about that?

We live in a time when somehow being different is not ok but rather the source of the wave of polarization that is effecting all aspects of society.  The old saying my way or hit the highway has become the prevailing winds of change. The loudest voices are screaming out that our differences are not interesting or unique, rather that they are to be looked at with precaution or even fear. Beware they are not like us, we are right, they are not!

When children meet, they are innocent, curious and intrigued by the world around them, particularity the differences; they don’t see white and black, blue eyes or brown, skinny or fat, rich or poor. But soon they learn perspective from parents, teachers, and their environment.  If the perspective is “us and them” then, the way they see differences  are no longer intriguing; rather they are met with fear, bias, misconception and prejudice.

If left unchecked, we grow up in an environment that is continuously injecting negative and stereotypes, into our mindsets (we let it), until our view of others is distorted by all kinds of misconceptions and negative perceptions.

What to do then? Through modifying our perspective, we can learn to take those misconceptions and create an opportunity to learn the facts about a certain culture or faith, nationality or ethnicity with the same curiosity and openness we had as children.

I also learned that it starts with me. Every one of us needs to first learn about ourselves before we can begin to understand others.  Call it our Cultural Values. Once I understand my underlying values, cultural norms, habits, traditions, the political identity and faith I proclaim, my comfort zone in going about life, I can begin to understand what drives my behavior and my perspective.

This perspective to accept who I am before others do, and that who I am may or may not have to do with where I was born, my traditions or faith, is critical to self-development and harmony in society. I call this Nationality vs Personality, and knowing the difference is the first step in building your Cultural Intelligence. What tribe or people I belong to or nationality I hold certainly does not represent a whole society, and conversely individuals that share with me faith, culture, or a political identity do not represent me. We each have our own, one of a kind, finger print, eye scan and DNA.

The perspective to be comfortable with myself in my own skin, strive to make others feel comfortable in their own skin, make sincere attempts at understanding others, empathize, sympathize, tolerate, creates an environment where we can live in peace and harmony.

For us to connect with each other, tear the WALLS down between us, we need to start with the basics. Greet each other with a smile at first glance, share a meal with a stranger, sit-down and have a chat, ask and answer questions, clear a misconception and clarify a perception with enthusiasm, passion, sincerity and laughter; cherish the moment and seize an opportunity that may never present itself again.

Cultural Intelligence for Kids?

Cultural Intelligence for Kids?

Cultural Intelligence (soft skills) have fast forwarded into mainstream teaching at many top colleges and universities including Harvard and Cambridge. Why? Because this generation’s educational needs are rapidly changing, and Cultural Intelligence is no longer  a “nice to have” but a “need to know”.  And, it is something best developed at a young age along with other skills like critical thinking, respect for diversity, and global awareness.
So, how can we incorporate Cultural Intelligence Skills into the classrooms?
Firstly, for those out there who are unfamiliar with the terminology, Cultural Intelligence is the measure of our ability to thrive in multi-cultural environments.   (Ang, Van Dyne, & Koh, 2005; Earley & Ang, 2003; Earley & Mosakowski, 2005) It’s our ability in many ways to feel comfortable in our own skin, and for others to feel comfortable in theirs when interacting with us.  It starts with tolerance and acceptance, and a true desire to get to know one another so that we can work together.
Four million students currently travel to study and this number is set to increase to eight million by 2020 (UNESCO). But studentsa recent study showed that Chinese students traveling to the UK to study saw their English language skills decrease by the second year. How? Because they did not take advantage of the city that that they were in, getting to know their classmates from differing backgrounds and cultures. Rather, they went to school, created their own communities and groups, and rarely ventured outside their comfort zone and 80% returned home ( So part of Cultural Intelligence is our ability to feel comfortable and confident outside of our comfort zone.

International schools are in many ways a small microcosm of the millions of international students that travel to study. During the past 8 years, while lecturing in many of  the international schools in Dubai,  I’ve asked the same questions of students and the results I found were similar to the UK study. How many of your students know an Emirati neighbor? A neighbor from a different country than their own? Whose first language is different than yours? How many of you have met your neighbors? How many of you have been to “Old Dubai”? Inevitably, my anecdotal evidence showed that less than 10% could answer yes to any of the answers and less than 5% had not ventured out of their comfort zone, but rather created closed circles of friends.

As teachers and administrators, we recognize its natural for children to gravitate towards other students like themselves; friendships form and that’s that. Some schools have made an effort to help students venture outside of their comfort zone, even making it a policy to change up classes each year in an attempt to encourage students to get to know one another. But without a true structured program, focusing on building Cultural Intelligence efforts can fall short.
What can you do? Well here are some tips to help students develop their Cultural Intelligence. There are many theories out there, but for kids you need to keep it simple. Colleagues Earley and Mosakowski from Purdue University published an article in the Harvard Business Review that gives practical advice about how to improve cultural intelligence.
They divided Cultural Intelligence into three parts: head, body & heart which I’ve adapted to the educational levels of young students.
Head: Learn about the cultures in your community. That means getting to know about other beliefs, traditions, and do mindbodyheartand don’ts. Knowledge is the first key to Cultural Intelligence.
Body: Understanding common gestures between different cultures in not enough. Sharing those gestures in a sincere way, even though it may not be from your culture helps people to understand one another and feel included. Many classrooms start their day with “Assalamu Alaikum” translated as “Peace be with you”. 95% of the time, students don’t know what this means. Starting each year with a short explanation and understanding this greeting goes a long way to creating a feeling of unity and togetherness. And remember this greeting is not exclusive, in some ways it means the same thing as a handshake, kiss on the cheek or hug. Let’s be friends.
Heart: This has to do with confidence. Feeling confident in your own cultural norms, including knowing what they are, helps  you to make others feel comfortable with theirs. It’s all about sharing and understanding. Instill a sense of curiosity in your students that it’s OK to ask why about cultural behaviors, and be ready to guide them to the answers. And don’t forget to self-evaluate (reflect).

The Meaning of Hajj by Nasif Kayed, Founder the Arab Culturalist

Hajj is the Arabic word for pilgrimage and is a journey to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia that a submitter (Muslim) must make once in a lifetime if able financially and physically. This fulfills what is ordained by the Lord Allah as one of the five Pillars/Acts of Worship.


Today Muslims plan to make this journey when they are able as one of the five Acts of Worship.  The pilgrim must strip him or herself from all worldly attachments, this is symbolised by the wearing of two simple pieces of white cloth for the male, and a white or plain dress for a female that is free of any designs or frills. This in itself brings about the principle of equality between all pilgrims regardless, of wealth, colour, ethnicity, language and health. 

In the holy city of Mecca lies the Ka’ba, a square building draped in adorned black cloth which was built by the Prophet Ibrahim PBUH and his son Ismael. This house of worship has been preserved, and the area built up around it is known as Al Haram Al Shareef. This is where more than 3 million pilgrims perform Hajj each year, circling around it sets of 7 times and performing daily prayers. They are many steps to the journey and worshippers must stay focused and patient.

Regardless of where you from, as a Muslim, once you have reached adulthood you should strive to fulfill this obligatory act of worship once in your lifetime. To some it is easily accomplished, to others it is very hard because of distance, the money it costs to make the journey or the physical strength necessary to perform the rituals of Hajj.

Some Muslims never get a chance to go before they pass away. In this case, someone else can perform Hajj on their behalf, but not before they have completed their own.

Following the completion of this journey, all Muslims celebrate Eid Al Adha, which starts with a congregational prayer shortly after sunrise, and then involves dressing in new clothing and visiting family and friends. Children receive gifts and families spend time together.


The principle behind this journey is to commemorate the story of Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) who is known as the father of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He reestablished the belief in One God, Allah, in an era when idol worshipping had become a way of life. According to Islam, he grew up in a home where his father was an idol maker, making idols from wood, stones and dates and sold them. Ibrahim felt in his heart that this was wrong, and would spend days journeying and contemplating the nature of the true Lord. Ibrahim was chosen by the Lord Allah to deliver this message, and he endured numerous tests and trials of faith…


Ibrahim had a desire for a son, but became an old man without children. He remained patient and faithful and continued to ask for a son until Ismael was born from his wife Hajar in old age. Later he was blessed with Isaac from his wife Sarah, Peace be upon them all. (The moral behind this story is patience.)


Allah asked Ibrahim to take baby Ismael and his wife Hajar to the desert, and leave them alone in the area that is known today as Mecca. Hajar trusted in Allah‘s order and waited patiently. Once out of food and water and alone with her baby, Hajar ran between the hills called Safa and Marwa, looking for help. She prayed for Allah’s Mercy and protection, and the Almighty provided for them a spring called Zam Zam which opened from under the feet of Ismael. This story is reenacted by the Pilgrims at Hajj who run in between Safa and Marwa 7 times, and drink from Zam Zam.

It is this spring that made life possible in such a harsh place that grew into the great city of Mecca and became the home of the holiest mosque in Islam.

(The moral behind this story is to trust in Allah.)


Once again Ibrahim is tested by the Lord as he is told in a dream to sacrifice his son. When Ibrahim tells Ismael of the dream he obediently answers, “Do as you are ordered!”. When both son and father are ready to obey their Lord without questions or hesitation, Allah bestows His mercy on them and presents Ibrahim with a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. (The moral here is absolute obedience.)


The last tale is commemorated by sacrificing a lamb on Eid Al Adha at the completion of Hajj.  The meat is shared among family, neighbors and the poor, and we remember how blessed we are. It also reminds us to relinquish our love for material possessions, think of those who are in need and appreciate the most important and dear to us, our Lord, our families, our neighbors and community.

Hajj is a commemoration of the devotion to worshiping the one and only God, to be willing to sacrifice what you most adore and has been prescribed on the people since the time of Ibrahim.

Freedom or Oppression

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Recipe for Corruption? Cultural Intelligence without Core Values

For the past two decades, experts, gurus, and psychologists have been equating high Emotional Intelligence with success in leadership. But what if that leader is simply using his EQ skills to mask his emotions and control the emotions of others for his personal benefit? What about the common good and well-being of employees and goals of the organization?  Is EQ being taught in a vacuum?

With all the crash course and solicitations for EQ certifications and seminars, I began to do some self-evaluation.  Years ago I was told to be a great manager you need to understand the psychology of motivation. “Take a behavioral psychology course,” one of my associates said, “it will make you a better manager.”  I understood the impact of pulling at someone’s heart strings to motivating them into action. But what if the action is morally wrong or self-serving? Are there underlying common core values that must be taught before we can be given the “weapon” or skills of EQ?

Emotional Intelligence is being taught in our schools, colleges, and workplaces, as a system that promotes successful leaders and healthy work environments. Unfortunately, I have witnessed just the opposite and seen its destructive side. EQ without a moral code of conduct is a dangerous tool.  Its dangers are seen all around us, in the workplace, in politics, and in governance. Teach a bully EQ and he’ll be a better bully. Bullies have a high level of “social intelligence” and teaching them EQ could actually help rather than hinder bully behavior. While some advocate that EQ can reduce bullying, EQ without the proper moral codes won’t stop the bully from “reading people” to his advantage.   Many political campaigns and “exits” in hindsight make little sense to us and we wonder about how we were swept up in the emotional wave that’s out of sync with our core values.

Neuroscientists tell us that emotions are in the subconscious part of the brain. For instance, if I see something that emotes jealously, I cannot stop the emotion, but I can control how I react to it with thinking and intellect, which are in another part of the brain.  On the other hand, values, are cognitive and emotional. They combine thinking, concepts, goals, and beliefs with emotional attitudes that can be positive or negative. For example, if one of your core values is justice, and you see injustice towards one of your co-workers in the workplace, emotions such as empathy or anger will motivate you to action.

Some core values are universal while others may vary according to regions and cultures, and again have a variety of factors that influence them.   If we are going to teach Emotional Intelligence in our schools and workplaces, then we need to teach it in the context of the values that go along with it. It’s important to teach how to manage our emotions, but not to use that control to control others to their disadvantage. Otherwise, the acute development of Emotional Intelligence without a defined set of core values can lead to corruption and manipulation of human behavior rather than true leadership and a team  or community motivated to achieve  a common goal for the benefit of all.

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