What is cultural intelligence?

Cultural intelligence, an essential requisite for expats

There is no single definition of cultural intelligence but, to begin, I suggest one that may be useful when it comes to introducing the concept: "Cultural intelligence is the ability to adopt a series of behaviour patterns that use capacities (e.g., linguistic or interpersonal) and qualities (e.g., tolerance or flexibility) given out in the right doses, with regard to the cultural values and values of the people with whom we interact".

Based on the theory of multiple intelligences by the psychologist, Howard Gardner, and on the concept of emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Brooks Peterson defines cultural intelligence as a series of facts that can be traced back to four areas or types of intelligence: linguistic, spatial, intrapersonal and interpersonal.

  • Linguistic intelligence

    Interact effectively with people from other cultures requires linguistic competencies. The higher the degree of involvement with the contact person, the more important it will be to learn his language. On the other hand, there is no greater kindness expressed towards a companion, a boss, a trade partner or the partner than to be seen to be making an < a href="/en/learning-new-language-5-useful-strategies">effort in their language. Having an excellent knowledge of the language is essential to communicate, although the fact remains that it gives you a clear advantage, especially in the professional sphere.

  • Spatial intelligence

    Knowing the distance to keep with the contact person in a conversation, knowing where the most important people sit in a work meeting, how the chairs should be positioned, if the people should be greeted with a reverence, if hands are shaken or if it is correct to touch the arm, as well as the skill needed to understand, anticipate and, at times, to imitate certain body language in the appropriate manner... All these elements are essential to begin a presentation, a meeting, a work lunch, in the best way possible, allowing us to adopt the most suitable behaviour in a given context.
    For instance, the respectful gestures of an Asian may seem ridiculous to a South American while, on the other hand, the wish to put across proximity, which a South American expresses in a handshake with both hands or a spirited touch on the arm, may seem offensive to an Asian.
    The different ways of using the body, the voice or space, in themselves cannot be correct or incorrect, as they represent mere differences.
    The capacity or incapacity to adapt our spatial behaviour to the context in which we find ourselves contributes to the success or failure of an interaction in an international environment.

  • Intrapersonal intelligence

    Based on cultural intelligence is the fact of knowing one’s own "cultural style".
    It is not certain if conscience always comes into play here. Seldom are we aware of the values that are at the basis of our national culture (perhaps different from our individual values) and in what unconscious way we use them to interpret and, at times, to "judge" the behaviour patterns of other countries.
    Awareness of one´s own cultural values, along with the awareness of other country’s cultural values, in fact, allows us to adopt the correct reading key to behaviour patterns in an intercultural environment, adapting our behaviour so that it is compatible with the reference context.
    Reverting back to the previous example, whereas respect is a fundamental value in Asian cultures, generating a series of rituals and formal behaviour patterns, human warmth and proximity are primary values in South American culture, proof of which are their behaviour patterns.

  • Interpersonal intelligence

    According to Gardner, interpersonal intelligence is the ability to "respond" appropriately to others. This is something that goes beyond not only the linguistic aspects of communication, but also beyond communication itself.
    Gardner describes interpersonal intelligence as the ability to "read the intentions and wishes of others as well as those that are implicit and less visible".
    The capacity to "read" people and anticipate their motivations and wishes is crucial for those who act in the international sphere.

How can cultural intelligence be acquired and developed? This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a process analogous to climbing up a sand dune: the risk of taking two steps forward and one step back is there. It implies ups and downs, progress and setbacks, regardless of the place, of the culture or of the country where we are. The fact is that the resulting enrichment justifies all the determination and effort put into it to achieve it.

In the next article, I shall be talking about how to increase one’s own cultural intelligence. Meanwhile, if you wish, feel free to share below in Comments what cultural intelligence is for you and how it has an influence in your life as an expat.

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