An ill-judged photo – what is cultural intelligence?

Culture is more than a nationality – so cultural intelligence (CQ) means more than knowing about the customs of other countries. But what exactly is CQ, and how can we increase it?

by Veronika Henschel, cinfo

Last year I spent several months with Bedouins in Israel. I had already seen and learned a lot: camels run wild, you don't take photos of women, french fries are part of a real falafel. One day I wanted to take a picture of the village camel. But as I was walking towards the animal with the camera in my hand, several men ran up to me furiously. I had no idea what they were yelling, but they were clearly not happy about my intention to take some photos. I was confused and uncertain, because I couldn’t really understand the situation and whether it presented any dangers – no-one had told me it was forbidden to take photos of animals. How should I have behaved in this situation?

What is CQ?

CQ is the ability to reflect on cultural differences and act accordingly.

For some time now, the term cultural intelligence, also known as CQ, has surfaced in relation to intercultural competence. CQ is the ability to reflect on cultural differences and act accordingly. It is hardly necessary to stress how essential this is in our globalised world. An increasing number of actors are interlinked and people from diverse backgrounds try hard to understand and respect each other in work and daily life. The term cultural intelligence was first used by the researchers Earley, Ang and Van Dyne and consists of four components: CQ drive (motivation), CQ knowledge (cognition), CQ strategy (meta-cognition) and CQ action (behaviour). CQ is essential at all levels of international cooperation, from operational specialists to management.

Learning cultural intelligence

There are many aspects to cultural difference, of which nationality is only a small part: age, gender, social class, level of education, language – the list is endless. A high CQ involves recognising these differences as they arise and being able to analyse them in an unbiased manner so that they can be bridged as sensitively as possible. One way to develop this skill is through training courses, such as cinfo’s Collaborating Across Cultures. Such a course can prepare you for your next experience with other cultures and help you to avoid finding yourself in uncomfortable situations – or help you to analyse challenging situations better in hindsight and so to learn from them.

Later I found out that these men were convinced that their camel would get sick if it was photographed by strangers. I understood that I should first have found out whether and under what conditions I could take photos. This information would have saved me a lot of confusion. 
A course on working with other cultures could have helped me to better prepare for such potential blunders, and to be more sensitive in and move more comfortably in such situations. I would have been more aware of how diverse cultures are and what belief systems and customs lie behind them  and how important cultural intelligence is for success at work, as well as for one’s own security. 

cinfo's training: Collaborating Across Cultures

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