How to improve your intercultural IQ

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For a while the term “emotional intelligence” was ubiquitous. Today I want to write about another type of intelligence - intercultural IQ. A type that is very necessary for those who go abroad to work or study in multicultural or global teams.

Even if your regular IQ is impressive, this doesn't have to correspond with you intercultural IQ. Navigating in different cultures is tricky.

Just think about it. I will give you two examples from my life.

I do not want to insult anyone, but at the beginning of my stay in the USA, it took me a while to understand that the more energetically my Japanese colleague nodded his head and said “yes, yes,” the more it meant he did not understand what I was saying. Or that when my American boss said something was “great,” he meant, “correct.” If he wanted to express enthusiasm, he would hyperbolically say “this is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” I’m pretty sure every expat can relate to this.

Some of us have some degree of intercultural IQ and quickly learn to read in between lines. Others find it overwhelming.

Many companies employ coaches to train employees in navigating the melting pot. The problem is that the training usually only consists of an explanation of cultural differences. “We value youth and innovativeness,” or “we value hierarchy, experience, and seniority.” No one teaches how to improve one's intercultural IQ.

Of course it is good to know intercultualr differences. Unfortunately, this type of knowledge does not really enable us to communicate more easily across cultures. Just knowing that Brazilians do something in a such way, and Americans do something in a different way, does't mean that we can feel at ease doing it.

Another problem with this kind of coaching and advising from professionals or self-help books is that they are not very trustworthy. At least I do not trust them, ever since I started to find them full of stereotypes.

Knowledge of cultural differences – assuming that it was not pulled out of some textbook dating back to 1920s – is just the first step towards success.

What is a lot more important is the second step, which most advice books and coaches leave out. Maybe because it is not all that easy. It requires the ability to adjust to new cultural conditions and to change one’s behavior to fit the cultural context.

Andrew Molinsky, a professor at the Brandeis University’s International Business School, calls this ability “global dexterity” and writes about it in his excellent book “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process.”

Here’s how to work on your inter-cultural IQ:

1) Turn yourself into a cultural detective and really get to know the new context. It is not enough to read one book. Talk to people, watch local TV, listen to the radio, and look around. “Dig” deep. The American culture is different in a small town in Washington and in a big city in Texas. Your colleagues will behave differently in a Bay Area start-up than at a New York university or a Boston corporation.

2) Find a mentor – someone who knows the new culture and can explain every detail and nuance to you. There are many things that are easy to overlook or misunderstand.

3) Learn to leave your cultural comfort zone, but in a way that will not make you feel strange. Change your behavior in small steps. If you feel very uncomfortable saying something in a stressful situation (like at work), start in an easier context – in a café or while shopping.

4) Behave like an actor – learn your part, have a dress rehearsal, and only then go onstage. For example, if you are presenting a report to your boss on some subject, learn this role and practice on an employee. Ultimately it will start to come naturally.

5) Prepare yourself for failures and have a strategy for keeping your chin up when dealing with goofs. When you notice something is wrong, say that you are sorry, that you are just learning the culture, and would welcome advice or constructive criticism when you do not manage to communicate something well.

How do you cope with cultural differences? Any tips?

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