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Is Cultural Intelligence Still a Thing?

About ten years ago –not too long in real-time, but an eternity in technology time–, there was this buzzword, “cultural intelligence.” Maybe you heard it? I bet that if you were working for a global, geographically distributed team, you did hear about it.

What does it mean? Good question! Here’s a short and sweet answer: it is the acquired capacity to relate and work effectively across cultures (you can find the long answer on Wikipedia).

It is also referred to as CQ in some circles: the acronym for cultural quotient, similar to how they defined EQ (for emotional intelligence, see?).

There are many applications and aspects of CQ. For now, let’s focus on those related to global technology teams.

In the definition above, I mentioned cultural intelligence is an acquired capacity because it is something we can develop. Let’s briefly discuss how.


We need to start with an open state of mind. No, really. Sounds easy, obvious, but it could get complicated. Remember how culture is “what goes without saying”? Well, let’s ponder that for a moment.

I like to mention a passage from the beautiful book by Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” The author spent years in New Guinea, and he points out how some villagers from remote areas can perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to do all their lives. And here’s what I want to point out, in one passage, Jared Diamond says, “Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.”

Trained for is the key I’m trying to get to. You see, when you deal with people from different cultures, think about this. Think of how the difference is the training we each got from the environment, our families, and our experiences. I bet this idea changes things and can give us the open perspective we need. Also, thinking about generalizing, rather than stereotyping, helps a long way.

We might think that nowadays, cultural differences are reduced to almost nothing. While certainly differences are not that evident as a century ago –with some exceptions–, let me tell you that you may need to cultivate your CQ more than you think. The more we learn about other cultures, the more we start to understand and see those differences.

Cultural awareness

Getting data on cultures is the easy part because we can find documentation from many different sources about those exciting differences. We can get some of this information from cultural training. However, nothing beats traveling and experience what I like to call “cultural immersion” (but we’ll get to that later). Also, being mindful during those immersions will help, speaking of which…

Having the right mindset

There are some things that we can actively do to gain CQ. Remember that this, like many other learning experiences, requires exposure, awareness, and practice.

  • Relational skills. Yes, we have to talk to people.

  • Tolerance of uncertainty. Be ready for different reactions and behaviors. These can be more intense depending on the cultural distance (we’ll get to that later as well).

  • Empathy. Let’s try to see their point of view. At least give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • Observe reactions to specific situations, then decide how you want to act.

  • Adaptability. Sometimes it’s us, the ones that have to adapt.

Maybe cultural intelligence is not the buzzword it used to be, but for sure is an excellent tool for global teams. So, the answer is: yes, it is still a thing.


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