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How to develop cross-cultural skills?

Created on 10 May 2008 Written by Cheryl Seminara
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Before your next cross-cultural assignment, I strongly recommend you read the journal articles and books by P. Christopher Earley. His research has focused on cultural intelligence, and he is considered a leading theorist. One article starts like this:

"You see them at international airports like Heathrow: posters advertising the global bank HSBC that show a grasshopper and the message:
‘USA - Pest.
China - Pet
Northern Thailand - Appetizer' “
(Earley, et al, 2004)

Being culturally intelligent means that you recognize what is similar about the culture of those around you, and what is different. It is more than simply learning customs. Someone working in China has studied the country and its customs and recognizes that it is common practice to name your children based on birth order. A person who is culuturally intelligent knows to drain his glass after a toast, and demonstrates that behavior at the appropriate time.

Cultural intelligence involves developing cognitive and metacognitive learning to utilize all of your senses to register the ways the people in front of you interact. I am a Sicilian who grew up in Boston. I lived in South Carolina for 13 years, and now live in Las Vegas. Cultural intelligence isn't just an international concept - it is regionalized in the good old USA. If you don't believe me, trying being a good Sicilian girl trying to fit in with debutantes in the Deep South.

Earley and his research team have developed an instrument that helps to determine how culturally intelligent one is, and the book is an easy read with great examples. One story is of an American living in Arizona at the border, running a company in Mexico. For weeks he kept inviting his line managers to lunch to thank them for their work. Finally, they both came, but quit their jobs on Monday. When the American got one of them to speak with him weeks later, he explained that he wanted to thank them for their hard work and thought that by showing he values their work that the employees would in turn gain new respect for them. He was dead wrong. His invitation was considered completely inappropriate in that culture. The two line managers were so ashamed that they felt they had to quit their jobs.

If you are working with other cultures, even if it is within your own country, you should read Earley's articles in Harvard Business Review (Cultural Intelligence) and the Academy of Management Learning and Education (The Elusive Cultural Chameleon: Cultural Intelligence as a New Approach to Intercultural Training for the Global Manager). See also the related article "International Cultural Differences".

About the author:
 cherylseminara.jpg

Cheryl Seminara is a Business Strategist specialized in Marketing, Operations and Corporate Education. Her successful strategic planning background includes marketing, advertising, sales and professional development. She is launching a course that will combine in-person instructor led sessions with online courses. The program will teach small business leaders how to write and implement a successful strategic business plan. Click here to see her full profile in LinkedIn.

Last Updated on Saturday, 04 August 2012 22:43
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