Cultural Intelligence for the Virtual World

Published on January 21st, 2021

We have all had virtual meetings where we aren’t sure whether someone’s connection has either failed, or they haven’t moved in a few minutes. Did someone leave the call deliberately in anger, or did their laptop crash? The better we get at using the tools we have – email, Zoom, Teams etc – the more we notice how thin our communications have become. We have lost the nuance of communications – the subtle body language and non-verbal sounds that help us interpret the true meaning of what has been said – all those things that the culturally intelligent are using to help them understand. 

Looking at the whole picture 

Albert Mehrabian has often been criticised and misquoted about the proportion of communication that is transferred through body language. However, his premise holds a lot of value. The words we actually speak are only a small factor contributing to a holistic message, made up of words, tone, volume, expressions, gestures, implicit understandings, context and many other elements.   

The webcam and mic on our laptops filter out a large proportion of that – we are left with the only words spoken and a condensed version of facial expressions and tone. One of the reasons we feel so tired after a day of virtual calls is that we have to work much harder to understand what is going on.   

How often do we come off a virtual call with a feeling that we haven’t accomplished very much?   

The cultural gym 

If cultural intelligence (CQ) were a muscle, now would be the time to book some heavy gym sessions. CQ is that skill that helps us interpret the meta-message – the unspoken part of a message. And if we’re working with fragments, we need to make sure that we use all the resources we have to make sense of what’s going on. Cultural intelligence won’t fill in all the gaps but will help us to reduce them significantly. 

To illustrate the point, we can look at the “quite good” dilemma.

“Quite good” is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language, and it becomes even more dangerous in the virtual-working world. “Quite good” can mean nothing at all – it’s a throw-away phrase we put out when we can’t be bothered to put effort into giving a full answer. Or it can be an expression of admiration and excellence – “that was really quite good!”. Or it can be an encouragement to do more – “that was quite good, but you could do a brilliant job!” Or it can be damnation as a lazy, inadequate job – “that was quite good, but you could really have put some more effort into it.” 

We need context – visual clues, tone of voice, understanding of our relationship – to recognise the correct interpretation. Culturally intelligent people are familiar with probing the message – asking additional questions, searching for contextual clues and challenging their own assumptions. They, by default, question the meaning of a longer silence, rather than filling it with noise. They look for the words left unspoken – Edward T. Hall’s “Silent language.” 

Virtually crossed wires 

Stereotypically, people state that when a Chinese person says “yes” they don’t always mean “yes” – they frequently mean, “I’ve heard and understood you.” This is, of course an over-simplification, but again, it hides an important truth. We don’t always use language that is grammatical, we don’t always say what we mean – we use irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, humour. We assume that people know the subtext and bring the same contextual background. Confusion and misunderstanding are built in to our primary communication method because we have different senses of humours, we all experience the world in different ways, we have different vocabularies and linguistic and cultural resources.   

A conversation in 2020 is much more likely to be a virtual one – whether by video call or Zoom, our work has become digitally reduced, rather than digitally enhanced. We build relationships with our colleagues in the social moments between work tasks; we share small talk with clients as we walk to a meeting room or after a meeting as we finish off coffee. These accidental conversations cannot happen on Zoom. With a virtual relationship, we find it harder to build trust, so we have more complicated agreements and micro-manage our teams.    

Building virtual cultural intelligence 

A challenge, then, is before us – how can we hope to start communicating effectively, with so few people ready to work in the office – the BBC reports that many of the biggest companies based in London have no firm plans to return yet, and some have already closed offices permanently. This is a picture that is reflecting a global trend.   

Cultural intelligence can give us at least three strategies to reduce the risk. 


Be up front about it. Acknowledge that it is difficult to communicate and build relationships in the same way as in physically co-located contexts.This gives us permission to misunderstand without it being such a big issue – we can recognise that we all at times struggle and permits us to choose to seek mutual understanding. State it explicitly when you’re communicating with people, whether video call or email.   

When you say that you are struggling to communicate clearly and to understand others, you protect the face of those you are communicating with – they can admit their difficulties without ceding authority or credibility. You can normalise asking for clarification.   

This is particularly important if someone is not speaking in their native language. When a non-native English speakers asks you to repeat or tells you they don’t understand, the default assumption is that their English is not good enough. We rarely confront that the fact that we do not often speak as clearly as we think we do – we use too many ambiguous “quite goods.” By assigning the issue to the virtual context, we are not challenging our colleague’s understanding of the language but looking for mutual understanding. 


Challenge yourself to ensure you really understand. Ask yourself questions and if you can’t answer them confidently, ask the person you are communicating with to clarify.   

Recently a colleague was purchasing a service, where the supplier had worded the financial proposal unclearly. The price was quoted as a fixed sum “over a three-year period.” To calculate the annual cost, the colleague divided that sum by three and raised a purchase order. The supplier replied to say that the cost was the original sum each year for three years.   

As the potential purchaser had not clarified, and the supplier had not checked their understanding, both sides wasted a lot of time and effort on a proposal that was significantly over the budget limit with no chance of compromise. Rather than rely on their assumption that this was a really good deal, they should have probed further. 


Edward T. Hall talks of a silent language, but we need to pause to take it in effectively. Too often we rush to respond, and we start speaking while our brains are processing input. Overlapping speech and interruptions are a huge barrier to understanding, so take the time to allow your brain to catch up and process what you have heard before replying.   

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” (Proverbs 17:28), which is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, when he said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and to remove all doubt.” In truth, that moment of silence allows you to think of an appropriate answer, having devoted all your attention on understanding. This allows you to reply in a culturally intelligent way – the height of wisdom! 

Pausing briefly before responding not only aids your understanding, it demonstrates respect to those you are communicating with, but showing you value what they’ve said and are prepared to consider your reply carefully. Parents frequently tell children to think before they speak, but we rarely take our own advice. 

To say that 2020 is the year of change is an understatement. But as you consider the advantages of working from home, make sure that your productivity doesn’t drop by ignoring how you communicate with your colleagues and partners. Build your cultural intelligence into an asset that takes advantage of the extra flexibility we’ve gained.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

We’ve got over 28 years’ experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?