Cultural Intelligence – The forgotten skills

Published on January 20th, 2021

Over the past few months, we have all been learning new ways of communicating. For those who have been isolated, we have been restricted to virtual communication channels. And we have found out that when you strip away body language, familiar contexts and a conducive environment, it is much harder to get your meaning across. We are discovering that we need something more to help us communicate, particularly when we work across borders – and, for many, that “something” is cultural intelligence.

Cultural Filters

Communication is harder than you think.  In fact, many linguists would agree that language is an imperfect tool at best. Every time you speak to someone, your audience translates everything you say through a cultural filter, even when they have the same native language as you. Tone, pitch, intonation, non-verbal or meta-verbal cues, body language, eye contact, relationship, wider context – all these and thousands of additional variables influence how we understand something we hear or see.

Consider two conversations:

Speaker one: “What time is it?”·      
Speaker two: “Half past four.”·      
Speaker one: “Thank you.”
Speaker one: “What time is it?”·      
Speaker two: “Half past four.”·      
Speaker one: “Well done!”

(Adapted from “Intercultural Communication”, Ron and Suzanne Scollon, 2001)

With a little analysis, we can deduce that the second conversation is taking place between a parent and child, or possible a teacher and a language student. We have used our cultural intelligence to put the words we hear (or see in this written example) into a context that gives us meaning. But even in this simple example, there are at least two interpretations (and I’m not going to explore the possibility of the ironic “well done.”)

Unspoken Rules

Cultural intelligence helps us interpret not just communication, but the world around us. It helps us understand that what is normal and real for me is not necessarily normal and real for you. People with high cultural intelligence can quickly identify the unspoken rules and assumptions that are common to a specific group of people.

It would be nearly impossible to try and learn the cultural traits and practices of every person you come into contact with. Even if you were able to learn the traits of those nationalities you work with regularly, the specific habits and customs of industry, profession, family, peer group, company or even office are much harder to pin down. That’s why cultural intelligence is so important, according to the BBC.

ABC of Cultural Intelligence

We can summarise the key ways to develop cultural intelligence, by looking at an ABC:

  • Accept
  • Be Curious
  • Clarify


The first stage is to accept that you don’t have enough information to interpret the world perfectly. Take it as fact that you don’t understand the way the world, and more importantly, other people functions. The way you do things and say things works for you, but it won’t necessarily work for others. Have the serenity to accept what you cannot change.

Be curious

Acceptance is like noticing you have a headache, without reaching for a painkiller. Become more curious about everything;  probe whether you have understood correctly – or whether you have been understood correctly. Be alert when you get responses you don’t expect – often a sign of miscommunication. If you are asked the time, and the person replies, “well done” when you were expecting, “thank you”, you need to explore why you didn’t see the teacher-student relationship. Don’t assume you have communicated successfully, until you have investigated further.


It is inevitable that misunderstandings and confusions will happen. At a very simple level, you can see on any video call that people miss their cues, interrupt and overlap in speech much more frequently than face to face. We have to repeat ourselves more often and there are more pauses and awkward silences.

Clarifying means asking more questions. When you have a silence, ask directly for input; when people are interrupting, suggest a turn-taking strategy; where confusion takes over, suggest an alternative method of communication (email for example). Asking open questions invites more communication; more communication brings better understanding; better understanding fills your data banks and builds cultural intelligence.

Forbes’ article divides Cultural Intelligence (CQ) into three areas:

  • Cultural Knowledge
  • Cultural Skills
  • Cultural Metacognition (or Mindfulness)

Understanding the cultural traits of the individuals you work with, combined with an array of effective intercultural skills will help you develop cultural intelligence by being mindful of the invisible thread of culture that permeates all our interactions.

Cultural intelligence is one of the most underestimated skills portfolios, and yet it is one of the most important ones to develop.


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

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