Small Cultures and Cultural Intelligence (CQ)

Published on February 23rd, 2022

There is a discussion emerging again, after a few years of quiet, about what culture actually is. 

Csaba Toth, in Forbes magazine has put forward a really interesting perspective challenging us to consider intercultural conflict in the context of the interpersonal. 

I wanted to discuss further two points that Csaba makes.

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How many is multi in multicultural?

Firstly, the author asserts that we are members of 15-20 cultures.  I would argue that given that each of us is a unique combination of experiences, influences and backgrounds, we belong to a near infinite number of cultural groupings. Culture is dynamic and constantly changing and our membership of cultural groups is similarly unstable. 

Secondly, I would argue that those groupings are porous and amorphic – trying to define the edges of a cultural group is like trying to herd cats. One of the most difficult topics to address is that of national culture. How can we define a nation of 1.6 billion people such as India or China in one single way? Can we even say that the citizens of Luxembourg or Vanuatu have identical values and beliefs? If so, we could save money on democracy, because every election would have the same 100% support for the same candidate every time. 

Negotiating Culture 

In research from applied linguistics, we can see that when two strangers meet for the first time, they begin to negotiate the rules and practices that govern their interaction – which language they speak, personal space, levels of politeness and formality, who is able to end the conversation – and a million other things that are often taken for granted but are nevertheless essential to maintain understanding. This is a cultural group. 

If a third person joins the conversation, the rules need to be revised. The first cultural group is dissolved and a new one created. 

Imagine you’re at a work social event.  You’re talking to the head of a different department about a possible move to work with them. You don’t know each other very well, so the conversation is quite formal. She is more senior than you, so you know that she could easily change the topic or move to talk to someone else, without it being impolite. It’s not easy for you to move away politely.  After a couple of minutes, her partner joins the conversation. Suddenly the conversation is social, light and informal.  Now it is absolutely fine for you to make an excuse and move away – in fact, it may even be encouraged! 

What about values and beliefs?

Even values and beliefs are not as rigid as we might think. Even at the most simplistic level, every religion has some form of conversion experience – a moment when a seeker rejects what they believed and valued yesterday and accepts a new belief and value set. But it is even more complicated than that. 

My wife has a very flexible attitude to time. She is comfortable being late and will invest time in relationships, regardless of what that does for her schedule. However, this ‘cultural value’ vanishes quicker than you can say millisecond when it comes to our children. If she says she wants them home by 10pm, 10.01 might as well be next year. To share some of the blame, I’m a firm believer in flat hierarchies, however, parents must always have the last word in any discussion and when I say bedtime, it is not open to negotiation! 

It turns out that our fundamental values, are in fact, negotiable and dependent on context.  

Is that it for cultural intelligence? 

Cultural intelligence is the attitude, awareness, knowledge and skills to be able to identify how the members of a cultural group have already negotiated those rules and how you can either fit in – to become part of the in-group – or shake the rules up to re-direct to suit you. 

Suzanne and Ron Scollon argue that all communication is intercultural, and in this sense intercultural and interpersonal are almost interchangeable. In the VUCA world that we live in, making sense of business interactions is essential.  

Cultural intelligence starts with self-awareness. We begin to recognize that despite their flexibility there is still a shape to our core beliefs – they are more like a firm jelly than concrete. My value of shared authority at work, which is less obvious at home comes from a single point of looking after the wellbeing of colleagues (who need autonomy and sense of responsibility) and my children (who occasionally lack the wisdom and experience to make good decisions). 

Small cultures

When we truly understand ourselves and our cultural preferences, we can better understand those around us. Humans are not consistent – they are not mathematical equations or laws of nature that are immutable. However, with cultural intelligence we can begin to identify patterns that allow us to see the outline of a value set and help us to understand some of the motivations and behaviors of those around us.  

The biggest mistake you can make is to fall into the trap of ‘big culture’: ‘the Chinese are hierarchical’; ‘women are empathetic’; ‘left-handed people are more creative’. The big numbers are averages – which in some cases can have a value – but at an individual level, if you come across a hierarchical empathetic and creative Chinese woman who is left-handed, it doesn’t mean that she will conform to a specific set of behaviors and predictable reactions. 

In fact, culture is the opposite of psychohistory – the pseudo-science at the heart of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Psychohistory works best at the level of billions of people, according to the novel; cultural intelligence works most reliably and effectively at the level of the individual. Adrian Holliday coined the phrase ‘small cultures‘ to describe the growing importance of analyzing culture at increasingly smaller levels.  

Does this make all our research on culture irrelevant 

Edward Hall first started analyzing cultural difference in the 1950s so we have 70 years of high quality insight into the way cultures interact with each other and great tools to analyze the differences objectively. But much as culture evolves, so does research and it is time we moved on. Edward Hall may have categorized a nation as ‘low context’ in 1950, but is it still true? Does ‘low context’ mean the same now as it does in the post-war period? Hofstede built his model of cultural analysis in the 1990’s based on the organizational model of IBM from the previous decade. IBM of today would be unrecognizable to the organizational development experts of 40 years ago. 

The tools, models and data we have are essential, however, in helping us have a solid framework to examine culture at whatever level is necessary. But we should do so critically and with an open mind. The fathers of cultural study have created the foundation on which we can build tools such as cultural intelligence. 

As markets become more globalized and business increasingly becomes hybrid, developing cultural intelligence becomes more important. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the competence that gives us the tools to interpret better the world around us. And as we negotiate the cultures around us, CQ helps us to make conscious, intentional moves to build trust and relationships. And whether we are working or playing, effective relationships are essential to our wellbeing and identity. 


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

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