Cultural Intelligence

A little case-study of East versus West: The outwardly reactive versus the inwardly reflective

There are as many variants of intelligence as there are humans alive. Each one of us with his/her unique blend of mental capabilities that determine how we bring to conscious usage what we are aware of and what we know to make a difference.

A Defining Human Skill 
Cultural intelligence is one of many ways that intelligence as a defining human skill may be applied to help people to perceive cultural differences in a way that promotes mutual understanding and clear communication. The advent of globalisation and the emergence of technologies that enable instant inter-connectivity expose cultural differences in unprecedented ways. For Facebook enthusiasts and tourists this is a source of fascination. For those who do business, being unaware and/or insensitive may mean loss of (great) opportunities.

To foray into this enormous territory I shall highlight a little perspective of this multi-dimensional conundrum: Cultural intelligence as it applies to the differences between east and west as I have been experiencing them through my work as a consultant.

It was break time in a recent ‘Leadership Dynamics and the Five Intelligences’ even that I was conducting in Hong Kong. One of the delegates, a senior manager-engineer in a technology sector industry leader, approached me with the following question: “The company I work for is American. I am responsible for a multi-cultural team in a manufacturing plant in the Philippines that produces some of the most advanced components of an integrated system”. (Details omitted to maintain discretion). “When I deal with my American counter-part who is also my superior, the way he – and generally most Americans I deal with – communicates is not sensitive to the fact that we in the east internalize before acting. He keeps demanding immediate response but my education and background makes that difficult. How can I communicate this to him? The last time I tried he responded by saying that philosophy does not work for him. This business is about getting results and that is what he is interested in and focused on, adding: “When one day we’ll have a bit of free time I’ll be happy to have a conversation with you about it” “.

To Understand Blue One Must Be Able To Think In A Blue Way
This little anecdote reflects the divide between a culture of thousands of years and that of some two hundred years old. These two cultures operate at core on two different pressure systems and think differently about time. They have different values, different belief systems and subsequently different behaviours patterns. To understand the fundamentals that form an eastern – or western – mindset one must be able to mentally wear that mindset – at least to some degree.

“…my whole life is about my next life, my immortality” – a senior executive of eastern origin from a large multi-national presenting himself and his main goals in life. This is quite normal in the east. Many live their life with a focus on their afterlife. Even if it may be so, you would seldom hear this in such a bold manner in Germany or the Netherlands. By comparison and in relative terms – and of course this may be and is generalising, but it does highlight an actual perspective – the preponderance of a western mindset is to the short-term while the preponderance of an eastern mindset is to the longer-term.

The Great Strengths In Differences Teaming Up
‘Zen’ often associated in people’s mind with meditative states. Yoga, transcendental meditation, Tai-Chi – all originate in the east. Their core disciplines and higher levels involve states and practices that are outside the scope of comprehension of a reactive mind. But wait, if what is written so far gives the idea of the eastern being superior to the western, it is not. Because in making ourselves aware of differences, we need to take into account cycles and phases. Some western cultures were born into new cycles that bring new forms of intelligence. Thus, the west being the birthplace of modern sciences that gave birth to the technological revolution – all that ‘i stuff’ and more that garnishes 21st century living.

It is a thrilling modern-day tale of the reflective versus the reactive; the timeless versus time-is-money; the ‘it must be done now’ to ‘it must be done sensitively’. Two different natures of complexity meeting in a rapidly changing world landscape that both are struggling to get to grips with.

Many Worlds In One
This perspective can of course be vastly expanded into exploring many different microcosms and mind-boggling inter-cultural complexities that live in all continents and within many nations. We live in many worlds in one, where our ability to bridge divides and differences is a product of the degree to which we are able to personally develop in a way that enhances our natural intelligence and sensitivity.

The challenge of cultural intelligence is to perceive the nature of difference, learn to demonstrate that we are adapting both ways, in the context of learning to collaborate to meet times of unprecedented challenges and incredible new opportunities.

David Gommé
World Copyright 2011 © David Gommé

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