3 reasons why you may be ineffective
in intercultural situations and how to overcome them

Let’s say you are going for a business trip to Australia (assuming it’s not your home country. If you are an Aussie replace Australia for India). Let’s assume you’ve never been there and know very little about Australian culture, business etiquette, people etc. Thus, you want to learn a bit about Australia to avoid possible surprises ensure a successful business trip. What do you do?

The most common reaction around cultural awareness development is simply learning about another culture. It is usually a culture of a country you are moving to, you are exposed to most often at work, negotiate or do some other sort of business with. It is great that more and more people acknowledge cultural differences, want to understand others’ behaviours and adapt to them to some extent. I am the first person to sign up for courses such as “Working with Brits”, “Doing business with China”, “Negotiating in India”, “Business etiquette in Brazil” etc. I find it extremely interesting and informative.

There are three reasons why such an approach doesn’t guarantee success. (In fact it does help a lot, but does not guarantee it.)

Firstly, it is impossible to learn everything about any particular culture.

As a 100% Polish person, who was born in Poland, who grew up and lived there for 20 years, I constantly have a feeling there are quite a few things I don’t know about Polish culture. I am lucky that Polish culture is not very diverse. But how about countries which significantly differ from region to region or are more ethnically diverse? Let’s talk China. Even after studying sinology for several years I doubt that a foreigner can grasp the culture of such a huge and diverse country. You may argue here that you can learn enough to get to know the basics and understand what you see and experience. Yes, you can. However…

Secondly, limiting yourself to a specific culture may make you paralysed when dealing with people from cultures you haven’t learnt about.

You may say again: “But I am going to Australia for a business trip! I will talk to, work with and spend time with Australians! Why should I be bothered by a French culture?!”
That is absolutely fine to learn about Australians. Such knowledge will definitely help you to understand reasons behind local people behaviours. It will help you to be effective in working with Australians. However no country, no culture, and no place is isolated or separated from the rest of the world. What if the team of supposed-to-be-Australians turns out to be more international than you expect? It may be composed of Filipinos, Indians, Canadians or anyone else. What if you go to Fiji, Bolivia or Slovakia for your next business trip or Sri Lanka for your next holiday? Are you going to focus purely on a new culture every time you think you will be exposed to it? What if you work for a truly international organization (let’s face the truth, most companies these days are international, either hire employees from various countries, serve international customers, purchase goods from abroad, negotiate contracts with international partners etc.)? Are you able to get to know every single detail of every single culture you are exposed to? 

And lastly, even a broad knowledge about any specific culture doesn’t guarantee effectiveness in intercultural situations. You may know a lot but may be incapable of using what you know in cross-cultural situations. 

You may ask again: “But I am going to Australia for a business trip! I will talk to, work with and spend time with Australians! Why should I be bothered by anything else?”

And I will repeat myself again. There is absolutely nothing wrong about learning any specific culture. You are going to Australia. Beautiful! You definitely should read about local culture, habits, food, and attractions to see and do. However what I am trying to say is that knowing a lot about Australian culture may not make you effective in dealing with Australians. What if you go there knowing that Australians communicate in a very direct way, they are also on the individualistic side of the scale but being incapable of using this knowledge, incapable of putting it in action, incapable of adapting to them? The knowledge is powerful only when you can apply it appropriately.

Again, I am NOT against learning about any specific culture. I do it myself very often. What I want to explain here is the importance of developing other capabilities in order to be effective cross-culturally. The approach I strongly suggest is Cultural Intelligence (CQ). CQ is a great framework developed by the Cultural Intelligence Center which suggests 4 capabilities which put together help you function effectively in various intercultural situations. Yes indeed, knowledge is one of them. As I have been trying to explain, I am not against acquiring knowledge about any specific culture. But aside from CQ Knowledge, the other 3 capabilities are essential to excel in intercultural contexts: CQ Drive, CQ Strategy and CQ Action. I highly recommend Dr David Livermore’s book titled ‘The Cultural Intelligence Difference: Master the One Skill You Can't Do Without in Today's Global Economy’ which introduces the topic of CQ. 

The Cultural Intelligence is not inborn, it can be developed. It may be too tight though to develop it a week before your trip to Australia. However it’s never too late. In today’s world we are all exposed to various cross-cultural situations. Cultural Intelligence is not a luxury these days. It’s a must for everyone.