In today’s multicultural and interconnected world, intercultural intelligence skills (ICI) are increasingly required. I sat down with Vivian Manasse to discuss whether this is innate, or whether ICI can be learnt.
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Vivian describes herself as a lawyer, an interculturalist as well as being an executive and life coach. She also acts as a board member and is a founding partner and manager of Going Places Intercultural Consultants.
She’s been pioneering the Intercultural Consultancy Field in Brazil since 1999 & has trained and coached over 15.000 employees of Fortune 500 Companies, such as Bayer, BASF, JLR, Accenture, GM, Banco Santander, both in Brazil and across the world.
As well as being a qualified lawyer and coach, Vivian works as an International Business and International Law Professor at the Red River College (Winnipeg, Canada) & the MBA programs for the Business School São Paulo.
She speaks fluent Portuguese, English, German and Spanish.
Having grown up in a German Jewish family in Brazil, Vivian has always been fascinated by the way that people from different backgrounds interpret the behaviour of other people. This multi-cultural upbringing lead her into law where her language skills drew her into the international field and she saw the fascination of deciding for example “which law” should be applied or analysing how to work with clients of different nationalities.
What is Intercultural Intelligence? How to define ICI?
In an increasing global society, demand for these kinds of skills are growing not only on a societal level, but also in business and education. This has become even more important post-pandemic where an increasing number of companies are realising that they can source their teams from almost anywhere in the world, and equally people have realised that they are not location dependent for a large number of the knowledge based positions which are available.
According to the Wikipedia, the definition is:
Cross cultural communication depends on more than just language – culture also plays a significant role, so having great language skills doesn’t necessarily make you a great communicator across cultures if you lack the empathy or intercultural intelligence to “translate” WHY other people act the way that they do.
In the business world, such cultural misunderstandings are the basis of business school case studies on why international expansion projects failed. (You might also find my post on some classic “failures” interesting.) Improving ICI would reduce the number of misunderstandings that result in reduced productivity and sometimes in projects failing completely.
So who should be receiving Intercultural Intelligence training?
Often when companies think about paying for such training within their organisations, their primary target are those people who may be about to head abroad to work in another office or subsidiary, or those people who will be travelling regularly to a country. That isn’t the full story though and leaves out many team members.
Who is in contact with the other cultures that you are working with? Those are the people who need to be trained…& it can be extremely situational. (Situational leadership and intercultural intelligence actually go hand in hand…)
As soon as there is physical distance between teams (it can even be in the same country) and especially as soon as time differences make life more complicated and different communication styles then specific training makes economic sense.
A couple of examples where ICI comes in handy
Think about the example of the accounts department, who are perhaps not on the “front line” of working with overseas clients. When they come to contact their counterparts abroad, there is often already an underlying tension (eg unpaid invoice, some kind of query) that is layered on top of perhaps not the best language skills (not a primary requirement usually). Misunderstandings can often occur & escalate costing companies time and money.
Another very typical example could be the email above, sent from a European company. A Brazilian might react defensively: “Europeans are always on vacation…why am I expected to do additional work just because they are going away?”
In actual fact, the sender of the mail is trying to avoid any emergencies coming up during their holiday by preemptively asking about “potential landmines” that could otherwise blow up to cause problems for the other person.
It always comes down to context
Do you understand the mindset and recognise the priorities and values of the different cultures that you are working with? It’s important to develop a keen sense of observation in order to recognise how people react in different situations.
Do you have a certain “agility” when it comes to dealing with uncertainty? This is absolutely a skill that will help you to read different intercultural contexts.
High context vs low context
In so-called low context cultures (such as are common in Central & Northern Europe) you can gather information by asking precise clarifying questions to which you can expect to receive to the point answers. Generally business discussions will be focused on a specific result or outcome.
In high context cultures such as Brazil or east Asia then you need to learn to “read the air” and to understand that a large part of the communication is taking place by virtue of what is not being said. If you don’t naturally have this kind of “inductive intelligence” it can be hard to recognise what is going on.
In many countries you can ask clarifying questions, which will not only help to build relationships with the people concerned but will show that you are genuinely interested to learn about their culture. That way you are more like to also receive some leeway when you make mistakes.
Yes, I said WHEN because it’s inevitable that you will “put your foot in it” at many points along the way if there is a conflict in personal styles and you need to adjust your approach according to the context of the situation.
Also, remember that there are degrees of high or low context – it’s a sliding scale between the two rather than a binary decision. For example the UK is low context compared to Japan, but high context compared to say the Netherlands.
Lists of Do’s and Don’ts do NOT automatically equate to intercultural intelligence skills!
Often when you refer to ICI then people assume (my least favourite activity) that you mean the kinds of list of cultural things that you can find all over the internet.
eg. hand over your business cards with both hands in Japan, never ask personal questions in the US, give extremely direct feedback in the Netherlands
Whilst these are all justified and valid points, they can feel like a huge long list of stuff to learn whilst not actually being behaviours that come naturally to you. Actually, most people are quite forgiving of errors (at least for a certain period – probably not if you carry on doing them for 10 years or so!) but it will help you to honour the other culture if you at least try to understand the values which stand behind those activities.
- In most European languages, the phrasing “me and you” is regarded as being impolite as it appears self centred. Instead “you & I” is the polite way to express things…
- Handshakes. In Northern Europe or the US a firm handshake is understood to be a symbol of a reliable, strong, decent person….whereas in Asia this can be understood as a sign of aggression (& if we’re being honest, I’m sure all of us have met someone who was certainly being passive-aggressive in their use of their handshake).
- Attitudes to time. For a Brazilian it’s no problem if someone is 5 minutes late for a meeting, a German tends to understand this as showing a lack of respect for their time
It’s worth asking clarifying questions as mentioned before, but you need to be careful not to be judgemental, but instead to try and understand the values system of the other person.
How flexible are you?
The more flexible you are and the more you are comfortable with ambiguity, the better you will cope with unfamiliar cultural situations. Remember that there are variations also within cultures both due to regional variations, company culture and of course individual preference so it’s impossible to generalise.
Around 20 years ago, I took over the Egyptian market from a colleague who was only too glad to hand things over. The Egyptian attitude to time drove him crazy meaning that he found each visit frustrating as he always felt like he was behind with his planned agenda. After the first trip when I realised that “the driver will pick you up at 9” probably meant something closer to 10:30, I decided to not let it bother me and just accept it as a given. I would stay in my room working until the lobby called to say the driver had arrived rather than sitting down there getting stressed at how I was wasting my time.
Can Someone Decode for You?
If you find a particular aspect of a culture hard to read perhaps you can find a buddy or colleague who can decode things for you? I’m sure country manager who has taken their boss or a colleague to visit their markets has experienced this situation. The “newbie” asks “why do we have to [insert cultural situation of choice]. Aren’t we wasting our time?” or “why do they insist on doing [insert cultural situation of choice]?” and you as the country manager need to translate the behaviour for them, explaining the value system behind it.
These kinds of questions in reality are often tinged with a kind of negative assumption so it’s important to decode whatever is going on…as I assume that in 99% of cases your business partner is behaving in good faith.
Vivian quoted the example of a lady working for a German company in Brazil, who went on assignment to Germany for a certain period. She was confident of managing well, as she had a German partner and was used to working for the company. In actual fact, she returned to Brazil earlier than planned with her relationship having broken up and her self-confidence in her working abilities shattered. She was convinced that her boss had been completely dissatisfied with her work, as he kept giving her more and never praised her in any way.
It wasn’t until Vivian pointed out that he must have really trusted her to keep giving her more stretch assignments that she realised she had been reading the situation completely wrongly, and had applied her “Brazilian lens” to German behaviour (a lack of praise doesn’t equal dissatisfaction).
Are you a Coconut or a Peach?
How easy is it to get to know you?
If you originate from France, Russia or Germany (or the UK), then the chances are that you are a coconut. A coconut is really hard on the outside, but sweet and delicious once you’ve taken the time to break into it. It takes a little bit of effort, but is well worth it.
In practical terms that may mean that you are less ready to engage in conversation with strangers. You might come across as being a bit unfriendly or unapproachable at first. However once others have “broken” through the shell, then deep friendships can ensue.
A peach is sticky sweet on the outside with a hard stone in the middle. Typical peach cultures are the USA or Japan, who are friendly to people they just met. They smile at strangers, chat, share information, and are very nice and helpful. Once you get past the initial friendliness, it’s hard to get to their true self as that is protected by the hard shell of the pit. (Random fact, the bit inside of a peach pit is poisonous – contains cyanide – if a truck load is consumed). This can be seen as superficial to say a Russian or German.
According to Vivian, the US is a mix between a peach and a tangerine – yes sweet initially (with an impenetrable centre) but only within the context of the segment that you are involved. So you may have a good working relationship with someone, but it doesn’t extend to doing anything out of work together.
“It depends” has to be the best answer ever…
This is always going to be relative though. As a Brit, I probably come across as a coconut to an American. On the other hand, to a French person I might come across as a peach.
If you’re working with international teams then you need to consider this. Otherwise, your US developer may feel that the German project manager is being aggressive. The German on the other hand may feel that the American is shallow or oversharing.
I know that there’s quite a lot of literature on this topic out there, but the phraseology was new for me!
I’d love to have more insights on the very subtle differences within regions though. So say between Baltic states (my guess is that the Estonian sees the Lithuanian as a peach) or Caribbean Islands. What about the differences between the republics who used to form Yugoslavia? Do they become “peachier” as they get further south?
And what are you? A peach? Or a coconut? Leave me a comment below!
Vivian’s Key Takeaways for Learning Intercultural Intelligence
Recognise instead of minimising the differences
Accept that you will have things to learn and celebrate the richness of those differences. They are opportunities for you to learn from. Even if you already have a wealth of experience of working with people from that culture, there is always more to learn so grasp the opportunity!
Retain your sense of humour!
Accept that you will make lots of mistakes and that these will be the basis for many amusing stories to tell at your own expense over dinner for years to come.
Be Patient with Yourself
It takes time and practice to learn new habits, especially when they may be in direct contradiction to your upbringing. Don’t be uptight, but approach new situations and ways of dealing with them with openness.
Learn to Identify Core Values
What motivates people in a particular place to act the way they do? What encourages them to cooperate together?
Do you need to look out for hierarchies, social structures, religion, money, race? Does the country have an “island mentality” because they are isolated in some way (eg by geography or religion cf Brazil or Israel)?
Develop Smart Approaches
You need to learn HOW to ask questions in the culture you are working with. Can you ask something directly, or do you need to adopt a more indirect approach? If a particular culture doesn’t like to answer personal questions, can you find the information you need by asking business related questions?
What do your observations tell you? Being a keen observer can be one of the best ways to learn, and provides you with a detail that you can ask “why” about for a learning opportunity.
How do you need to approach people for them to give you the information you need? In many cultures you may need to be prepared to invest time out of office hours to go for meals or partake in weekend activities (honestly, those are the best bits of biz trips!). Going out for lunch with a busy executive might simply be the only way to get his or her undivided attention.
Accept that Intercultural Intelligence Skills Can be Learnt
It may take time and persistence, but for sure this is something that you can learn. You need to recognise that this is a hard skill, and not something fluffy and so appropriate training is a worthwhile investment for as many of the team as possible.
The best way forward is to allow different perspectives in decision making and problem solving. The bigger the checklist of potential questions you have, the better…even if not all of them will apply in each individual case. Blind spots are dangerous and you really don’t know what it is that you don’t know, so keep adding to your list of reference points and questions over time.
Never assume that any 2 markets, companies or people will react the same though as situations vary according to the context as I mentioned at the beginning. In today’s world where the majority of international interactions take place online, making it harder to understand the non-verbal cues, the more context conscious your teams are, the better placed they will be to decode the behaviour of the people they are talking to. The same applies with the increased use of AI in business – teams who are experienced and “context conscious” will be able to add more value to a conversation than those who only have the same information as the AI itself.
You can find the full interview with Vivian here:
This interview was first recorded for the Business Beyond Borders Event in 2020.
You can find some of the other interviews from the Business Beyond Borders Event also here on the blog:
- Maria Iacob: International Money Transfers
- Kate Isichei: Internal Communication Strategies Across Borders
- Lorenzo Fornaroli: Managing International Logistics & Supply Chain Management when starting out in Export
- Joanne Chan: Localisation and Translation Management. Be multi market ready
- Wael Masri: Building International Business Relationships to Drive Growth
- Kathrin Bussmann: Starting to Build your Brand in International Markets
- Alexander Assouad: Managing Global Teams and Building Culture when Working across Borders
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