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Cultural Intelligence: Respect as a Basic Rule

Knowing how to show respect is a basic rule of cultural intelligence.

Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

I was recently in Lisbon, the beautiful Portuguese capital city, when I saw an incident that illustrates one of the fundamental aspects of cultural intelligence – respect.

Here was this lady — a tourist — who addressed a local man on the street with a question, signaling with her hand that she did not know where to find the place she needed to go. The man’s body language was positive: He bent toward her and was all ears but did not understand what she was saying and with his hand asked her to repeat it. I have no idea what language the lady was speaking, but suddenly she made an incredible rude gesture with her hand, waving him away and turning her back to him. As she walked away, the man had a reaction of complete surprise and imitated her gesture behind her back.

I found the lack of respect shown by this tourist shocking. Here she was, in a foreign country, and she expected the local man to understand immediately what language she was speaking and what she wanted. Did she not realize that she was the outsider, who should show respect for the local language, culture, and people? Why would local people automatically know her language?

Demonstrating that you realize that someone else speaks another language and that you don’t automatically expect them to speak yours is a key sign of cultural intelligence.

Acknowledge everyone

In a session of Diversity and Inclusion training I did recently, we had mixed groups of participants. The company decided to train everyone and in our groups we had all levels of employees sitting and working together. One story that kept coming back from the people who worked on the company floor was that when management had a visitor from another site and walked around, they did not greet the workers: “We were not seen, not greeted, as if we did not exist. We felt humiliated, there was no respect.”

Everybody wants to be respected, absolutely everybody. Being ignored, not seen, not acknowledged, is terrible. Albert Einstein said: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”


Notice that respect is shown in everything we do—the way we behave, the way we talk, the way we dress, the way we think. Of course, behavior, language, and meaning can be interpreted in different ways in different cultures. Too often, we are disrespectful without realizing it, so we offend people without ever intending to.

Companies that want to invest or sell in another country usually start with knowledge about PESTLE: Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, and Environmental analysis of the market. You show respect if you have done your homework and have at least some basic knowledge about the PESTLE facts of your partner’s country.

However to this good "basic knowledge" I would add a C, for Cultural: PESTLEC. A good basic knowledge of the culture is as crucial as any other factor. Whatever our business with foreign partners is, we want to be successful and generally don’t consciously want to sabotage the business with unsuitable behavior. How many times have I heard, “If only somebody had told me!”

Cultural intelligence means that we try to learn as much as we can about the culture of our partner so that we can show respect.

Listen, listen listen

We cannot prepare for all situations and contexts, but we must keep our eyes and our minds open, and prepare as well as we can. The simple dos and don’ts are an absolute must. Awareness, humility and deep listening are qualities we can develop. As Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Renault and Nissan used to say, “Listen, listen, listen."

With our CEMS students, we do an exercise in which two groups have to find arguments for and against a provocative statement. As soon as one group has given its arguments, we ask the other to paraphrase what has just been said, and vice versa. Students are always shocked by the realization that they don’t really listen and that they cannot paraphrase what the others have just said. In our minds, we are already preparing a counterargument or reply, and are not concentrating on what is really being said. We are listening to hear, not to understand.

It is difficult to silence our mind so that we can really achieve deep listening. Actually, real listening is a sign of respect. The man in Lisbon was listening, but the tourist was not. Her mind was closed to him, his language, and his culture.