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Repeat, Correct, Reflect: Practicing Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence is a skill you can acquire through constant practice.

From my previous posts we know that cultural intelligence, or CQ, is essential in a global business environment, not just for leaders, but everyone who comes in contact with people from different backgrounds, at home or abroad.

Cultural differences are all too often limited to nationalities or ethnicities. We all have several identities and belong to several different groups. For example, there are cultural differences between us and our parents: We don’t always think or act the same way. There are cultural differences between genders, as we are socialized in certain behaviors. There are cultural differences between job roles: An engineer and a salesperson will look at the same events with a different eye and have different interpretations.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

We know the early years of childhood determine what we believe and how we behave: Our brain gets wired. However, although socialization in a culture happens from birth and takes root in our early years, it continues to develop over a lifetime: We continuously learn new things, adapting our thinking and our behavior accordingly. That is one of the things that makes us human.

Christian de Duve, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist describes in his book Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity, how “growing neurons continually send out projections in all directions. Acting like ‘feelers’ these projections, upon chance encounters with each other, form transient connections that quickly come apart again if they are not used. If a stimulus repeatedly goes through such a connection, it becomes stabilized into a synapse.”

That is why we need to repeat the tables of multiplication a hundred times before we can use them without thinking. It also shows us how flexible our brain is, and how we can learn something new.

Constant practice

Cultural Intelligence is a skill which can be acquired, but which takes constant practice. It cannot acquired in one go; it needs repetition, correction, reflection. This is the reflexive or metacognitive aspect of CQ. As I wrote in an earlier post: “A leader with good metacognitive CQ constantly checks if her or his actions are appropriate for a specific cultural context.”

New knowledge creates new connections in the brain, and this cannot start early enough in life. In particular, it is beneficial to learn another language, as it develops parts of the brain that help with many different cognitive skills and social understanding. Bilinguals have a huge advantage over monolinguals: They can navigate between two worlds, and see clearly what is similar and what is different. Parents cannot give their children a better advantage than educating them in two or more languages as early as possible.