Cultivating cultural intelligence

Felipe Franco

Business Development Deputy Director

Views and ideas

I’m originally from Brazil, but in the past 10 years, I have had the chance to live in 4 different countries: the Czech Republic, Mauritius, China and France. Working and communicating with people from different backgrounds made me realise just how much diversity is a strength and an asset and how essential it is to cultivate it in order to make it shine but also to protect it from standardisation.

Culture shapes how we perceive the world: the way we think, behave, view Others and communicate with them. It is both a process and a way of life, an activity and a body of knowledge. An objective and visible dimension encompassing economic, political, religious, educational and legal systems, not to mention the arts and humanities. And a subjective dimension that includes values, beliefs, habits, customs, etc. But above all, culture is alive, it changes and evolves over time and with every exchange.

In a global and increasingly digital world, an in-depth understanding of different cultures (especially subjective aspects which may appear elusive at first sight) offers a better vision and understanding of Others. Going on an assignment abroad, managing a multicultural team, handling an interaction with a customer from another culture. These can all give rise to uneasiness or else rewarding encounters. It all depends how you approach it!

Learning more about a culture and being aware of its peculiarities helps to prevent all kinds of misunderstandings! For instance, the Chinese do not say “no” explicitly, as demonstrated by the fact that their vocabulary has no real equivalent of that word. Instead, they use the negative of the verb in order to refute the affirmation. This means that you have to interpret their reactions and read between the lines. For their part, the Czechs may seem too direct in expressing disagreement when all they are really trying to do is make sure that the message has been received.

Another intercultural example concerns the relation to time with some cultures being more or less monochronic. Only one thing is done at a time, delays are frowned on, the agenda is respected and deadlines are sacred. Conversely, in polychronic cultures, as I have myself witnessed in Mauritius or Brazil, tasks are linked together, punctuality is not essential and time fluctuates. Therefore, at the end of a meeting, although a solution is preferred it is not necessarily imperative… These specific features are shifting and it is not a question of locking people into their culture but learning from each other! Accepting that there is not just one way of seeing things.

What is really interesting is the common ground which lies “between” cultures: how we establish that link. For that to work, it is important to understand the differences and know how to manage them. What makes the link rewarding is what brings us together: the contribution of one part of yourself combined with the attention you pay to others. In China, people could clearly see that I was not Chinese, and they did not expect me to act like one of them! For me, it is not a question of adapting completely to a culture. The interesting thing is to ask yourself: What can I learn from the other culture and what do I have to offer from my own? To become aware of your own cultural heritage you have to start by building the bridge with elsewhere.

Achieving true intercultural expertise is the result of continuous attention and constant adaptation. It is absolutely essential to avoid absolute generalisations because they are unfounded. They put us in boxes, yet culture is alive and not immutable. Our humanity is made up of cultures but also of distinct individualities. And what we have in common is precisely this “between” dimension which is the place where our differences meet.