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If you’re American, it’s easy to forget so many of our innocent hand gestures—from the encouraging thumbs-up to the hippie-era peace sign—are interpreted as offensive and even vulgar overseas. For example, the A-OK sign is decidedly not OK in Brazil—nor in other countries in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.
Failing to heed cultural do's and don’ts in today’s global economy is risky, with everything from a lost sale to a lost job at stake. With business booming in faraway places like China, Brazil and Australia, Americans now embark on more than 6 million international trips each year. Meanwhile, the United States is increasingly becoming a cultural melting pot, with the U.S. Census Bureau predicting that nonwhites, now more than one-third of the U.S. population, will emerge as the new majority by 2043.
In today’s global economy, professionals need more than high intelligence (IQ) and emotional awareness (EQ) to succeed—they also need cultural intelligence, better known as CQ.
CQ is a vital 21st-century skill set, says David Livermore, Ph.D., author of The Cultural Intelligence Difference and president of the Cultural Intelligence Center based in Holt, Michigan. But what exactly is CQ? Livermore defines it as more than cultural sensitivity and awareness: It’s having the specific skills that are needed to work effectively, regardless of the cultural differences involved.
Are you ready to learn how to succeed in today’s global economy? “It’s not automatic, but with training, experience and coaching, anyone can improve their cultural intelligence, or CQ,” Livermore says. Here are five easy steps that multicultural experts recommend to get you started:
Gloria Petersen, president of Global Protocol Inc., based in Phoenix, says, “I think people need to realize it is very, very difficult to avoid cultural biases and prejudices. Some were taught to us as a child. Others were gained through personal experiences and outside influences, like television and media. The challenge is to develop the ability to put aside those biases or prejudices and learn to communicate with individuals.”
For a frank look at your cross-cultural skills and weaknesses, many online self-assessments are available, including some developed by the Cultural Intelligence Center. “With these tools, you can begin to look at where your greatest strengths and opportunities for improvement lie,” Livermore says.
To boost your CQ, do your homework, including reading books on cultural intelligence and etiquette. Make it a point to attend seminars and workshops that will deepen your understanding about race, ethnicity and culture, as well as help you learn more about the particular groups of people with whom you work.
Before embarking on your next international business trip, cultural speaker and author Terri Morrison recommends delving deeper. Find out: When is it appropriate to use first names? How does the culture view time? What is appropriate behavior in different circumstances? What’s the best way to negotiate? What are the religious taboos?
After you’ve done your homework, Petersen recommends contacting a person from your travel destination. “Buy them coffee or lunch, and it’ll be the best money you’ve ever spent,” she says. Explore questions such as: What have been your stumbling blocks in our culture? In what ways has it been difficult for you to adapt to us?
“I get the background from books and research, but then I validate it with people,” Petersen says. “You get your best CQ from talking to people from other countries.”
“Look for creative ways to gain hands-on experience in new cultures,” Livermore says. “Whether it’s traveling overseas, joining a project team that is focused on a new cultural market, or simply roaming the aisles of a grocery store in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, firsthand experience is one of the best ways to improve cultural intelligence.” To discover more intercultural opportunities, Morrison recommends checking with your local library’s reference librarian.
To hone your skills, consider enrolling in cross-cultural and intercultural training or hiring a coach. Cross-cultural experts can provide you practical tips on living and working abroad, including how to handle money and set up a home.
In addition, Petersen recommends receiving training from an etiquette and protocol expert who can coach you on polite behavior and mannerisms overseas, including what hand gestures never to make.
Boosting your CQ may be an investment in time and even money, but there are huge payoffs. “It only takes a couple of culturally insensitive statements to cost an employee their job or a company a contract,” Livermore says. “For most companies—small, midsize or large—the greatest opportunities for growth lie outside domestic markets. Those with higher levels of CQ are able to more effectively expand into new markets.”