Cultural Intelligence: Surviving and Thriving in the Global Village

Cultural Intelligence: Surviving and Thriving in the Global Village

by David C. Thomas

ISBN: 9781626568655

Publisher Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Published in Business & Investing/International

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Sample Chapter


Living and Working in the Global Village


Barbara Barnes, alone in her Minneapolis office, pounds her desk in frustration. She has just read an email from an irate customer, who complains that her department's technical representative, who has been visiting the customer to correct a fault in software supplied by Barbara's company, is not only unable to solve the problem but seems to have less knowledge of the software than the customer's own staff. The customer's business is being seriously disrupted. Can Barbara please send someone else, who knows what they are doing?

Worse, this is the third such incident reported to Barbara this week. It doesn't seem to be just a single employee fouling up — the whole technical department seems unable to resolve such issues. True, the software is new and initial bugs are to be expected. But Barbara recalls that several weeks ahead of the first delivery to customers, she had a conversation with Vijay, the section manager, who is on a two-year temporary assignment from the Delhi office. She had wanted Vijay's assurance that the technical staff would all be ready in time.

"Vijay," she said, "we have four weeks to get everyone up to scratch. There is still time to delay the launch, but it would cost customer goodwill. Can you do it in time?"

Vijay hesitated. "It will be difficult," he said. "Do you think it's possible?"

"I know it's tough," she said. "But if anyone can do it, you can."

Vijay smiled. "H'mmmm. In that case, we will do it."

"Thank you, Vijay."

He looked out of the window. "It's snowing again," he said. "I hate your winters. People get sick. Everything slows down."

Now, Barbara calls Vijay to her office and explains the problem to him.

"I thought you said all the technicians would be trained."

"Most of them have been. It is bad luck. There have been more technical issues and more staff sickness than we expected. But we can resolve this problem. I will reassign trained staff to the dissatisfied customers. And soon all the staff will be trained."

But Barbara can't stop the anger rising in her throat. "But Vijay," she said. "You promised!"

Vijay doesn't answer. He is too amazed to speak.

Did Vijay promise? Barbara is absolutely certain he did. Vijay is certain that he said only that he would try, and he pointed out the considerable difficulties. To understand the differences in perception, we have to understand cultural differences between home-grown Americans like Barbara and South Asians (Indians) like Vijay. The difference is about the context in which specific words — such as "we will do it" — are spoken. American culture stresses low-context communication; what matters is the precise meaning of the words spoken, regardless of context. In Vijay's high-context Indian culture, communication is heavily influenced by contextual cues, which in this case included Vijay's hesitation, his account of difficulties, and his reference to the weather. Another Indian overhearing the conversation would be clear that Vijay was promising to try but believed the task would be impossible.

Both Barbara and Vijay may have the best interests of their employer at heart, but the results of their miscommunication are potentially serious. The company has broken its trust with some of its customers. Just as Vijay is accountable to Barbara for the error, so will Barbara be accountable to her own boss for loss of customer goodwill. And, perhaps more seriously, both Barbara and Vijay may feel that they cannot trust the other again.

How did this happen? Barbara assumed too much from Vijay's words, failed to double-check the real meaning of his communication, and therefore did not hear Vijay's warning. Vijay likewise assumed he had made himself clear. These failures result from their lack of what we call cultural intelligence. If either of them had been able to understand and accommodate, at least in part, the other's culturally based customs and norms, and if they had tried harder to help each other to understand their own customs, they might have been able to check out each other's messages to ensure that they both understood the same thing.

The story of Barbara and Vijay is typical — it is a story that is enacted again and again, in different forms and in many situations around the world, as ordinary people grapple with the problem of relating to others who are from cultures where things are done differently.

Consider the following examples:

* A British company experiences inexplicable problems of morale and conflict with the workforce of its Japanese subsidiary. This seems out of character with the usual politeness and teamwork of the Japanese. Later it is found that the British manager of the operation in Japan is not taken seriously because she is a woman.

* Two American managers meet regularly with executives and engineers of a large Chinese electronics firm to present their idea for a joint venture. They notice that different engineers seem to be attending each meeting and that their questions are becoming more technical, making it difficult for the Americans to answer without giving away trade secrets. The Americans resent this attempt to gain techno-logical information. Don't the Chinese have any business ethics? Later they learn that that such questioning is common practice and considered to be good business among the Chinese, who often suspect that Westerners are interested only in exploiting a cheap labor market.

* In Malaysia, an old woman struggles to unload furniture from a cart and carry it into her house. Many people crowd the street, but no one offers help. Two young American tourists who are passing see the problem, rush up, and start to help the old lady. The locals on the street seem bemused by these Americans helping someone they don't even know.

* A Canadian police superintendent's four key subordinates are, respectively, French-Canadian, East Indian, Chinese, and Persian. How can he deal with them equitably? How can he find a managerial style that works with all of them? Should he recognize their differences or treat them all the same?

* A Dutch couple, volunteering in Sri Lanka assisting local economic development, visit a Sri Lankan couple to whom they have been introduced. Their hosts are gracious and hospitable but very reserved. The guests feel awkward and find it hard to make conversation. Later, they worry about the ineptitude they felt in dealing with the Sri Lankans.

These stories provide real-life examples of people from different parts of the world struggling with problems caused by intercultural differences. Have you been in situations like the ones above that have left you puzzled and frustrated because you simply haven't felt tuned in to the people you have been dealing with? Do you wonder how to deal with people from other countries, cultures, or ethnic groups? If so, you are not alone; you are one of the many people attempting to operate in a new, multicultural world.

The Global Village

There are over seven billion people in the world, from many different cultures, yet we all live in a village where events taking place ten thousand miles away can seem as close as those on the next street. Whenever we read a newspaper or watch television or buy a product from the grocery store we find ourselves in this global village. We can watch a Middle East firefight as if we were there, eat tropical fruit with snow on the ground outside, and meet people from far-off places at the local mall. The following dramatic examples of globalization are familiar to almost everyone.


In the new millennium, Westerners' consciousness of the increasingly global society that they live in has been powerfully raised by various major crises.

On September 11, 2001, the world came to America in a new and horrifying way. The young men who flew their hijacked airliners into the great U.S. citadels of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were citizens of the global village. They were operating in a world with a profoundly increased consciousness of difference — haves versus have-nots, Christians versus Muslims — as well as far fewer boundaries. To the terrorists, America was not a distant vision but an outrage beamed nightly into their homes through their televisions, yet only a plane-trip away. They slipped easily into the world's most powerful nation, acquired its language, and took flying lessons from friendly, helpful locals.

The news of the attacks traveled, virtually instantaneously, to all corners of the world. Californians stared aghast at the strange horrors of the day's breakfast show. Europeans crowded around television screens in appliance store windows. Australians phoned each other in the night and said, "Switch your telly on." A billion viewers around the globe watched as the Twin Towers collapsed in front of their eyes.

In October 2008 people around the world again watched in horror as the morass labeled GFC (global financial crisis) spread quickly into their lives. Some of the biggest and apparently most impregnable financial institutions suddenly went out of business, crippled by multibillion-dollar debts. Flows of credit — t he lifeblood of business — froze, and stock markets plunged. Firms closed down and staff was laid off. Political leaders struggled to resolve the issue by freeing up trillions of dollars for bailouts of stricken banks — a de facto reversal of their most cherished principles of free-market capitalism. Yet it was only when the world's leaders all came together in meetings of the leading industrialized counties and developed integrated global solutions to a global problem, that the bleeding stopped and markets around the world began to stabilize. Even so, it is only now, in 2017, that many countries are beginning to put the global financial crisis behind them.

In September 2015 the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned and washed up on a beach in Turkey, shocked the world. He and his family were part of the most significant refugee crisis since the Second World War. His mother, Rehan, and five-year-old brother, Galip, also perished. Only his father Abdullah survived the perilous sea journey. The photo of Aylan brought the plight of Syria's millions of refugees to world attention. Other refugees fled to Europe from conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, and other countries. Despite the efforts of many governments and aid agencies, as 2015 drew to a close, the world had yet to come to grips with this massive migration. As the world's great countries squabbled about how many each could absorb, four million refugees were registered and camped around Europe. The problems of integrating them will be massive, and they will not be only economic and political problems but also cultural.

After these events, people said, "The world will never be the same again." They might rather have said: "The world has been changing rapidly for some time. These events have caused us to notice it."

Such events are not just about America or Europe and the Middle East; they are global. Economic, political, legal, and cultural forces are at work that cross international boundaries, create international problems, and require international solutions. We are all involved, all of us citizens in a global world. None of us can escape that.

Forces of Globalization

As we increasingly live global lives, we are beginning to understand the importance of globalization, particularly its effects on our lives. Globalization increases the permeability of traditional boundaries, not just those around organizations but those around countries, economies, industries, and people.

Globalization has been accelerated by many factors, including the following:

* Increased international interconnectedness, represented by the growth of international trade and trade agreements, multinational corporations, and the relocation of businesses wherever cost is lowest.

* The increased migration, both legal and illegal, particularly from less-developed to more-developed countries. In virtually every nation are many people who were born and brought up in other countries or are culturally influenced by their immigrant families.

* The ability of information and communication technology to transcend time and distance so that at the touch of a computer keyboard or a mobile phone, we can be somewhere else, thousands of kilometers away, participating in events and changing outcomes there.

Until recently, only a few very large multinational organizations were concerned with foreign operations. Now even very small organizations may be global; indeed, small and medium-sized organizations, which increasingly can survive only if they export their products, account for a growing share of global business.

Because of globalization, the environment of organizations is now more complex, more dynamic, more uncertain, and more competitive than ever before. These trends are unlikely to reverse or decrease. Tomorrow's managers, even more than today's, must learn to compete and work in a global world.

Globalization of People

Globalization affects managers, employees at all levels, customers, and indeed everyone! It brings about interactions and relationships between people who are culturally different. As organizational members, as tourists, and as members of networks and communities that have "gone international," we travel overseas among people from other cultures, telephone or Skype them, correspond with them by e-mail, and befriend them on Facebook. Even in our home cities, more and more of our colleagues, clients, and even the people we pass in the street are from cultures that are different from our own.

This globalization of culturally different people creates a major challenge. Unlike legal, political, or economic aspects of the global environment, which are observable, culture is largely invisible and is therefore the aspect of the global context that is most often overlooked.

The potential problems are enormous. Even people from the same culture often lack interpersonal skills. When interpersonal interaction takes place across cultural boundaries, the potential for misunderstanding and failure is compounded.

The conclusion is clear. You are a member of the global community, even if you are not conscious of it and even if you have never done business abroad or even traveled abroad. You may never have gone around the globe, but the globe has come to you. Any organization you work for will most likely buy or sell in another country, or will be influenced by global events. You will increasingly have to interact with people from all parts of the globe.

Here is a story about two global people. One is an international migrant who is trying to find a new life in a very different place. The other is a manager who has never left her own country.


In California, a human-resources manager sits in her office. She is interviewing candidates for factory work. Suddenly a dark-skinned young man walks in without knocking. He does not look at the manager but walks to the nearest chair and, without waiting to be invited, sits down. He looks down at the floor. The manager is appalled at such graceless behavior. The interview has not even started, and even though the jobs being filled do not require social skills, the young man is already unlikely to be appointed.

Observing this scene, most Americans and Western Europeans would understand why the manager felt as she did. The man's behavior certainly seems odd and disrespectful.

But suppose we tell the manager more about the young man. He was born and brought up in Samoa and only recently immigrated to the United States. Samoans have great respect for authority, and the young man sees the manager as an authority figure deserving of respect. In Samoa you do not speak to, or even make eye contact with, authority figures until they invite you to do so. You do not stand while they are sitting, because to do so would put you on a physically higher level than they are, implying serious disrespect. In other words, according to the norms of his own cultural background, the young man has behaved exactly as he should. The human resource manager, based on her own culture, expects him to greet her politely, make eye contact, offer a handshake, and wait to be invited to sit down. In doing so, she is being unfair not only to candidates who operate differently, she is also reducing her company's opportunity to benefit from people with other cultural backgrounds. As an employer of Samoans and other ethnic and cultural minorities, she would benefit from exposure to Samoan customs and training in cross-cultural communication. Of course, if the company employs the man, he may have to learn appropriate ways of interacting with Westerners. Both would benefit from reading this book!

Excerpted from "Cultural Intelligence: Surviving and Thriving in the Global Village" by David C. Thomas. Copyright © 2013 by David C. Thomas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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