Becoming a Cultural Chameleon - How to Develop Cultural Intelligence

The best way to develop cultural intelligence is to understand cultural cues and norms, and engage with people from various nationalities. One way to do that is through different cultural dimensions, which help to explore cultures from unique perspectives.


Erin Meyer (I highly recommend reading her book Culture Map) has distinguished eight different cultural dimensions. Understanding cultural dimensions can minimize the influence of culture shock, maximize the cultural experience and increase personal development. In case you are not that familiar with the term cultural intelligence yet, you can more about cultural intelligence here.


Eight cultural dimensions

  • Communication: low or high context

  • Persuading: application first or principle first

  • Evaluating: indirect or direct negative feedback

  • Deciding: top-down or concencual

  • Trusting: task-based or relationship-based

  • Disagreeing: avoids confrontation or confrontational

  • Scheduling: linear or flexible time

  • Leading: hierarchical or egalitarian


Communication in different countries vary between low-context and high-context. Low-context communication, such as USA, means simple, particular and clear messages and this strengthens through repetition. In contrast, in high-context communication countries, for example in Japan, messages are nuanced, layered and refined.


Messages often have hidden agendas and listener need to have the ability to read between the lines. Interestingly, giving feedback can differ a lot from the daily communication style. For example, Americans daily communication is relatively straightforward but giving feedback is not that direct.


Moreover, the persuading can be based on principles-first reasoning, which originates from facts or from applications-first reasoning where decisions are based on experiences from the real word.

My journey of developing cultural intelligence started when I was 15 years old spending a week with French host family

The dimensions of deciding, trusting and disagreeing fall strongly into the leadership category. When leading multicultural team, for example, a leader should clearly communicate her style because different cultures prefer different hierarchies and relationships with their manager.


Lastly, different cultures perceive time differently. It is important to notice that time effects for example on schedules, deadlines, and how people handle stress. Whether people see time as linear manner, which means approaching projects in sequential way or in flexible tackling project as big picture in flexible manner, requires different approach.


How to Develop Cultural Intelligence?


1. BE CURIOUS. As said by Bryant H. McGill ‘’Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.” Read, listen, and engage in new cultures with an open heart. Whenever you meet someone new, just strike a conversation! If don't know what to talk about, good coversation starters are always food and weather.

2. ASK QUESTIONS. Instead of judging or finding flaws in other people’s behavior, ask why are they behaving like that. What you need to remember is that people from different cultures have their own practices and beliefs that may differ from your own. However, when you start asking questions, I will assure you that you will end up having fascinating conversations about cultural differences! What’s more, you will begin to understand your culture’s unique features even more.


3. AWARESSNESS. Be aware of your own biases and behavior. As you may misinterpret someone, the other person may interpreter your actions in the wrong manner as well. If you see the confusion on the other person’s face, just explain your actions.


I remember times when I was an exchange student in France, and I was asked ‘’Comment ça va?’’ and I replied ‘’comme ci, comme ça’’ which basically means neither very good nor very bad. My host family, in fact, got worried asking if I needed to see a doctor. After that, I realized, that in France, I was expected to respond ‘’ça va bien’’ since everything was okay.


Moreover, my host family was super surprised when I wanted to eat breakfast. Instead of preparing me bread with cheese and ham, they offered me cookies with an amused look on their face. So, there I was enjoying French cookies for breakfast and eating like a wolf during lunchtime. So just imagine if breakfast habits vary from country to country, how much diversity there is in other traditions and norms!



Don’t be afraid to make honest mistakes, and remain confident in tackling new cultural situations!