Why It’s Critical to Increase Cultural IQ

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I used to think you were either born with it or you weren’t. Now, I’m starting to see that whatever level you start at, everyone can–and should–increase their Cultural IQ.

Cultural Intelligence is a love for diversity that allows you to quickly relate and effectively work across cultures.

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One of the most important skills necessary for the future is a high Cultural IQ. In our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, it will be critically important to understand and appreciate the variances culture brings to the table. It will be impossible to succeed if you are unable to effectively facilitate integration in collaborative settings.  

There will remain many distinct cultural characteristics among developing nations even as they reach first world economic status. They may adapt as needed for economic development, but their culture will remain largely their own. -Richard A. Shweder, “Moral Maps, ‘First World Conceits, and the New Evangelists’”

The reality is that culture matters. Unfortunately, the topic of culture often devolves to what United Nations correspondent Barbara Crossette describes as, ideological and political footballs where the truth is deemed of no consequence.”

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As God’s image-bearers, we are designed to interact with and appreciate others. Unfortunately, we are seeing an extreme contrast within the human race. Some individuals are deeply xenophobic and resistant to diversity and the integration of culture. Then, there are others who have a deep hunger to live out the concept of loving their neighbor.

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Romans 15:7 (NLT)

How can you test someone’s Cultural IQ?

When testing a puppy to see if it has potential to be a therapy dog, you expose it to a shocking phenomenon–such as unexpectedly dropping a pie tin on the floor. If the puppy startles, then recovers and approaches to examine the tin, you’ve got yourself a winner. If they run away and hide after being startled, they won’t be able to handle the surprises and rigors of being a therapy dog.

Similarly, you can test someone’s Cultural IQ by placing them into a dynamically international situation and watch how they react. Do they dive in? Are they startled, but recover? Do they flounder and withdraw? Their reaction indicates how much they need to grow.

Can you teach Cultural IQ?

While certain elements of a high Cultural IQ are innate, like an inquisitive personality, you can learn to love other cultures. Do something as simple as seeking out food, people, and festivals that stretch your comfort levels. Shop in your local “foreign” market, ask questions of the store clerks and be willing to try new things. Practice getting comfortable with ambiguity. Start by taking a walk without a pre-determined route.  Enhance your ability to be an active listener by always asking three questions and learn to ask at least two follow-up questions when speaking to anyone. Study and learn when to talk and when to remain silent. Learn to embrace, and eventually revel in, ambiguity — don’t fear it.

I highly recommend reading “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress” if you want a crash course to jumpstart your respect and understanding of how culture influences every aspect of life. I have highlighted almost the entire book–not just because I’m a cultural anthropologist at heart.  Understanding how culture influences and impacts everything from economics to politics, technology to health, religion to education, and poverty to life expectancy for every single person on this planet–well, it’s revelatory and mind-boggling.

That understanding is also necessary for all leaders to have if we want to reach the world with the message of the Gospel.