Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Translate Across Cultures

Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Translate Across Cultures

by Felicity Menzies

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

Intelligence is defined by contemporary psychologists as the ability to adapt to one’s environment.

Given variations in the physical and social challenges facing different societal groups, it is not surprising that intelligent behaviour is defined differently across cultures.

Traditionally, the West has defined intelligence in terms of the speed and accuracy of cognitive (mental) skills within an academic setting. But successful adaptation in many societies does not translate to the Western notion of academic intelligence. Asian and African cultures, for example, emphasise the relative importance of social skills.

In some rural African cultures, young people who are cooperative and who are able to help adults with important tasks, are considered to be the most intelligent. Children who perform well in school are respected, but if those children cannot cooperate with their fellow villagers, they are not considered to be the group’s most intelligent young men and women. In less developed countries, where resources are scarce, people must cooperate and share food, water, and money in order to survive.

Multiple Intelligences

The study of cross-cultural ideas of intelligence alerts us to the existence of non-academic intelligence.

Even in the West, there is increasing recognition that intelligent behaviour is displayed outside the classroom. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences proposes nine forms of intelligence: three academic intelligences—linguistic, spatial, and logical-mathematical, and six non-academic intelligences—musical, bodily kinesthetic, naturalistic, existential, intrapersonal, and interpersonal.

A large volume of research supports the validity of Gardner’s multiple intelligences, and neurocognitive studies confirm that those different capabilities can be mapped to distinct areas of the brain.

Non-Academic Intelligence and Work Performance

Three non-academic intelligences have received significant attention from organisational researchers: practical intelligence, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence (EQ).

Practical intelligence is the ability to solve real-life problems, as opposed to theoretical academic problems. It is also known as common sense, or ‘street smarts’. Practical intelligence reflects a person’s ability to learn from the past. Research shows that practical intelligence predicts superior performance at work and distinguishes the novice from the expert. Practical intelligence is a better predictor of job performance than cognitive ability or personality alone.

Social intelligence is the ability to understand emotions, motivations, and behaviours of the self and others in interpersonal situations. Management scholars agree that social intelligence enhances leadership effectiveness through improved motivating and communication skills.

A subset of social intelligence is emotional intelligence (EQ). Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognise, interpret, and respond appropriately to one’s own and others’ emotions. In 2011, a review of over 1,100 studies on emotional intelligence in the workplace confirmed the importance of emotional intelligence over and above cognitive ability and personality traits in predicting work performance.

Non-academic intelligences are critical in providing organisations with an edge over their competitors. Reflecting this, employers commit significant resources to the selection, promotion, and development of those capabilities in their workforce.

Cultural Constraints

Practical, emotional, and social intelligence, however, are culture-bound.

People with high practical intelligence might be capable of solving everyday problems in their own culture yet be unable to solve the day-to-day problems of living in another culture. Western school children are unlikely to have knowledge of the natural herbal medicines used to fight common infections in a rural village in Kenya.

Behaviours that are considered socially intelligent also differ across cultures. In China, behaviours that support social harmony, social desirability, and social engagement are regarded as socially intelligent. In Germany, to attain one’s personal goals, support society’s values, and to be able to influence others is to be socially intelligent.

In addition, anthropologists report significant cross-cultural variability in the frequency, display, and judgement of particular emotions.

Researchers have discovered six universal facial expressions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These facial expressions are recognised similarly across cultures. Yet despite the existence of universal facial expressions of emotion, people around the world express emotions differently in social situations.

In 1973, Friesen provided the first empirical evidence for cultural differences in emotional expression. He examined the spontaneous expressions of Americans and Japanese as they viewed highly stressful films—first alone, and then in the presence of an older, male experimenter. When alone, the American and Japanese participants were similar in their expressions of disgust, sadness, fear, and anger. However, when in the company of the experimenter, the Americans continued to express their negative emotions, but the Japanese were more likely to smile.

Friesen’s findings indicate that whilst the display of emotional expression in private is universal, emotional display in the company of others varies cross-culturally. Cultural specificity of emotional expression in social situations has since been reproduced in numerous studies.

Focal emotions are emotions that are experienced and expressed more frequently in a particular cultural setting. Focal emotions are related to cultural value priorities. Studies show that different cultures either intensify or suppress certain emotions, depending on how much value that culture places on the emotion.

For example, in cultures that value honour, there are more frequent displays of anger. In cultures that value group membership, shame is more intensely displayed. In the United States, where self-gratification is valued, people are more likely to display excitement and joy in response to personal success. In many Asian countries, where group harmony is of paramount importance, people often suppress expressions of pleasure with respect to their personal achievements.

There are also culturally specific ways that individuals express particular emotions. Emotion accents are differences in emotional expressions that vary across cultures. For example, Han Chinese greet honoured guests with a smile while American Indian tribes greet honoured guests with a cry.

Smiles are used in culturally unique ways as well. North Americans smile to convey friendliness and goodwill and they smile more than Northern Europeans, who reserve smiling for actual felt happiness. In some Asian cultures, smiling is used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment.

There is some evidence that cross-cultural differences in emotional expression are linked to ingroup and outgroup distinctions and the cultural dimensions of individualism and collectivism. Individualistic cultures value autonomy and a person’s unique attributes. Members of individualistic cultures share negative emotions with ingroup members, but display positive emotions to non-intimate others. The United States is the highest-scoring nation on individualism, closely followed by other Anglo and Western European nations.

In contrast, two-thirds of the world’s population across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East live in collectivist societies. Collectivist cultures value social harmony and group membership. Members of collectivist cultures express only positive emotions to ingroup members, but more readily communicate negative emotions to outgroup members.

There are also cross-cultural differences in emotion judgements. Individualism is associated with better emotion judgement accuracy. This may be related to the fact that individualism is correlated positively with emotional expression. Because emotions are expressed less freely in collectivist cultures, individuals from these cultures have limited experience in decoding emotional expressions.

There are also intranational differences in emotion judgements, display rules, and self-reported emotional expressions across ethnic subgroups. African Americans, for example, perceive anger more intensely than Asian Americans, and disgust more intensely than European and Asian Americans.

Studies indicate gender differences in emotional expression too. In general, females exhibit greater emotional expression, although gender differences in emotional expression are lower in Asia compared to Western cultures. In masculine America, gender differences are large for the expression of joy and sadness, but lower for the expression of anger.

Tacit Social Rules

Unwritten social codes guide our interactions with others. Shared ways of thinking, feeling, and acting increase the consistency and predictability of behaviour. Shared cultural schemas promote effortless and productive interactions with other members of our culture. They improve intimacy, cooperation, and interpersonal harmony.

Our social exchanges are more difficult when we hold different cultural schemas. If our frameworks for responding to the world are misaligned, we misunderstand or misinterpret each other. This can cause confusion, suspicion, and conflict.

Cultural blind spots occur when we fail to attribute differences in our behaviours and thoughts to different cultural schemas. Our cultural learnings are repeated so frequently that they become automatic. Because of this, we are not consciously aware of our cultural schemas and how and when they are influencing our responses.

Automaticity is helpful in our own cultural environment but problematic in a new culture. Our automatic assumptions and responses can lead us to misinterpret the intentions, emotions, or motives of our partners. Cultural blind spots can cause frustration, anger, helplessness, or hostility.

When Intelligence Does Not Translate

Practical, social, and emotional intelligence do not transfer across cultures. Each type of intelligence relies on familiar contexts and cues to guide responses. But in a novel cultural environment, a reliance on familiar cues prompts habitual responses that might be inappropriate for the new cultural setting.

It cannot be assumed that someone considered ‘intelligent’ according to one society’s conceptualisation of intelligence will necessarily achieve similar success in a different culture. The cognitive, practical, emotional, and social skills that support successful adaptation in one environment do not transfer directly to another setting.

Not surprisingly, researchers have detected an ingroup advantage in emotional recognition. Members of a cultural group are more accurate in recognising the emotions of ingroup members than outgroup members.

In fact, individuals possessing high levels of social or emotional intelligence in their own culture might find it particularly difficult to respond outside their deeply embedded cultural scripts. People who are less entrenched in their cultural frameworks more readily suspend judgement, and more easily align their thinking and behaviours with a new cultural environment.

Successful Functioning in Diverse Cultural Settings

Practical, social, and emotional intelligence assume a familiarity with the cues and norms of the cultural context. They do not consider the capabilities needed to adjust and adapt to novel cultural settings.

The global village necessitates a new form of intelligence. Today, we interact frequently with people who do not share our assumptions, values, or behavioral norms, and our exchanges are with individuals from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Success across varied cultural settings requires a new collection of adaptive responses that can be applied flexibly and appropriately, to meet the unique demands of each new interaction.

Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence is an individual’s capability to detect, assimilate, reason, and act on cultural cues  in situations characterised by cultural diversity. The culturally intelligent individual transcends deeply ingrained automatic ways of interpreting and responding to the world and adopts alternative frameworks for understanding and behaving that are adaptive for a particular cultural setting.

Studies show cultural intelligence is positively associated with adaptive performance, which is the capability to modify behaviours to meet changing environmental demands, and is particularly critical in novel or dynamic settings.

While social and emotional intelligence predict effectiveness in culturally homogenous environments, cultural intelligence predicts effectiveness in culturally diverse settings and explains differences in coping and functioning outside one’s home culture. In fact, research shows cultural intelligence is a better predictor of success in diverse settings than cognitive ability, emotional intelligence (EQ), personality, demographics, and international experience.

Cultural Intelligence predicts expatriate adjustment and performance, cultural problem-solving, cross-border leadership effectiveness, global leadership emergence, performance in multicultural groups, performance of multicultural teams, higher joint profits in intercultural negotiations, the development of diverse networks, and the sharing of information and ideas between culturally diverse individuals.

Not surprisingly, cultural intelligence plays a more important role in intercultural effectiveness as cultural distance increases. Cultural distance refers to the degree of difference between two cultures. As cultural distance increases, higher cultural intelligence is needed to overcome decontextualised thinking and to make isomorphic attributions—explanations of behaviour in the context of a person’s cultural background.

Developing Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence develops either on the job or from formal training.

Cultural learning is largely tacit. It is not easily transferred to others in written or verbal form. Instead, tacit cultural knowledge is best developed socially. On-the-job cultural learning is unstructured, spontaneous, and incidental to everyday duties; it occurs as employees use trial and error in their interactions with culturally diverse others to achieve their goals in diverse settings.

Formal training in Cultural Intelligence supports on-the-job learning by providing a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and abilities required to learn from one’s intercultural activities. Without the right foundation, employees thrust into a novel cultural setting with a “sink or swim” approach are likely to suffer culture shock. Culture shock has negative implications for job performance, attitudes, and physical and mental health.

Cultural Intelligence training provides an opportunity to acquire and practice new skills in low-risk, simulated diverse environments in the safety of a classroom setting. Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence (CQ) display four critical competencies:

  • Training in CQ Knowledge involves the acquisition of information about cultural differences and an understanding of the nature of culture and its implications for one’s own and others’ behaviours.
  • Training in CQ Drive involves the development of interest, self-confidence, and perseverance in intercultural interactions.
  • Training in CQ Strategy involves the development of a flexible and well-developed mental capacity for detecting, understanding, and responding to cultural differences.
  • Training in CQ Action involves the development of a repertoire of verbal and non-verbal behaviours that can be applied flexibly and appropriately across diverse cultural settings.

A New Workplace Competency

Today’s workers across a broad range of accountability levels, job roles, organisation size, and industry interact daily with individuals from backgrounds different from their own, both in home markets and across borders—often managing multiple sources of diversity at once.

Diversity is not only relevant in terms of nationality. Within each national culture are ethnic, religious, and social class differences as well as generational, gender, sexual orientation, and health status subcultures. Subcultures create huge variations in patterns of thinking and behaving within national groups. Plus every organisation has its unique values, beliefs, and codes of conduct. Beneath organisational cultures lie team and role differences.

Despite benefits of access to new markets, ideas, and talent, cultural diversity presents new challenges by increasing the complexity of our exchanges. To be effective in today’s business environment, individuals with Cultural Intelligence are increasingly paid a premium for their capacity to manage complexity and leverage the value in diversity.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.