Cultural Intelligence

“Culture is a set of shared assumptions and values that distinguishes one group from another.”1

Knowing how to adapt to another culture is essential for successful cross-cultural living, but the training that most missionaries receive emphasizes language acquisition. While it may include some references to cultural practices (such as not wearing shoes in the house and it being okay to slurp noodles), it rarely mentions the need to develop good cross-cultural skills, or cultural intelligence, which is the key to adjusting well to living in another culture. Below, I define cultural intelligence and give some guidelines on how to develop it as well as some personal qualities that enhance it.

Cultural intelligence is one’s ability to adapt to different cultures and to understand people’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.2 We can “use this information to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate with people from diverse backgrounds.”3 Cultural intelligence is about gaining intelligence, but it requires both empathy and observation to put that knowledge to use.4

Three skills are needed to develop cultural intelligence: cultural knowledge, cross-cultural skills, and cultural mindfulness.5

Cultural knowledge is the process of getting to know a culture. This can be done through studying and acquiring information about a culture. You can develop your cultural knowledge by learning what makes a culture unique, focusing on the behaviors, beliefs, and rituals that are distinct to it.6

Cross-cultural skills are skills learned through living cross-culturally and include:

relational skills: interacting with others
tolerance of uncertainty: being okay with not understanding everything
adaptability: behaving flexibly in new situations
empathy: trying to understand how people feel
perceptual acuity: discerning what others’ actions might mean

Cultural mindfulness means that “one is aware of the cultural context, consciously analyzes the interactive situation, and plans courses of actions for different cultural contexts”.7 In other words, set a goal (for example, to understand the way people greet each other) and then observe how people in the other culture do greetings, such as bowing and shaking hands. The next step is to try greeting others yourself and observe how people react. Evaluate this reaction and build on this information. Only by doing this last step can you begin to develop your cultural intelligence.

The following three qualities help you become more culturally intelligent:

Drive: Your desire to know a culture shapes how well you will adjust to your new place. Seeing differences as challenges rather than obstacles will make acclimation to a new culture easier and even enjoyable.

Knowledge: Rather than just accumulate information, observe how the culture shapes a country’s values, behaviors, and beliefs. A good start is to watch how people interact, including their facial expressions and body language.

Strategy: Think on your feet when things don’t go smoothly. As you become more culturally aware, it becomes natural to quickly adapt to new situations.

Cultural intelligence is essential for good cross-cultural adaptation. Fortunately, the steps and skills for improving cultural intelligence can easily be included into everyday life.

1. Matthew MacLachlan “Cultural intelligence: What is it and what is my score?” 13 December 2016,

2. Echo Yuan Liao “Why you need cultural intelligence (and how to develop it)” 24 March 2015,

3. Ibid, Liao

4. David Livingstone “The Cultural Intelligence Difference: Master the One Skill You Can’t Do Without in Today’s Global Economy” 2011,

5. David Livermore and Linn Van Dyne “Cultural Intelligence: The Essential Intelligence for the 21st Century” 2015,

6. Ibid, Livingstone

7. Ibid, Liao

Eileen Nielsen is presently a middle school and high school counselor at the Christian Academy in Japan, as well as Member Care Facilitator for TEAM.

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