Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The value of being a multicultural warrior

I had a ham radio license as a kid.  I would spend hours with a pair of headphones on listening for weak signals from around the world.  It was exciting to have the chance to have a brief conversation with someone in Europe or Asia or the Middle East.  Picking out the faint signals from among the static made the world feel like a big and mysterious place.
The world seems smaller now.
The internet allows you to email, chat, and converse face-to-face with people all over the world with little more than a computer and some free software.  Cheap air travel makes it easy to fly almost anywhere in the world. 
At first, chatting with someone from another country is just an interesting experience.  Even beyond language barriers, there are huge cultural differences that are immediately evident.  If you have to do more than just have a brief conversation with someone, then these cultural differences can be very difficult to overcome.  This is a particular problem for people who have to do business with people all over the world.
A paper by Lynn Imai and Michele Gelfand in the May, 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes examines the skills people need to succeed in negotiations with people from other cultures. 
They explore the concept of cultural intelligence.  Over the past 20 years, it has become clear that people have lots of different types of skills.  There is no single general intelligence.  There is fluid intelligence that seems related to people’s ability to succeed in school.  There is emotional intelligence, which relates to people’s ability to discern and understand other people’s emotional state.
Cultural intelligence involves a few key factors.  One important factor is people’s motivation to want to acknowledge the differences between people from other cultures.  Some people want others to adapt to them, while other people really want to understand how people from other cultures think differently than they do.  Another key element is the set of behavioral skills that people have that allow them to interact with people from other cultures effectively.
The authors do two interesting things in this paper.  First, they use a variety of personality measures to demonstrate that cultural intelligence is distinct from other things like emotional intelligence or the basic personality of openness (which measures how strongly people are open to new experiences). 
Second, they demonstrate that this cultural intelligence matters.  In particular, cultural intelligence can influence people’s effectiveness when negotiating with people from another culture.
They paired up Americans and East Asians to participate in a negotiation task.  In this setting, the participants played the role of individuals trying to set up a business venture that combined two stores into one location.  Performing this negotiation successfully meant that the pair needed to find some compromises and also to find some outcomes that would be to the mutual benefit of the people negotiating.
Of interest, cultural intelligence did influence how well people did in the negotiation.  When both members of the pair were low in cultural intelligence, they tended to do quite poorly.  The performance of the pair improved with the lower cultural intelligence score of the participants.  That is, it was not enough to have one person in the pair who had high cultural intelligence.  Negotiations were most effective when both members of a pair were both high in cultural intelligence.  Of interest, people’s motivation to understand other cultures was particularly important for success in negotiation.
An open question from this paper is whether cultural intelligence is a relatively fixed trait of people or whether it is something that can be learned.  It seems likely that people can improve their cultural intelligence.  As they spend more time with members of other cultures, people’s motivation to learn about other cultures will increase and their base of skills for conversing with people from other cultures will also improve. 
The world has become a smaller place, but that creates a tremendous opportunity to learn.