Our increasingly multicultural society combines both an influx of people coming to our land and wide-ranging opportunity to interact on foreign soil due to leisure or business travel. Thus, the opportunities for communication challenges based on cultural differences is magnified.
A major theme of the September issue of Toastmaster magazine focuses on the concept of ‘cultural intelligence’.
The author of the main article holds a PH.D., and has written ten books on this subject and global leadership. He begins his commentary with an enlightening story about the caveats of speaking to a different cultural group: for example, when beginning a talk with Chinese audiences with a humourous story, he was chagrined to learn later that the interpreter advised the audience to laugh even though none of them understood the point, and that she would “begin translating as soon as he begins his real presentation”.
Even tips about best practices for public speaking tend to have cultural biases. So, how to speak with authenticity while recognizing audience diversity?
Research on developing a skill set allowing a speaker to be both effective and respectful, or cultural intelligence (CQ), has determined four main capabilities to handle such diversity:
- Have the interest, drive, and confidence to adapt to other cultures; notably, a survey of executives from 68 countries found overwhelmingly that ‘cross-cultural leadership’ is ‘the top management challenge for the next century’
- Understand other cultures’ norms and differences from our own; for example, in North America the use of humour and focusing on the big picture is desirable in speeches, but this is not so in Germany
- Use one’s CQ skills to clue in to tendencies in other cultures; while there is a risk of stereotyping, it provides a planning framework to effectively lead, with flexibility to step back and consider what plan works best, rather than relying on gut feelings
- Be prepared to adapt verbal and non-verbal actions where appropriate; understanding cultural differences is one thing, but actually incorporating an adaptive strategy in intercultural exchanges, knowing how much to compromise, results in increased effectiveness which can apply abroad but also at home
Cultural intelligence illustrates why it’s never too late to learn.