Cultural competence is a game changer in the 21st C

Cultural intelligence is one of the key soft skills necessary to get along with people from diverse cultures. This soft skill is very vital to succeed in the 21st C if you live, work, and do business with people from different cultures. With the opportunity to meet, interact, and work with diverse people comes the challenge to get along and succeed in what we do individually and collectively. This challenge is understandable. One may have extraordinary social intelligence when it comes to interacting and working with people who are within his/her native culture. The individual knows the customs, beliefs, and anathemas very well. Thus, getting along is relatively easy since he/she communicates, interacts, behaves, and acts according to the cultural codes without offending and entering into any misunderstanding and conflict with others.


However, to get along and succeed in the 21st C, it takes more than having superb IQ, EQ, and Social Intelligence. The author of ‘The Cultural Intelligence Difference’ David Livermore wrote, The number one predictor of your success in today’s borderless world is not your IQ, not your resume, and not even your expertise.” He continued, “It’s your CQ (Cultural Intelligence), a powerful capability that is proven to enhance your effectiveness working in culturally diverse situations.”


Sadly, many organizations still depend on IQ, EQ, and Social Intelligence alone when they select supervisors and managers. The author of ‘Cultural Intelligence: CQ: The competitive edge for leaders crossing borders’, Julia Middleton said, Organizations often appoint leaders for their IQ. Then, years later, sack them for their lack of EQ (Emotional Intelligence).” She predicted, “Common Purpose argues that in the future they will promote for CQ - Cultural Intelligence.


The question is how we can increase our cultural intelligence? As you already know, there are thousands of cultures around the world, and it is tough to survive, let alone to develop the cultural competence to thrive in every culture for which we’re strangers. However, we should start improving our cultural intelligence somewhere. The right place to begin this rewarding journey is by understanding the difference between the two major cultural divides in the world.


Some culture experts suggested dividing the world’s cultures into two major categories: Individual-based cultures, and communal-based cultures. For instance, countries such as USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia are individual-based cultures. On the contrary, countries such as Africa, Asia, and South America are categorized under communal-based cultures. Of course, there are subcultures and individual exceptions within each national culture.


Among many parameters used to show the similarity and difference between the two main cultures, I like the three parameters suggested by Edward Hall:

1. Time,

2. Context, and

3. Space.


Let me quickly compare the two broad cultures briefly using the three indicators mentioned above. Time is treated casually in communal cultures while it’s well organized in individual based cultures. Context is high in collective cultures where people express themselves implicitly while individuals in the individual based cultures communicate explicitly and use verbal communication predominantly. People from communal cultures are less territorial while people from individual based cultures have high tendency to mark their territories.


As a person who lived in these two major cultures, I’ve witnessed first hand how people from the two cultures treat time, communicate, and handle space differently. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, a communal culture. I then came to the US- an individual based culture, in 2005.


At the early stage of my stay in the US, I experienced culture shock. To succeed in my new home, I have made so many changes including the way I treat time, communicate, and relate. I’m still on the learning curve- stumbling here and there once in a while, which makes me humble and open to learning continually. Let me share with you some stories.





Back home, coming late is tolerable. It doesn’t matter who comes first. Since the relationship is valued more than time, none of us make coming late a big deal. We smile and hug each other affectionately and continue our business.


Here in the US, coming late for work is considered as a sign of unprofessionalism and has severe consequences. Outside of work, coming late damages relationships since being late is perceived as disrespectful.


What is interesting is that many of my friends from Ethiopia and Africa compartmentalize their time here in the US. They arrive on time when it comes to their job and formal business affairs but treat time casually in social gatherings. You may get an invitation stating at what time the meeting starts. Unless you have lots of spare time to spend, you don’t come on time as stated on the letter or email or flyer. The event may start two hours late.


I had a Nigerian classmate when I was doing my doctoral degree (2009 – 2013). Whenever we needed to meet, we used to ask one another, is this African time or American? If it’s African time, we don’t fix the time. One of us may be in the library or coffee shop working on school work, and the other person just stops by within the time range we agreed. If it’s American time, we fix the start and end time. We come and leave on time.



In Ethiopia, we use nonverbal communications heavily. On the other hand, here in the US (and other individual based cultures), people dominantly use explicit verbal communication. In communal cultures, if you explicitly talk about yourself, your accomplishments, qualifications, experiences, and needs, you may be labeled as egotistical and selfish. On the contrary, if you don’t communicate verbally, explicitly, and express your needs, aspirations, and experiences in an individual based culture, you may be regarded as shy who lacks confidence.



I used to share bed, clothes, and shoes with my relatives and friends all the time. It was common to find yourself going to one of your friend’s home, and if it rains by the time you leave, you just pick the umbrella of your friend on your way out without asking permission. If you ask, it offends your host. He/she may feel that you distanced yourself. It doesn’t show intimacy and brotherhood/sisterhood. In the US, people are mindful of their spaces. You’re expected to respect other people’s boundaries. You cannot just grab and take someone’s stuff without risking being viewed as rude, or worst, thief.


Nonetheless, understanding the difference between the two cultural divides is the beginning of a long journey. We need to increase our cultural intelligence on a continual basis. With increased cultural intelligence comes understanding from where people come, and refraining from judging others based on the way they treat time, communicate, and handle space.


To get along with people from diverse cultures, we should stop treating our native culture as the standard bearer. We shouldn’t expect everyone to behave and act the way we do. We all should increase our cultural intelligence to live and work with people from different cultures successfully. We should also make some efforts to help each other to understand one another’s cultures.


I wish I had known these insights when I first came to the US. I’d not have paid lots of prices. This is especially essential if you’re recently moved to a new culture or began working or doing business with people from different cultures. It equips you to cross the new culture (s) without committing lots of deadly cultural transgressions. Of course, those of us who have been long in a new culture, we may have the awareness. The question is: Are we working on our cultural intelligence on a consistent basis and improving our cultural competence to succeed in what we do? Hope, this article inspired you to invest your time and energy to work on your cultural competence and gave you a couple of useful lessons.


Infidel753 Added Aug 4, 2017 - 7:21am
countries such as USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia are individual-based cultures. On the contrary, countries such as Africa, Asia, and South America are categorized under communal-based cultures.
Given these examples, do you think it's possible that the distinction between individual-based and communal-based is a product of the level of economic and technological development?  It seems likely that Europe a thousand years ago (when it was poor and underdeveloped even by the standards of the time) would have been classified as communal too.
I'm aware of the distinction due to past personal interactions with Chinese people, who often felt limited in their ability to make personal decisions because they always had to consider what their families would think, in ways that an American would not.  On the other hand, while Japan has a reputation for being a communal culture, my own experience of knowing Japanese people is that they were more individualistic.  I suspect this is because Japan has been a developed country for longer than China has, and is in transition from communal to individual.
If this is the case, we'd expect to see other cultures also become more individual-based as they develop economically.
Dr. Assegid Habtewold Added Aug 4, 2017 - 9:38am
This is a tough question. But, reaching the conclusion you did, I presume, requires research. That being said, you have a very valid point. As communities advance, economically, they tend to become individualistic.
Think about humankind when they were in the caves. No question, the culture was communal. They must stick together to survive. Thus, the ancient culture of humanity was very close to the communal cultures we have today.
You mentioned Japan. You can also add South Korea, Hongkong, and Singapore into the list. These Eastern countries transformed from the third world to first within a generation. An amazing transformation! There is no doubt that they adopted some of the values that helped the West make economic advancement.
For your info, there was research that revealed how South Korea and Ghana were on the same footing in the 60's. They had the same GDP, produced almost the same products and services, got similar aides, etc. However, South Korean trimmed some of their cultural values and added a couple of new values such as discipline, hard work, education, and within a few decades they made the transition from developing to developed club.
Thus, these Easian countries that have achieved economic developments may treat, for instance, time differently than their counterparts in the South and East but you still observe the other two factors in existence. The way an American treat space is entirely different than a Japanese or a Singaporean. You could easily spot the way a Japanese communicate and socialize with an American or European without sweating.
By the way, changing culture isn't easy. People consider their native culture like a god, mostly subconsciously. They fight to maintain status quo even if it sabotages the progress of a given community. Changing culture takes decades, and even sometimes centuries. Unfortunately, economic development and civilization cannot be achieved without a cultural revolution.
Lastly, the countries I mentioned above conducted a somehow decent cultural revolution to come out of poverty. I'd not say they transited from communal-based to individual-based culture. They only made some modifications to remove some cultural values that sabotaged their progress, and also added a few new values that enhanced their advancement. It is possible that they have learned from the experience of those countries who already achieved economic development ahead of them.
If you review history, the experience of Chinese was very bloody. The cultural revolution led by Mao Zedong was violent and catastrophic. But, at the end of the day, it transformed China.
Let me stop it here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts...
Autumn Cote Added Aug 4, 2017 - 3:30pm
Please note, the second best way to draw more attention to your work is to comment on the work of others. I know this to be true because if you do, I'll do everything in my power to draw more attention to your articles.
PS - There is a lot I can do and would like to do on your behalf.
Tamara Wilhite Added Aug 4, 2017 - 8:52pm
While I may need to know how to cover up if visiting Saudi Arabia, it is immoral to say they are free to jail rape victims and excuse honor killings, and acting as if Muslim cultures should be accorded respect despite systemic oppression of women, religious minorities, sexual minorities enables them to continue to violate human rights.
Not all cultures are equal, and acting as if they are prevents some groups from improving their economic and social situation. You discussed communal cultures like Ethiopia - you didn't discuss the downside like the grinding poverty they suffer because of distaste for capitalism, lack of property rights.

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Dr. Assegid Habtewold Added Aug 5, 2017 - 10:01am
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
No question, not all cultures are equal. By the same token, there is no one flagship culture in the world.
Like there are downsides to the communal cultures, as you mentioned in Ethiopia which is true, there are downsides to all other cultures.
That is why I suggest continual cultural reforms in every nation.
Humanity has come long ways but it is not near where it should be.
One of the powers that have kept humankind stagnated is culture. The latter has dominion over people's mind, and in turn their behaviors, attitudes, and actions. They are blind loyal to their culture regardless of its downsides.
Wherever you are right now, open your eyes. I'm sure, if you stop being loyal to your culture for a moment, you'll find so many downsides of your own culture. Believe me, you would find
Believe me, you would find tonnes of downsides to your native culture that you won't have time (the moral ground) to talk about what is wrong in others' cultures :-) I say this with humilty and as a person who studied cultures, read extensively, and a man who lived in two opposing cultures. Any ways, thanks for your contribution
Any ways, thanks for your contribution into this thread...

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