PetCult 08-09-137 

Cultural Intelligence

A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures


Brooks Peterson

Intercultural Press, 2004, 229 pp., ISBN 978-1-031930-00-0



Brooks Peterson is a researcher, trainer and educator, and the founder of Across Cultures Inc.  He is known for the Peterson Cultural Style Indicator available online at  This book is written for business people in businesses employing internationals, working in global markets, and deploying individuals to work in other cultures.  It is written in a conversational, teaching style and includes considerable apologetic for cross-cultural training.  The aims are to provide a reasonable framework for understanding culture and to help increase your cultural intelligence.


"Wherever you are from, your local style of doing business is likely to rub people from at least some other countries the wrong way."  Your style is okay, and so is theirs, whoever 'they' are!" (4)


"Knowledge about Cultures (facts and cultural traits) + Awareness (of yourself and others) + Specific skills (behaviors) = Cultural Intelligence (13)


Part 1.  What Is Culture?

"Culture is the relatively stable set of inner values and beliefs generally held by groups of people in countries or regions and the noticeable impact those values and beliefs have on the peoples' outward behaviors and environment." (17)


 "Most businesspeople are quickly aware of the behavior of others and what their five senses experience and these things they are eager to study.  However, this is simply the tip of the iceberg.  (19)  Opinions, viewpoints, attitudes, philosophies, values, and convictions lie below the surface.  (21)  "When someone does act or react a certain way, you are much more likely to be able to make sense of what is going on as it happens if you understand the 'bottom of the iceberg' well." (22) 


"Cultural values are principles or qualities that a group of people will tend to see as good or right or worthwhile." (22)


One simple way of understanding cultural differences is by using five scales: (33)

       0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

       Equality      <-     -     -     -     -     -      ->   Hierarchy

       Direct         <-     -     -     -     -     -      ->   Indirect

       Individual           <-     -     -     -     -     -      ->   Group

       Task           <-     -     -     -     -     -      ->   Relationship

       Risk            <-     -     -     -     -     -      ->   Caution


This is a starting point.  Simplicity is good for a starting point, not a final answer. (34)


A style based on equality means people prefer to be self-directed, have flexibility in roles, have freedom to challenge those above, have freedom to make exceptions, and expect to treat men and women in the same way.  (37)


A style based on hierarchy means people prefer to take direction, have limitations on behavior for certain roles, respect opinions of those in power, enforce regulations, and expect men and women to behave and be treated differently. (37)

And so on for the other styles above.


The task vs. relationship scale relates to the process of putting relationship building and trust first and foremost versus placing business first and relationships optional. (47)  "Another way of understanding task versus relationship is to think of who we are versus what we do." (49)  "In the U.S. we say 'business before pleasure' and in much of the rest of the world it's 'pleasure before business' and 'trust before business.'" (51) 


"The world may be drifting toward similarity in some ways, but it is certainly maintaining distinctness in other ways." (62)


Part 2.  The Importance of Culture in Daily Work and Life

"Even when English is the first language of everyone in an internationally mixed organization, deeper differences can create invisible and very real challenges." (64)  "International colleagues tend to become confused, frustrated, and irritated over time by…our deeper cultural programming." (64)


"The 'scale of differences' is a basic tool for describing the extent to which other cultures differ from our own.' (67)  The number indicates how much different another place is from the U.S.: (69) 


       10    The  Middle East, Asia, India, Africa  

              Eastern Europe

              Western Europe and South America


              England, Australia, and New Zealand


       0     United States


All things being equal, people from both east and west would choose to do business with a person they trust or like.  "Whether we trust and like people or mistrust and dislike them can have everything to do with similar or different cultural styles." (71)  "If we feel awkward with people from other cultures (and if they feel awkward with us) and if we fail to click with them, they may not want to do business with us." (720


Perhaps Americans can be forgiven for being so locally focused, "because the United States is so vast and geographically isolated.  But we are also arrogant; many of us believe we are the biggest, best, smartest--and we have all the answers." (74) 


Six typical business strategies for going international: (79)

  1. Cross-border expansion.
  2. Mergers and acquisitions
  3. Joint ventures
  4. Strategic alliances
  5. International marketing and distribution
  6. International licensing


Cultural clash may occur at both the company level and the country level. (81)


Part 3.  What Is Cultural Intelligence?

"Cultural intelligence is the ability to engage in a set of behaviors that uses skills (i.e., language or interpersonal skills) and qualities (e.g., tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility) that are tuned appropriately to the culture-based values and attitudes of the people with whom one interacts." (89)


This requires especially language skills (if their native language is not English), spatial intelligence (such as how close people stand to one another in conversation, where people sit at meetings, etc.), intrapersonal intelligence (knowing your own cultural style) and interpersonal intelligence (the ability to 'read' the intentions and desires of others' and respond appropriately).  (91-3)


"To interact well with people from other cultures, it helps to (a) speak a bit of their language, (b) know how closely to stand (and other nonverbal behavior), (c) know about your own cultural style, and (d) know how your cultural style meshes with those of others." (95, quoting Howard Gardner)


Part 4.  Applying Cultural Intelligence in Daily Work and Life

This part takes a closer look at some more specific types of cultural dimensions. 


It's better to understand and apply the principle than memorize dos and don'ts.  (109) 


"You may find that your company culture has a stronger influence than your national culture." (110) 


Some management scales:

                                    0     1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10

Manager Role               "The boss"  <-     -     -     -     -      ->  "Team Player" 

Decision Making           Consensus <-   Collaborative              ->    Command

Conflict Style                Direct         <-     -     -     -     -      ->  Indirect

Work Style                   Multitask     <-     -     -     -     -      ->  Monotask

Motivation/Reward        Personal     <-     -     -     -     -      ->  Impersonal

Work Priorities             Live to Work   <-     -     -     -     -   ->  Work to Live


Strategy Issues

Views on Change          Positive     <-     -     -     -     -      ->   Negative

Control over life            In Control   <-     -     -     -     -      ->   Not in Control

Quality                         Aesthetic    <-     -     -     -     -      ->  Functional

Planning Style                     Ready, Aim, Fire    <-     -     -      ->    Ready, Fire, Aim


People and Communication Issues

Freedom vs Identity      Freedom    <-     -     -     -     -      ->   Identity

Pace of Life                  Time as Scarce     <-     -     -      ->    Time as Plentiful

Protocol, Formality        Informal     <-     -     -     -     -      ->   Formal


"The Chinese and Japanese are especially known for saying yes when they mean maybe, maybe when they mean no, and 'It's difficult' (or even yes) when they actually mean no.  This represents indirectness, not dishonesty." (117)


"For most people in most countries, work is a part of life, not life itself.  And those countries seem to survive just fine.  The grocery stores are stocked with food, the economies are indeed robust, and all this in spite of the fact that the population is not work crazed." (122)


"Whether people believe they are in control of their own lives or feel that they are controlled by external circumstances or nature or a god, beliefs in this area certainly affect the way people work, plan, do business, and get through life." (126)


"What is quality to a Frenchman is not necessarily quality to a German."  (127)


"General advice to American companies and individuals is to be careful not to push their international partners too quickly with the American ready-fire-aim approach." (130)


"It's sometimes hard for Americans to realize how pointless it is to press for a deadline when dealing with someone whose culture has survived quite well without deadlines (and certainly without American products) for thousands of years." (135)


"Pay attention to the numerous ways your international colleagues are more formal than you are.  Notice the little protocols they respect, the small courtesies they engage in.  These things may seem trivial, but they are important."  "Outward appearances do count."  "Pay attention to and follow the local dress codes."  (136)  "Watch how people generally carry themselves and treat others." (137)


Linear thinking moves in a straight line to the point.  Circular or systemic thinking loops and meanders around and eventually reaches the point.  (143)   In some cultures silence is respected and appreciated.  Some cultures avoid silence.  It makes people edgy and uncomfortable. (147)  In some cultures conversation is a series of interruptions.  In others people take turns.  And in some there are substantial silences, indicating that what the speaker has said is being considered.  In some cultures it is proper to nod showing that you are understanding.  In others, frequent contradictions indicate people are processing each others thoughts.


Part 5.  Knowing Your Cultural Style

"No matter where you're from, and even if you think you're just a local like everyone else, I assure you that you do indeed have a culture and your style does matter." (155)


Some themes that can vary according to culture: (156)

•      Direct/indirect method of giving feedback, dealing with conflict, etc.

•      Physical distance of whether we stand closer together or farther apart

•      Eye contact and how it is interpreted as honesty or a challenge

•      Verbal intonation, volume, pace, and tone

•      Nonverbal communication gestures, posture, silence, etc.

•      Conversation flow

•      Level of formality


"Awareness of others needs to start with self-awareness." (157)  "But few people can step back and play the role of a reliable and independent viewer of their own culture." (159)


"Self-awareness and awareness of others are built in an ever-increasing cycle, each enhancing the other." (162)


A quick intercultural self-assessment chart on p. 166 includes items such as cultural self-awareness, cultural awareness of others, cultural sensitivity, cross-cultural communication skills, tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility, open-mindedness, humility, etc.   


"So try the following activity with your team or in small groups or pairs.  If you have a culturally mixed group, you are guaranteed to get interesting answers which, if followed up, will lead to interesting insights about who the person is 'culturally' and where he or she falls in several cultural dimensions."  Pair up and discuss some of these items:

1.  What was the most interesting period of your life?  Why?

3.  Answer the question 'Who are you?' without referring to your occupation.

7.  Name five adjectives that describe most people you like.  Why do you like these attributes?

8.  How do you define friendship?

9.  How do you define 'living well'?  How do you define 'success'?

11. Do you have a purpose in life?  If so, what is it?  (174)


"People rarely say, 'Gee-I'm really closed-minded."  "The term insularity means 'having a narrow, provincial attitude about anything unfamiliar or different'--and implies wearing blinders." (175) 


Part 6.  Increasing Your Cultural Intelligence

What to expect and how to deal with it.


When dealing with nonnative English speakers, use clear, articulate, simple English.  Avoid slang, idioms, and complex grammatical constructions.  Avoid sports and military terminology.  Speak slowly and clearly but not loudly.  Repeat if needed.  Write it down.  Summarize.  (190-194)


When people don't understand you, you can probably tell.  But when they misunderstand you, neither of you may know it and the conversation may proceed under false assumptions.  (192) 


When in another country show a bare minimum of respect to your hosts by learning how to say in their language yes, no, please, thank you, hello, and goodbye. (199)


Learn some things about the country in terms of the historical overview, their economic system, and their social structure and ethnicity. (210-12)


Ethics vary from place to place and one person's perception of a good, fair, or normal business practice may be seen by another as completely unfair or even corrupt.  Bribes and nepotism are particular issues.  (214)  


The book ends with a list of recommended reading.



 * * * * * *

Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.

To discontinue receiving book notes, hit Reply and put Discontinue in the text.