Cultural intelligence matters


Moving to live and work in a new country will challenge you in ways that you have not been tested before and, one way or another, you will be out of your comfort zone. The result of this experience will provide you with great personal growth, but the journey may not be an easy one.

Experts in the field of cross-cultural research have identified some key personal attributes that can be helpful in facing the challenges of expat life:
  • An open-minded attitude
  • Tolerance to frustration and failure
  • Being adaptable and flexible
  • Curious to try new things
  • Possessing strong communication skills
  • Observant
  • Self-reliant
  • Good sense of humour
  • And crucially, cultural intelligence
 

Do you have cultural intelligence?​


When moving to a new country, encountering unexpected differences upon arrival and in the early stages of settling in can often result in culture-shock – that is, a sense of disorientation felt by someone subjected to an unfamiliar way of life.

Here is a list of some common areas where cultural differences should be considered, with a few examples taken from different countries. It would be advisable to be aware of the differences and protocols before you arrive in a new country. This information can be found in books, on the internet and also through cross-cultural training advisors and courses.

Greetings

In some countries (particularly those in the Middle East), physical contact between men and women in public is inappropriate. In other destinations, such as Latin America, physical contact is an expected part of greeting someone and it's not at all uncommon for friends to hold hands or kiss one another on the cheek.

Communication style

Even once language barriers are overcome, there are still all sorts of communication issues that expats might come across. The Japanese or English, for example, may distrust Italians because they wave their hands about or Spaniards because they sound overly emotional. The French may appear offensive as they are direct and frequently use cynicism, while Germans may take the English too seriously and completely miss their irony or dry humour. At times, it can be difficult to figure out what the Japanese are thinking as they may say little or nothing at all.

Personal space

In certain destinations, it may seem that there is no such thing as personal space. When queuing in some countries (that is to say in countries where they actually have a queue system), it's not considered an issue to stand so close to the person in front that they can feel your breath on their neck, whereas in other countries this would seem offensive.

Eye contact

In Asia, direct eye contact might be interpreted as rude and disrespectful, whereas in the United Kingdom it is an important way to show sincerity and trust.
 

Gestures

The 'okay' sign (with the index finger touching the thumb) has different meanings depending on your location.
  • North America – to show approval
  • Japan – to signal money
  • Brazil – a vulgar sign (equivalent to giving the middle finger in the US)
  • France – zero
 

Views of time

In the United Kingdom and the United States, it is advisable to always be punctual. In many Latin countries, punctuality is not as important as arriving at all, whatever the time.