Cultural intelligence is like knowing how to dress

With cultural intelligence comes capabilities to function effectively when interacting with people from other cultural backgrounds. It is a little like knowing what to wear in different situations. And for individuals to be successful, it is all about keeping your wardrobe up to date. In this post, here we are global Key Resource Person Marisa Matarese shares a few insights.

When I first moved to Brazil in the mid-90s as a young woman, I was aware that the Brazilian culture would differ a great deal from what I was used to in Denmark. I was expecting to meet cultural differences. I just did not know where to look for them nor how to prepare. Later, I learned, that motivation and curiosity drive your cultural intelligence.

Step 1 – the drive

Cultural Intelligence is a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity. This competency is built through four steps:

The first step is the motivation for understanding cultural differences and the curiosity to learn more.

Another way to put it: Cultural intelligence is like having a well-equipped wardrobe of behavior and knowing when to wear what. You should start out by being curious about how things are done. Otherwise, you end up finding yourself sticking out. Just like I did.

Shortly after my arrival to São Paulo, I was invited to a barbecue by my new Brazilian friend, Yannick. Her family had a ‘sitio’ – a small farm, outside São Paulo. Often, the family spent the weekends here. And this weekend, they were hosting a barbecue for friends.

In my interpretation, a barbecue was like a party. Back home, we used to dress up for parties. I, therefore, chose a miniskirt and picked a pair of high heels for the occasion. Never have I felt so awkward. The others were mingling around in old shorts, flip-flops and washed t-shirts while my heels kept me stuck in the mud.

This experience of being ridiculous still stays in my body. Here was an example of the differences I was trying to foresee but did not succeed to.

Step 2 – the knowledge

When you have the motivation, or need to develop your cultural intelligence, most people automatically start looking for information about how things are done. This is the second step of developing cultural intelligence. You can observe people and learn from them. Often what attracts your attention are the things that differ from what you are used to. Or you can learn by your mistakes.

So once bidden, twice shy, when Yannick a few weeks later invited me to come along for Mariana, one of her friends’ birthday party, I did not even consider wearing my high heels nor a miniskirt. Instead, I found a pair of casual jeans, a t-shirt and bought a pair of Havaiana flip flops in the supermarket.

Step three – the strategy

It is solely up to you to come up with a strategy for how to behave in a setting that can be influenced by cultural diversity. Unfortunately, you cannot always be certain that your strategy is the right one. Sometimes, you leave out important parts of the equation, like I did.

Yannick picked me up and took me to Marianas apartment: A penthouse, tastefully decorated in white with a splendid view over the city of São Paulo. It was a massive chock for me to also find the apartment crowded with beautiful young women with long brown hair carefully styled, all wearing colorful dresses.

Once again I felt like a fool. But also confused. I thought that I had learned from my experience on the sitio, that Brazilians dressed down for parties. But I dropped a clanger again when I joined the carefully groomed girls at the birthday party in my worn-out jeans and flip flops. I interpreted a barbecue and a birthday party as a party in the same category. The distinction between these two parties was invisible to me.

Step four  – the action.

The more you step out of line and therefore identify cultural differences, the more strategies you will need to develop.  After a while, you have a repertoire of different actions to take and this way, you can develop your cultural capabilities.

Yannick was a social person with a vast network. When I met with her again the following week, she already had a plan for the weekend: A concert at a bar. As I did not want to make a fool out of myself again, I asked Yannick: What should I wear for such an occasion?

She first looked puzzled at me and then she answered: But Marisa, you can wear whatever you like.

I knew that if I did so, I would most certainly dress up when people were dressing down or vice versa. I then explained to her how I felt, how I was sticking out, first at the barbecue and then the birthday party. She was not aware that people dress up or down for different occasions depending on their cultures. Nor was she aware that Brazilians – contrary to Danes – dress down for barbecues and up for birthday parties. Following the new insights about cultural differences, she could look at her own culture and explain to me what Brazilians would most probably wear for a concert in a bar. I used this information to plan what to wear.

Thanks to Yannick, I learned when I was expected to pick the miniskirt and when to pick the worn-out jeans.

Building cultural Intelligence never ends

As time went by, I had the time to do some shopping. My wardrobe expanded with Brazilian pieces and my selection of clothes made it easier for me to dress up or down according to the event.

In other words, similar to developing cultural intelligence, I became more and more experienced in reading the dress code out of the invitations and could thus pick a piece from my wardrobe that matched the event.

However, I must admit that despite my growing and changing wardrobe, sometimes I still do not get the mix right. Building cultural intelligence is a continuous exercise, starting off with the curiosity and motivation to learn more about others.

Marisa Matarese is a here we are Key Resource Person currently based in Denmark. Marisa works as a culture, strategy and change advisor in her own company, marisamatarese.

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