Learning Mandarin is important but…

Language is no doubt a very important subset of culture and it augurs well if an expatriate learn up some basic langulearning chineseage in the foreign land to navigate around.  However, my own research data in China shows that while an expatriate leader may have a good command of Mandarin, the official language of China, he or she may still not demonstrate a good dose of Cultural Intelligence, or CQ™, as some of the local staff alluded to me. A leader from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia or Taiwan, or a “returning chinese”, sometimes termed as the “sea turtles,” may not necessarily have the ability to build trust relationships with the local staff at the workplace. What gives, then?

A lot of us who can speak Mandarin fluently tend to minimise the impact of the actual cultural distance between us and the local team. We think that because we are able to understand and communicate fluently in their language, we are “them” and we don’t have to do the extra legwork, such as finding creative ways to bridge the intellectual and emotional gaps that exist between us and “them.” We forget that our values systems may be different even though we may look similar and speak the same language. Worse, we forget that while we use the same language, the nuances of each word or sentence may come off completely differently and to the locals, what seem innocent may be perceived as extremely arrogant and dismissive. Consider this real-life example:

A mandarin-speaking expatriate leader said to his client, “This is a very simple problem.” It seems very straightforward and what he intended to convey is a sense of assurance for the client to undertake his proposed approach to solving the problem. However, the tone in which he used, unfortunately, was misconstrued by the client as condescending and over-simplying the problem. The client said that it made her feel stupid when the expatriate leader used the word, “Simple” in mandarin. So it looks like the old adage is true, especially in cross-cultural contexts: “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” 
Lest you turn away from this post thinking that I advocate throwing away the chinese dictionary and sacking your chinese teacher, I strongly believe that we need to have some language proficiency, the higher level the better, because that takes your conversations and relationships with the locals to an entirely different and deeper level, beyond the “ni hao” (hello) and “gei wo yi ge pi jiu” (give me a beer). I am able to have conversations with my clients that my American counterpart cannot hope to join in, and I am eternally grateful for my dad who forced me to learn Mandarin in school. Unfortunately, just counting on language proficiency alone to bring more business or build better teams in the local scene will not fly. There needs to be a concerted effort and internal motivation to want to gain local cultural knowledge, in addition to language proficiency, and then channel these knowledge clusters into meaningful and respectful gestures and behaviours that are congruent to the locals’ values system. So it seems that even for some of us who speaks the language fluently, there still exist a skills gap in translating all those cultural knowledge (including language)  into accurate interpretation and appropriate behavioural manifestations. Bridging that skills gap requires Cultural Intelligence.

How Culturally Intelligent Are You?

For those of us who have been “career expatriates” for a while, we can tell you that just because you have worked and lived in India for 6 years does not necessarily mean that you would transition easily into China, for example. In many cases, if you were like me, you would still feel like a bull in a china shop!

While most of the skills and lessons learned you garner from your previous postings are useful as reference or starting points in the initial starting line of your new posting, you find that you will have to re-learn or un-learn some things as well because the context you are dealing with is different – the people, the norms and cultural nuances in daily routines, the way negotiations are done, even how you negotiate traffic in Cairo is vastly different if you now live in Jakarta. Certainly, the art of trust-building differs from one region to the next.

How you adapt and evolve across the cultural terrains like a chameleon, is essentially dependent on how “culturally intelligent” you are, or how much CQ™ you possess. That is the “X” factor that makes or breaks your multi-cultural experience, be it at the workplace or in your daily life at your outpost.

CQ™ is multi-faceted and each facet can be developed and nurtured over time:

  • CQ Knowledge (CQ1)  – What you know about the culture
  • CQ Meta Knowledge (CQ2)  – How do you process and plan to use the information about the new culture
  • CQ Motivation (CQ3) – Why do you bother or even want to adapt in cross cultural environment
  • CQ Behaviours (CQ4) – What are the cross-cultural behaviours you exhibit to bridge cultures

Channeling your CQ is key to unlocking cross-cultural relationships and building emotional trust with locals and enhance your overall experience working and living in cross-cultural environments. Yet, you still need to make the first step of WANTING to put past your notions about that new culture and DESIRING to learn to be more culturally intelligent.

“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.”
― Deborah J. LevineMatrix Model Management System: Guide to Cross Cultural Wisdom