Peter Dove

Why Bother with Cultural Intelligence?

Peter Dove
Why Bother with Cultural Intelligence?

Trendy cultural intelligence (CQ) is the current “must have” for those working cross-culturally, but CQ is more than the latest psychobabble to be foisted upon us by Armani suited speaker-circuit consultants. In fact, in a world rapidly integrating by advances in in formation sharing, simultaneously making us more secular and multi-cultural, CQ is a requisite skill set if we seriously want to influence our world. But here’s the rub, if you’re serious about becoming culturally intelligent, you’re in for some change.

Let me illustrate my point with a personal story. I was the head instructor for a leadership course that our multi-cultural team taught for Pharmacy students at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University. Our team consisted of 10 believing Thai facilitators and an international collection of instructors. This unorthodox outreach depended on volunteers to facilitate learning and cultivate meaningful, Christ-informed conversations among the 200 Buddhist students. I expected a high level of commitment from our volunteers.

On this occasion, one volunteer, Narong, let me know at the last minute that he would not be available for the following class. I had been clear about my expectations. To build trust, the Pharmacy students needed consistent facilitators. I needed dependable volunteers. Yet, the best Narong could offer was a smile. I was unhappy and yet it seemed no matter how I expressed my displeasure, Narong could not interpret the message.

The problem wasn’t Narong. He knew I was upset, and he was using a classic Thai strategy to deescalate public conflict — smile. My problem was that I couldn’t interpret his message to me. The result? I didn’t get what I wanted, Narong felt unappreciated for his service, and we both left thinking the other guy was clueless.


With the help of long-term missionaries to Thailand, Vaden and Joyce Williams, who met weekly with us, I did eventually get it. But, the damage was done. Even after five years of living and serving in Thailand, I still needed to develop my cultural intelligence if I wanted to influence the people I came to serve.

There are a few different ways to define CQ. What is consistently agreed upon is that CQ pushes you further into identification than Emotional Intelligence (EQ) ever will and it forces Christians who take incarnation and holiness seriously into uncharted water. If I modestly balk at public displays of affection, observe one person greet another with a Parisian “air kiss” on both cheeks, I may have enough EQ to interpret this greeting as cultural and put up with it. But CQ requires more than just awareness and toleration — I need to be willing to share some love in the same way if I want to be a person of influence in that circle.

EQ helps me see what is unique about others as human beings and empathize with their condition, but no more. CQ requires me to appreciate the cultural framework that unwittingly shapes a person’s behaviour and attitudes and participate in their world in return for a key of entry where I become an insider “who gets it.” It is only then that I have permission to be a person of influence in their life.

Sharing a greeting is one thing, but what about other cultural and religious celebrations?

CQ. then, is a risky proposition because in our effort get on the inside of culture, whether that culture is Canada’s mix of multiculturalism and secularism or Thai Buddhism, is it possible that we may lose our identity and become “like them?” Perhaps, and maybe that’s not always a bad thing.

I will never forget the day my wife, Cavelle, was eating a Thai meal in a downtown canteen. She was approached by a local woman who graciously said to her, “You eat so beautifully!” I still find it startling for several reasons: one, I could not imagine a similar conversation ever happening in Canada; two, clearly food and how you eat it is profoundly important to the cultural consciousness of most Thai; and three, Cavelle had so thoroughly entered the life of Thai culture, that unconsciously, she intuitively acted as a Thai, not for show, but because that was who she was becoming. In that moment, as an outsider, she became an insider—a person of influence in the life of another.

Yes, there are more nuanced examples—how we approach conflict; addressing authority; modest dress; public and private morality; and, gender relations to name a few.

The Apostle Paul seemed to understand this tension and embraced the challenge. He reminded the church in Corinth, To the Jews I became as a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (I Corinthians 9:19-23). Paul was clearly a man of high character. He was also prepared to adapt his ways and willing to be misunderstood to introduce others to the gospel.

The point is that without our willingness and ability to adapt as Paul did it’s very unlikely we will ever have a position of influence (for the gospel) with our neighbours, either in Canada or abroad.

So, what can we do? There are plenty of resources to help us understand the differences in culture and shape our strategy to become more culturally intelligent, but three fundamental steps matter:

1. We need to want to.

Without motivation to learn about others and to develop the competency to function in their world we are dead in the water. Frankly, the more socially successful we are in our own groups (think church or community), the harder it is for us to separate from our cultural habits. A Pentecostal pastor from Mexico City warned me, “if you want to be successful as a missionary, you have to die to your own culture.” Uncertain at first, I eventually realized many of the patterns I had developed over 40 years of life in Canada would have to be surrendered if I was to be effective in Thailand. In Canada we expect newcomers to do the adapting, but if we hope to enter their world, it needs to be a two-way street. Are we motivated to make the change?

2. We need to learn and adjust behaviour.

We have a lot of great short-term teams from Canada who come to serve with us. Our most effective volunteers honour local ways and are interested in and respectful enough to ask questions and pursue understanding. Paul said that he became all things to all people to win some (I Corinthians 9:22). Enjoying sticky rice won’t cut it. We need to adapt our patterns.

3. We need a plan.

Appreciating that Asian culture is largely hierarchical has no value unless we also can interpret how Canadian culture typically functions and adjust our disposition to have a voice in an Asian context.

So, why bother with cultural intelligence? Because it’s what we are called to – become all, to save some.

Peter Dove is the regional director for Southeast Asia (SEA). He, along with his wife, Cavelle, have served in Asia since 2002. They founded Imagine Thailand, a ministry that links university students to marginalized communities in Thailand. In 2012, they relocated to Yangon, Myanmar.