How to Develop Your Cultural Intelligence

Edward T. Hall’s notion of culture as an iceberg describes what we see, hear and are most conscious of as a very small part of a person’s cultural orientation (see diagram below). What is “beneath the surface” is 90% of what a culture constitutes. These are the invisible qualities of a culture – things like notions of adolescence, preferences for competition or cooperation or attitudes toward elders. In general, these invisible qualities are entrenched in our values, beliefs and behaviours. Knowing this, it is important to develop a sense of one’s own cultural perspective as not much of what we say, see and act is apparent to ourselves. The way others perceive us is often vastly different to the way we perceive ourselves. In developing multicultural relationships, understanding one’s particular culture in relation to others is the first step to developing one’s cultural intelligence.


Indiana Department of Education – Language Minority and Migrant Program –

In the workplace, prejudices and stereotypes easily work their way into our daily interactions with coworkers of diverse backgrounds. Although prejudices and stereotypes are usually negatively connotated, be aware that there may be positive connotations that we may attribute to others. Whether positive or negative, it is important to be aware of preconceived ideas as they distort the truth and character of a person.

Developing one’s cultural intelligence is a process that removes oneself from his/her ethnocentric tendencies. Most of us, if not all, tend to adopt a perspective from a personal point of view – ethnocentrism. This personal point of view may be learned through the environment around them (i.e. family, friends, society at large). The end of goal of developing one’s cultural intelligence, however, is to adopt a view in which other ways of living – cultures – are understood and accepted. In other words, one is multicultured. The American Management Association describes the “Path of Intercultural Learning” in the following progression:

  1. Ethnocentricity
  2. Awareness
  3. Understanding
  4. Acceptance/Respect
  5. Appreciation/Valuing
  6. Selective Adoption
  7. Multiculturation

Getting to the last step – multiculturation – takes time, dedication and education. Taking diversity seriously requires the effort of the individual and employer to create a workplace culture that embraces diversity. Lambert and Myers “The Diversity Training Activity Book” outlines a quick exercise that can get people to start thinking about what culture is and how a person’s preconceptions may influence their interactions with others:

Cultural Baggage


The purpose of this activity is to help participants understand that the term “cultural baggage” refers to those concepts, ideas, and attitudes carried from childhood that still have great influence on us. Exploring “baggage” through proverbs, sayings, symbols, etc. will lead to recognizing its limiting effect when dealing with people with different values.


10-20 minutes


  • Cards with familiar proverbs or sayings, or physical symbols representing mainstream North American values
  • Flipchart


Present a brief lecture and demonstration of mainstream American values, and contrasting values. (Use symbols, sayings or whatever your imagination dictates.)

A few examples are listed below:

a. Privacy – “A man’s home is his castle” vs. “Mi Casa, Su Casa”, representing certain other cultures.

b. Self-determination – “God helps those who help themselves” vs. “God wiling”; that is, fatalism is a strong value in many other cultures.

c. Assertiveness – “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” vs. “The duck that quacks the loudest…gets shot,” a saying used in several Asian countries.

d. Individualism – “Take Care of number 1” vs. “The group always comes first.”

e. Exclusivity – “Members only” vs. “Open membership” (unwritten rules for power sharing within a group).

f. Reward/Competition – “Winning is everything” vs. “Harmony is most important.”


It is important to recognize that everyone carries his/her own baggage, no matter what the culture. Culture in and of itself is not good or bad, it just “is.” The more people know about their own and others’ baggage, the easier it is to become open and to work together.

Trainer’s Notes

An excellent way to illustrate these points is by showing newspaper and magazine ads that demonstrate mainstream North American values. For example, there were Hertz ads claiming to be “Number 1,” BMW ads saying theirs is the car that “tempts fate,” American Express ads saying “Membership has its privileges,” and others.

This exercise may also include sayings from participants’ own lives and exploring individual values as well as mainstream North American values.

Much like the Iceberg Theory proposed by Hall, the exercise presented here “only scratches the tip of the iceberg” in terms of exercises that develop cultural intelligence. What are ways you educate and develop your cultural intelligence? How do you manage your multicultural relationships? Was this an eye-opening discussion on multicultural relationships in your work and/or personal life? Let us know in the comments!