Love and Relationships

[Travel] Cultural intelligence 101

Alfred Presbitero, PhD

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Cultural intelligence. Why must we have it to be better Filipinos and travelers?

LOVE OURS, LOVE THEIRS. There's nothing wrong with being proud of our own culture; just don't think ours is better than others'. Photo taken at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar by Kai Magsanoc

MANILA, Philippines – The first two weeks of April were a cultural journey for my mom.

She had been travelling with me first in Australia to attend my PhD graduation, and then to Singapore to see my current home and my place of work.

Like any other overseas trip, she was amazed by the sights of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, the Blue Mountains in Western Sydney, the city skyline at Marina Bay and the Botanical Garden in Singapore, among others.

Other than these tourist spots, she was also amazed and — to some extent — fascinated by how the locals live in these two distinctly different countries. There is such a big contrast in the way people live in these two countries, not to mention the huge difference in land mass and geographical location. 

My mom, the new traveler

My mom has not lived in or visited any other country before other than the Philippines; hence, this overseas trip was an entirely new experience to her.

When we arrived in Australia, she immediately noticed the seemingly laid-back culture and the love of people for outdoor activities.

She saw the vast greenery and huge land mass populated with tall trees and bushes. She wished to have seen kangaroos in the streets but she didn’t. Maybe we needed to go farther away from the city. She enjoyed her stay in Australia and couldn’t help but compare how different Australia is from the Philippines where she has lived all her life. 

Then we proceeded to Singapore to visit my new home and my place of work.

My mom didn’t adjust that much, probably because she felt she is closer to home. Besides, the weather in Singapore is very similar to that of the Philippines, so my mom didn’t need to wear jackets and scarves like what she did in Australia. Like in Australia, my mom enjoyed her stay in Singapore.

She noticed the abundance of trees and felt the good breeze even at the heart of the city. She also noticed how efficient public transport is, allowing commuters to travel from one place to another with greater ease. She was amazed by how taxi drivers give the complete change, down to the last cent.

As with Australia, she couldn’t help but to compare how different Singapore is from the Philippines. 

The danger of naive stereotyping

I reckon — like of all us who are new to a place or a country — the natural tendency is to be amazed with a new culture and compare it with one’s own culture. Their culture is like that, our culture is like this. It is using one’s own culture to view the new culture being experienced.

This was the experience of my mom. She compared the new cultural experiences that she had in Australia and Singapore with those of her own culture. I know that this was an enriching and enlightening experience for her. 

I guess my mom’s experience is the same with many others who have gone away and travelled to another culture for the first time. The initial reaction is to compare one own’s culture with that of the culture being experienced. There is nothing wrong with this as this is, I observe, the natural tendency.

However, staying in the level of comparing cultures may at times be dangerous. Why?

Comparing cultures brings to the surface cultural differences. Australians are laid back while Filipinos are not. Singaporeans are conscientious while Filipinos are not. Doing this kind of comparison is actually a form of stereotyping, “naive stereotyping.”

Naive stereotyping can be dangerous as it can depict some cultures to be less than the others. Naive stereotyping can lead us to wrongfully believe that some cultures are more superior than others, and this can bring about hostility and aggression. 

Cultural dimensions and sophisticated stereotyping

One way to move beyond naive stereotyping is to be governed by cultural dimensions that can guide an individual’s way of viewing and understanding culture.

Cultural dimensions such as power distance, collectivism-individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity-femininity are powerful tools that can aide a person in understanding culture. This is what we call “sophisticated stereotyping.”

However, this can also be limiting as it can constrain an individual’s perception of a particular culture only within these cultural dimensions. How about those individuals in a particular culture who do not behave and conform according to these cultural dimensions?

Obviously, not everyone can be placed inside a box, so to speak. Hence, it is important to understand the phenomenon of “cultural paradoxes.” 

Exciting cultural paradoxes

Cultural paradoxes happen when you encounter an individual who does not exemplify or fits the cultural dimensions expected of his culture.

For example, I have somehow refrained from using “po” and “opo” which are terms used in the Philippines when responding to the elderly or people in authority as a sign of reverence and respect. After having lived for quite some time in Australia, a “low power distance” culture, I tended to be more direct in speaking and dropped the “po” and “opo.”

But my mom would always remind me to use “po” and “opo” because, for her and in the culture where she has lived all her life, that is important and desired. So I have to adjust my manner and way of speaking whenever I’m in the Philippines.

This is a concrete example of cultural intelligence in action.

CQ and why we should improve it

Cultural intelligence is an individual capability to deal and interact with people from diverse cultures. It is the ability to acquire knowledge, strategize, act and be driven by cross-cultural interactions.

Cultural intelligence or CQ is not merely knowing other people’s cultures although it would help to have vast knowledge of different cultures. CQ also incorporates the ability to behave appropriately, adjust cultural schemas and be driven by cultural diversity.

CQ is an individual capability and, as such, it can be learned through cross-cultural encounters and contact. 

Like my mom, we all have to improve our own CQ.

With the world becoming more flat nowadays, it is a necessity to be able to deal and interact appropriately with people from different cultural backgrounds. Part of being culturally intelligenT is being more appreciative of one’s own as well as other people’s cultures.

It also involves being mindful of cultural differences and suspending judgment since what is typically visible to the naked eye is just the tip of the culture. It’s like an iceberg where the greater part is hidden and submerged in water.

There is more to culture than what is visibly seen. There is more to culture than what meets the eye. –


Alfred Presbitero, PhD is a Research Scientist at the Center for Innovation Research in Cultural Intelligence and Leadership, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He received his PhD in Business Management in Sydney, Australia. He is a Filipino and currently works on a research project that aims to assess and develop cultural intelligence in the business process outsourcing industry in the Philippines. 

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