Cross-Cultural Intelligence: Where To Begin

Last month, we spoke to etiquette and protocol consultant Jo Caruana about the importance of making a great first impression when introducing yourself. This month, Jo – who works with clients as far afield as Japan – highlights the cultural nuances it is important to be aware of when doing business internationally.

 In the global business world, we cannot afford to offend. It is imperative to have an understanding of the cross-cultural intelligence that will ensure you make a great first impression wherever you.

As Jo explains, there is an art to making people feel comfortable and respected in your presence – thus ensuring they want to do business with you. And all that starts with understanding of the nuances that makes a particular culture tick.

After all, cross-cultural intelligence does what it says on the tin: it enables you to thrive in any situation. This means that when you want to do business in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, America or anywhere in the world, you can do so with confidence, and without worrying that could may suddenly put your foot in it offend your hosts.

“I work with many clients that are eager to internationalise and do business in new jurisdictions, and that’s very exciting,” Jo says. “But they often worry about their lack of understanding when it comes to the culture they are hoping to work in, and whether they will be able to connect with potential international business partners and colleagues.”

With this in mind, Jo explains that – while this is totally understandable – there is a lot that anyone can do quickly and effortlessly improve their chances. “It’s unlikely you’ll ever know everything about the culture you want to break into (just think about how complex our own culture is, and you’ll understand what I mean!)” Jo says. “But the best first step is to read case studies about intercultural business relationships in the country of your choice, and to gauge what went wrong and right.

“Then, assess your body language and think about the way you present yourself. Could your demeanour perhaps be perceived as arrogant or overwhelming in a conservative culture? Or could you seem cold and disinterested in a country that values eagerness and warmth? Use this an opportunity to become increasingly self aware, and to do what you can to mirror the body language and approach of your host. Remember that body language transcends language itself, so it is vital to get it right.”

That said, Jo stresses it isn’t just about bending to the norms of the ‘other’ culture. Far from it. “In my opinion, it is most important to show cultural sensitivity when you are going into another culture, and being welcomed as a guest. Yes, your host should make you feel comfortable, but it’s important to be aware of things that will please – or could offend – while you are there, and to make an effort. On the flip side, when you are welcoming it is less important to understand the intricate nuances of your guest’s culture (although an awareness is always an asset) but to be kind and hospitable. Trust me, hospitality is charming in every culture, and kindness and warmth can transcend all boundaries – so just focus on being a fantastic host!” Jo adds.


Practical Tips

Need some quick-fire cross cultural intelligence advice? Jo shares her favourite tips.  

  • Avoid stereotypes. In the same way that not all Maltese people drink tea from a glass and eat pastizzi, not all Japanese people eat sushi all day and not all Libyan women wear a hijab. Don’t fall for the stereotypes and expect everyone to fit the mould – they won’t. Treat everyone as an individual.
  • Sensitivity is step one. We all know how daunting it is to go into a culture that we know little about, so understand that it’s the same for anyone coming here. Accept the fact that just because people do, wear or eat things differently, doesn’t make them ‘the other’ – they’re human too. We don’t like to be judged and neither do they, so just try to make people feel accepted no matter their culture.
  • Educate yourself. While it’s impossible to know everything about every culture, a little knowledge goes a long way. Try to read up on the basic etiquette and norms before you travel; it will definitely be appreciated.


Curious about the most important aspects of business etiquette in Asian markets? Jo shares her advice next month.

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Monique Chambers

Monique started succeed in 2018 and indulge in 2011. She has published two apps; Indulge Me GIFT and Indulge Me FOOD and volume 1 of The Artists Directory - Malta, as well as an audio book, Table 7. A PR and Marketing professional by trade with a Masters in Entrepreneurship, Monique's passion is to promote local talent and Malta in general.