Improving Cultural Intelligence

by Patrick Liew on September 27, 2011

It was a boring shopping trip – but an enlightening one.

Three of us were tasked to buy prizes for a grassroots leaders’ retreat. We had decided to look for food that they can share among themselves.

Simple enough? No.

As we had people from different race, religion, gender, age, and other background, we wanted to be sensitive to one and all.

For example, we deliberated for quite awhile about buying ‘3-in-1’ instant coffee.

It seemed like a good idea as the hotel we were staying in did not provide coffee during meal times.

We almost went ahead until someone asked an innocent question, “What about those people who don’t drink coffee?”

After that, we started looking around again.

We wanted to buy biscuits until we started to look at the long list of ingredients. As I don’t cook – except specializing in boiling water – I had no clue that so many ingredients were needed to bake a biscuit.

Some of the ingredients don’t even sound like food. More like chemicals for my detergent.  🙂

We were concerned whether if our Muslim friends will be able to consume the food. The idea was passed.

The simple task became increasingly more challenging. Too hard, too soft. Too lavish, too cheap looking. Too unique, too common. Too exquisite, too plain…

Finally, after much discussion, time, and legwork, we found what we wanted. Thankfully, the leaders were happy with our choice.

When I reflected on this experience, I learned a valuable lesson for building a strong community.

We need to be sensitive to one another.

The key starting point is to avoid adopting an ethnocentric mindset, believing that my objectives, perspective, and way of doing business are better than others.

It includes making judgments about other’s behavior based on my self-conception and past experience.

What works for me may not succeed with others because of psycho-demographic and other cultural differences.

Successful persons in a new cultural setting may not even be a good one. They need to make the necessary adaptations and improvements.

It is important to stay culturally open. I need to have a healthy tolerance for and sensitivity to cross-cultural differences.

When I am committed to learn about and adapt to other culture, it will not only enrich my life but will also help me develop appropriate bridges to enhance my lifestyle.

To be culturally empathetic – and not be culturally-blinded – it is important to make effort to understand the relevant cross-cultural differences and study how to leverage on them for worthwhile purposes.

I need to be humble to enquire about and learn how to operate in accordance to new cultural cues, expectations and behavior.

If need be, I have to go ‘back to basics’ and engage people to help me understand the unfamiliar culture or retain the right coach to help me work with people from a different culture.

It is vital to always remember that every individual in a community is unique. He/She is different from me, in terms of personality profile, behavioral pattern, motivation, working style, fears and dreams.

One of the fundamental mistakes I have made is that I assume that other people are just like me. Therefore, I operate and interact with others based on my worldview and social style.

My well-intentioned thoughts, words and actions can be totally misunderstood and worst, misinterpreted as negative. It happens purely and simply because different people see things differently. They assign different meanings to words and behavior.

Even if I think that we understand each other, I can still be wrong. It is important to solicit feedback. It will help me to ensure that there is no breakdown in communication.

Feedback will also be an important process to improve relationships and ensure that we are moving in the right direction.

In short, be sensitive when you work with people from different cultural background. Always learn to communicate and work with them in a way that makes sense to them.

Improving Cultural Intelligence can help all of us to build stronger communities and society.

In Singapore, our multicultural society can be both an opportunity for and challenge to growth.

It adds a spectrum of sight, sound, spice and substance to the fabric of our lives.

However, my concern is that there may not be comprehensive harmony – maybe, only convenient tolerance. It makes us vulnerable to social cracks and divides that may lead to conflicts, controversies and contentions.

We need to enhance our cultural intelligence  – not just our financial or economic intelligence – to ensure that we maintain unity in diversity.

We need cultural intelligence to help us tide through unpredictable and challenging times in the future and strengthen our social compact to build a model multicultural society.


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

Please go to ‘Notes’ found below my profile picture.

Visit my Inspiration blog at

Visit my Transformation blog at

Please read them and continue to teach me.

Life is FUNtastic!

Question: How can we become more sensitive to other people’s thoughts and emotions?


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