AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

The Importance of Cultural Intelligence in Effective Engagement – Lindley Edwards


Australia is well positioned geographically to increase its trade with its neighbours in the region. In fact China and Japan continue to be the dominant trade partners for Australia. According to most pundits and forecasters the economic outlook for the region (both Asean and the various countries that are classified as Asia) is positive. Annually Asialink, with its partners PwC and the Melbourne Institute, produce a multi-indicator report that measures the level of engagement, and rates of change of this engagement, between Asia and Australia. The trends in this multi year, multi indicator analysis remain positive. This Report can be downloaded:

In addition our organisation yearly undertakes a survey of perceptions of companies as to their views on engagement of trade and opportunity in the region. The last survey showed the increasing interest of companies, large and small, to engage in the region. Refer:

The opportunities seem plentiful, the trends are positive and the economic and trade outlooks are optimistic. However, to take advantage of these positive prospects will require that we not only bring a willingness to engage but also bring a preparedness to be cultural intelligent and wise. Culture intelligence focuses on the ability to build bridges of understanding and concentrate on what does and can unite rather than what divides.

This Article seeks to identify the impact of culture on us as individuals, highlight how there are different ways of seeing, describing and creating meaning as well as examines some ways in which we can be wiser in our dealings with the ‘other’.

How Culture Permeates Everything

“Culture is the total communication framework: words, actions, postures, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, the handling of time, space and materials and the way he/she works, plays, makes love, and defends himself/herself. All these things and more are complete communication systems with meanings that can be read correctly only if one is familiar with the behaviour in the historical, social and cultural context” – Edward T Hall[1] 

“To be empty of a fixed identity allows one to enter fully into the shifting, poignant, beautiful and tragic contingencies of the world” – Stephen Batchelor[2]

As Edward T Hall eloquently states in the above comment, cultural lens permeates, often insidiously, everything we interact with and how we create our own and shared meanings. Our ways of viewing, seeing, describing and organising in the world are deeply influenced and informed by the culture we are part of.

Shared assumptions, values and beliefs contained in a culture have the benefit of allowing groups to deal, transact and interact with others quickly. The downside is that we can be unaware of how these shared assumptions, values and beliefs in our dealings do not translate or can be in conflict with those held by other people who are living outside of our culture.

Anyone who has had the experience of living and/or working in a foreign country can recount the difficulty in having to learn all the cues and unspoken mores of the new society which they find themselves part of.  At first it seems so bewildering but gradually it is possible to piece together enough details that enable a navigation of the new life. Having a relationship with a person from another culture also sharply brings into focus cultural differences.

One of the most insightful exercises I have ever done to effectively highlight how cultures ‘see’ differently, was an exercise facilitated by Alison Carroll, the then Arts Director of Asialink[3].  Alison gave us a slide show, which featured landscapes painted by European artists, Australian Indigenous artists, Japanese artists and Indonesian artists.

We then had to look out the window and draw a view of Sydney Harbour in the style and way of seeing as each of the examples we had seen. The European (Western) view is of a literal interpretation of the landscape, the indigenous Australian view is an aerial view with symbolic/mythical representations, the Japanese view was to create the feeling of the landscape in as minimal way as possible with every stroke having meaning and the Indonesian view was to make some things larger than others with lots of detail.  The larger the object/figure the more importance it had.

This was a very useful exercise as it allowed me to understand in a very visceral and tangible way that my conditioned way of seeing was not the only way and that there were many ways. Each way has its own perspective, logic and meaning.

The same difference applies to how a culture uses language. I often question what is it that my culture has words for, what is it that doesn’t and where is the emphasis (or not) of the language. It is always interesting to examine what concepts exist in another’s language that does not exist in my own. Some of what exists in a language is practically based according to the landscape and climate lived in. What is significant to understand what feelings, emotions, ideas have a voice, a way of describing in one culture but not in another.

Robert A Johnson makes an important point about language and vocabulary “where there is no terminology, there is no consciousness. A poverty stricken vocabulary for any subject is an immediate admission that the subject is inferior or depreciated in that society”.[4]

Language/Interaction patterns are also valuable to understand, as is the preferred communication style.  Is the communication direct and linear or is it a built up over shared meaning in a more circular fashion?  Communication experts and scholars distinguish between two dimensions of a message and how language is used. These dimensions are “the message content, or what is said and the relationship or how it is said”[5] Meaning is therefore understood not only from the content but from the context, the perceived motives of the messenger, non verbal cues, the receivers personal self concept and larger group (cultural) concepts.

The way in which we move is also heavily influenced by our cultural imprint and its focus. As an example ballet is a western art form (done principally for entertainment) where a large part of the performance is the lifts, aerial work and balancing (earthing) the smallest area possible. This is in direct contrast to, for example, most of Australian Indigenous dancing which is focused on pushing as much of the foot as possible into the ground and establishing connection to the earth, celebrating the relationship with earth and all living systems.

Music also comes from our cultural imprint and underpins our preferences for what we like to listen to – beats, rhythms and underlying patterns. One culture’s music can seem discordant and inaccessible to other. For many cultures music plays the role of creating shared rhythms, experiences and a means to transfer feelings, emotions and stories collectively.

Stories in all cultures are important ways in which history, knowledge and wisdom is carried and thereby transferred. What is relevant is the emphasis on what the story is told about and how a story will be communicated. It is always insightful to see if a history or story from a culture has room not just for the literal but contains the archetypal, mystical or other realms. Learning another’s stories gives us unique insight to what is valued, what are the wisdom lessons and a means to observe how knowledge is transferred and handed down.

Professor Richard E Nisbett’s work[6] looks at how Eastern and Western cultures and their underpinning philosophies differ. To illustrate the key differences he has developed a simple exercise. He asks Chinese and US children to pair two of any of the following three items together – chicken, cow and grass.  Chinese children tend to group cow and grass together because of the symbiotic relationship and US children preferred (on average) to group chicken and cow as together as both are animals. Such a simple exercise demonstrates the ‘logic’ in both cultures and how there are many ways to look at the same set of data, variables, objects or situations. Western thinking tends to ‘see’ and deal with things as separate creating a grouping whilst eastern (as well as most indigenous) thinking focuses on relationships.

Alfonso (Fons) Trompenaars, David Lewis and Charles Hampden Turner[7] as well as experts like Geert Hofstede’s have worked for many years in the fields of identifying key dimensions of each culture. To give a further background on their work, I have summarised the seven value dimensions of culture identified by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner. These are scales that have opposites of:

  1. 1. Universalism versus Particularism. In a universal focused culture the rules are developed that apply across the board. In particularism cultures each individual circumstance and relationship is looked at in specific situations to determine and decide what to do. It is very much case by case way of operating.
  2. 2. Collectivism versus Individualism. Collectivism is when a society values and organises mostly from the perspective of the collective or communal. The opposite spectrum is cultures that value individualism, which values that the individual, where possible, determines their own life and future.
  3. 3. Specificity versus Diffuseness.  A culture focused on specificity prefers explicit definitions, breaking down the whole into smaller parts. Whilst cultures that value diffuseness have an inbuilt preference to look at the big picture and patterns and not be so concerned about the detail.
  4. 4. Achieved versus Ascribed Status.  A culture focused on achieved status focus on and value status earned. Ascribed status occurs in cultures that value status assigned because of family, sex, race or parental prominence
  5. 5. Inner Direction versus Outer Direction. Cultures that value inner direction focus on personal thinking and judgment and its merit, whilst outer direction cultures seek and value data from the outside world.
  6. 6. Human-Time relationship. The way in which cultures determine and interact with time differs. The two extremes are when a culture views time sequence as one event after another (linear) or time is seen as synchronous and events occur simultaneously (circular).
  7. 7. Human-Nature relationship. Cultures tend to view nature as either separate to or from life at one end of the spectrum and other end sees it as an integrated part of the life of an individual or group.

When working with people from other cultural groups I personally find it really valuable to understand both where the greatest similarities exist between me and the other are, and where the most differences are appearing. This knowledge is very liberating as it allows us to use the similarities to build shared understanding and where there are large differences to be more considerate of the other and to be more expansive in my consideration, openness to and dealings.

I also like to find where a condition exists in my culture that helps me understand why another culture might value or organise itself around a value that I don’t usually understand. As an example, in parts of South East Asia an ascribed status applies, (that is the hereditary rights to positions). Rather than pass a negative judgment on this, as my cultural norm values achievement and earned status would dictate, I look for where this exists in my norm. Australia, as a Commonwealth country has the Queen of England as the Queen of Australia. This Head of State title is not an earned role but comes from the fact she was born into the right family in the right birth order with historical rights going back centuries. So using this I can understand the role of tradition and organising, that whilst may have been left over from an earlier time, still exists and may actually work in that society, as it is working in mine.

It requires vigilance not to pass cultural based judgment on the others system, not to ascribe my cultural imprints and understandings ignorantly onto another and to open myself up to the other ways of thinking, seeing, describing, organising and feeling. Instead of just ‘judging’ it is more worthwhile to spend time understanding what is it that is influencing the underlying rational that is informing behaviour that I don’t understand.

We all need to become more and more aware, attuned and sensitive to the role that culture is playing and bring it into full consciousness and awareness. Experiences outside of our comfort zone which require different organising and interpreting than what we are used to, allow our brains and ourselves to reconstruct our internal wiring. We must be open to this, if we are to create new maps, engage, trade and transact effectively with others. Our personal and collective future wealth will be greatly influenced by our ability to not only be a good neighbour but to be an understanding one.

About the Author

Lindley Edwards is the Group CEO of AFG Venture Group; an Australia/Asia based corporate advisory business. Refer to .

Lindley is a Non Executive Director of a number of not for profit and community organisations. She is also a Director of Wisdom University Asia – In July Wisdom University will be running an intensive that is open to all participants which will examine the topic of “Connecting the Dots in Global Affairs”.

“Connecting Dots in Global Affairs” will explore how we might make sense of the current themes that are emerging in the world, how we might consider navigating changes and what will be some of the potential impacts from the shift of power west to east, including examining the similarities and differences between western wisdom and eastern enlightenment.

Lindley Edwards, March 2012

[1] Edward T Hall – US Anthropologist (born May 1914 died July 2009)

[2] Batchelor, Stephen – Verses from the Centre, A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime – River Trade Press, 2001

[3] Refer Asialink –

[4] Johnson, Robert A – “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden – Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology” – Harper One, 1995

[5] Rogers Everett M and Steinfatt Thomas M – “Intercultural Communication” – Waveland Press Inc, 1999 quoting Behaviourists Paul Watzlawick, Janet Bavin and Donald Jackson.

[6] Nisbett, Richard E – “The Geography of Thought – How Asians and  Westerners Think Differently and Why” – Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2005

[7] Hampden-Turner Charles M, Alfonso Trompenaars and David Lewis – Building Cross-Cultural Competence: How to Create Wealth from Conflicting Values-Yale University Press, 2000