What is Cultural Intelligence and How Do We Build It?

Multiculturalism can be fully embraced if educators take proactive roles to narrow the cultural divide in the classroom.

The pace of change is accelerating, or so everyone tells us. On a daily basis, things may seem much the same but big changes are constantly taking place unnoticed. One such change is the rising globalisation of tertiary education.

The change is partly driven by decreasing costs of air travel which result in greater personal mobility, but a fortiori, universities nowadays place a heavy emphasis on the number of international students and faculties recruited to improve their rankings.

Recruiting students from abroad does not come without challenges, what with the difference in entry qualifications, qualifications recognition and language. It is not unusual for international students, once they are successfully recruited and present on campus, to feel homesick or unwelcome and leave for their home country in the first few weeks.

For a university to build a strong international focus, university staff and students need to develop a great sense of cultural intelligence (CQ). According to Fellows et al. in their 2014 study, CQ measures a person’s interest and propensity to interact with others from different cultures.

In the case of Malaysian universities such as Sunway University, students’ openness to international newcomers can be a deciding factor as to whether international students stay for or abort their studies. Local students should exercise high CQ and we need to encourage them to be as welcoming as possible.

Sadly, students may not consider developing cultural skills and socialising with others from different cultural backgrounds a crucial part of their education. From my observation, local students tend to be more reluctant to diversify their group of friends or seminar group members. The unwillingness to step out of their cultural comfort zone can result in stark segregation in and out of class.

We need to explain to students that in a globalised world, they will be working with many people of different cultures and nationalities at their future workplace. Success and promotion in the working world will depend on how well developed an individual’s CQ skills are. While climbing the corporate ladder, it will become evident that individual effort or performance is not enough to gain results. The ability to work well within a team, which may be a multinational one, is crucial.

Future job prospects may also include the possibility of overseas promotion. Culture shock is often the reason many overseas postings fail. One of my predecessors at a multinational left his job and returned to the United States after three months (and losing five kilogrammes) because he could not stand Asian food. Practising CQ skills and having exposure to different thoughts, ideas and maybe even food can thus reduce the chances of failing at a job due to cultural differences.

My method of inculcating CQ among students in my class is by mandating a ‘mixing’ of groups. This means instead of students selecting their own group members for a collaborative seminar assignment, I will actively ensure that each group is diverse.

Ideally, in a group, I try to achieve a balance of gender, age and nationality. I do occasionally encounter resistance from students but I have found that if I take the time to explain the benefits of mixing, students will come to understand and accept the concept. I tell my students that mixing not only broadens their circle of friends but also their minds to new and foreign perspectives. After all, the purpose of education is to learn how to critically manage complex problems and adapt to a rapidly changing world.

To my delight, many students have informed me at the end of their assignments that they (even to their surprise) enjoy the mixing exercise. More importantly, I think I have made a small contribution to improving my students’ CQ.

For any educator willing to take on the task of mixing their students for group activities — beware! Many students will be against the idea, and you will need to devote some time to explain the rationale to them. As the practice of mixing becomes more widespread, it should become more accepted.

For university staff, it is important to remember that international students struggle with adapting to a foreign language, making new friends and acclimatising to local food and customs. As a result, international students may be less confident in sharing any issues they face with friends and staff. Being constantly alert to their problems is necessary. Remember, empathy is key.

Prof Michael M Dent
Sunway University Business School

This article appeared in Spotlight Teaching (Issue 1)