Cultural Intelligence

January 17, 2024 •

6 min reading

Cultural intelligence: Fostering excellence in human experiences

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EHL’s Dr Peter Varga teaches Corporate Sustainability, Sustainability Transitions and Innovation, and Ethical Decision-Making for Responsible Managers. His research focuses on sustainable sociocultural dynamics of current tourism practices in host societies and cultural intelligence in intercultural service encounters. In this article he highlights the challenge of today's globalized and at the same time shrinking world, and asks: How can we develop our cultural intelligence to face the future, especially in an industry where positive human interaction lies at the heart of creating transformative experiences?

Even being a cultural anthropologist is not enough

Although I have visited over 70 countries around the world as a cultural anthropologist specialising in sustainable tourism, I have sometimes found myself in culturally difficult situations. I remember one of my many trips to the Ecuadorian Amazon in the 1990s, during which I greeted an indigenous Siona elder by opening my arms to her and giving her two kisses on the cheek, only to feel guilty a few days later when I realized the mistake I had made. Or in the early 2000s, when I was on holiday and trying unsuccessfully to resolve some kind of religious conflict, based on values and norms, between local and foreign hotel staff on a Malaysian island.

Similarly, I have often seen that managing culturally diverse teams can require careful attention to details that can spoil, but also succeed, in achieving results. For example, presenting a speech, project ideas and medium/long-term objectives to a culturally diverse team can be more difficult than one might think, because depending on the culture, colleagues may interpret them differently. Ultimately, we've probably all experienced team-building sessions based on specific norms, values, and behaviours which have proved futile and even frustrating for some.

It is true that good intentions based on intuition are natural in culturally diverse situations, but care must be taken that culturally biased norms, values, and behaviours may not correspond to the culturally intelligent solution to a specific situation. As a result, the desired outcomes may not occur. This certainly sounds like common sense, but it is not always that obvious.


Understanding more about ‘Others’

We all feel that our world has shrunk as the internet, mainstream media, entertainment, global tourism endeavour to make the world 'smaller' and more accessible in our post-modern society, yet our understanding of this shrinking world is far from complete. We certainly know more about 'Others' today than we did in the past, but despite some general ideas, do we really take the time and initiative to research cultural differences and take the complicated step of managing more amazing encounters with Others, if necessary? Cultural variations raise questions about our ability to deal with culturally complex situations.

Cogito, ergo sum, a well-known quote from the seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes, nevertheless we often don't know what we don't know, so culturally difficult situations can have either constructive or calamitous outcomes, simply because we lack the awareness and adaptability to deal with the situation effectively. At the end of the day, it's all about understanding Others, which is becoming increasingly relevant in our fast-changing world, where culturally diverse encounters are ubiquitous, and old stereotypes and prejudices can become meaningless, inappropriate, or even dangerous.

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Cultural intelligence – the future of the hospitality industry

Most of us have had experience of strange cultural encounters, such as whether to give a tip, show emotions or remain discreet in public. To what extent should we remain calm in uncertain situations in front of our guests? Or how do we welcome guests whose daily lives are based on very different cultural values and behaviours to our own? These difficult situations acquire greater importance in the service industry, where human interaction is still the foundation of transformative experiences and excellence.

We all have a vague idea of who Others are, what their 'likely' behaviours are, but Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is a structured and well-thought-out learning procedure that enables us to become more effective in a diverse cultural context. This is becoming crucial in today's hospitality, especially when perfection and excellence are sought. The Cambridge Dictionary defines hospitality as the act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors, which leads directly to the expectation of high-quality service and excellence, a unique characteristic of luxury.

“It's attention to detail that makes the difference between average and stunning”

- Francis Atterbury

Today, CQ is central, since in an industry that has until now been historically standardized, such as the hotel industry, the future will bring intense change; tailor-made experiences (McKinsey, 2023). AI (artificial intelligence) will contribute to such a personalized service on a technical level, but will AI offer solutions for volatile and sudden situations that should be managed in a culturally intelligent way by hotel staff? Should hotel staff always rely on historical stereotypes or AI-provided recommendations for impending situations, which would most likely reduce service excellence? Will AI be able to replace human interaction in every detail? The obvious answer is no, or at least not yet, because human intelligence seems to be more complex than it appears!


What exactly is cultural intelligence (CQ)?

“Cultural intelligence is one’s ability to adapt when confronted with problems arising in interactions with people of diverse cultures.”

- Sternberg, 2021, p. 2

There are different types of intelligence (Sternberg, Wong and Kreisel, 2021), such as emotional intelligence, leadership intelligence, social intelligence, practical intelligence, and cultural intelligence (CQ), among others. The latest, cultural intelligence was first conceptualized and structured by Earley and Ang in a four-factor model: motivational, cognitive, metacognitive, and behavioural (2003). The model itself helps to improve a person's ability to cope with culturally diverse challenges and to find effective solutions. Improving one's CQ is possible for everyone, but it takes time and dedication. Therefore, it should be integrated into initial university curricula or internal training programs in service industries.

Of course, luxury hotels usually have a well-qualified concierge who can read between the lines, pick up on hidden details and effectively manage cross-cultural encounters. There's no doubt that these professionals have developed a high level of CQ over the course of their careers because that's what luxury service is all about. But what about the rest of the staff who are in daily contact with customers? Are they trained and do they know how to resolve unforeseen situations when the concierge is away?

How to compensate an unhappy customer is often a question of cultural values and preferences. How can culturally different guests be encouraged to participate in the hotel's sustainable development efforts? Similarly, how and who should be served first when it comes to a group of customers from a society where age and status are decisive?


CQ and AI: The stamp for higher quality

If we look at tourism and hospitality from a historical perspective, the future will bring an increased demand for high-quality services. It is confirmed that personalized experience, which will be increasingly assisted by AI, seems to increase business as 56% of consumers are likely to return after a personalized experience (Altexsoft, 2023). Unquestionably, the degree of personalization is also essential, whether demographic, psychographic, geographic, or behavioural. Consequently, hotels should therefore move away from traditional standardization and focus on personalized experiences, as some major hotel chains, such as Marriott, Hilton and Wyndham, have already initiated with their loyal customers.

Indeed, bespoke customer personalization presents some challenges today, but the near future is likely to bring high-quality, AI-supported, and CQ-driven service to the hotel and restaurant sector. To achieve this, hospitality decision-makers must view all staff as an opportunity to strive for excellence beyond basic assumptions and stereotypes about their guests' values, norms, and behaviours.

To conclude this article, soft skills based on CQ training are vital for hotels seeking excellence in the future. In fact, this type of training should be provided to all employees who may be directly or indirectly in contact with guests. In this way, developing cultural intelligence can help prepare for such encounters and further improve the guest experience. Second, it can prevent failures while sudden and unexpected cultural challenges appear. This is vital in 21st-century hospitality services and should therefore be part of the educational journey of future professionals and of the internal training programs of the company.

By involving hotel staff in this new learning journey, companies will meet the increasing expectations of guests in a culturally enhanced way that will create a competitive advantage for those who adopt it. I believe EHL's recently defined message, “Empowering growth by nurturing excellence in human experience,” seems to take an important step towards a more culturally intelligent future that will make a difference.

Written by

Assistant professor at EHL Hospitality Business School