Developing Behavioral Cultural Intelligence

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

One person steps forward, the other steps back. This sequence can be observed in two places: a dance hall, where it is appropriate, natural, and harmonious; or a conference hall, where business professionals from different cultures are hesitant and stilted, making one another uncomfortable. This “little dance,” highlighted by Julien Bourrelle—founder of Mondå, a Norwegian cultural diversity project—demonstrates the importance of behavioral cultural intelligence. Rather than imposing an awkward exchange of conflicting preferences upon associates of other cultures, individuals can achieve more natural and comfortable business relationships by practicing behavioral cultural intelligence.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation produced a series of Effective Practice Guidelines in which it defines behavioral cultural intelligence as “the ability to act appropriately in a range of intercultural situations and effectively accomplish goals.” The foundation further explains that the three components of behavioral cultural intelligence include speaking, verbal, and nonverbal behaviors. The following examples illustrate ways to observe and address differences in cultural interactions.

Speaking Behaviors

The SHRM Foundation defines speech acts as “the specific words and phrases used when communicating different types of messages.” Speaking behaviors commonly used in some cultures may be unclear and have different or even negative meanings in other cultures.  For example, in South America it is politically incorrect to refer to the United States as America. Doing so disrespects South America by disregarding that it falls under the title, America, as well.

One way to avoid embarrassing verbiage slipups is to learn from an individual of the other culture before important business interactions. Ask if there are any phrases to avoid or that are commonly misunderstood between the two cultures. Cross-cultural expert Pellegrino Riccardi espouses that “you can ask any question to anybody… provided you do it with curiosity.” If possible and appropriate, it may be wise to run through different aspects of a pitch or presentation. Additionally, avoiding colloquialisms of an individual’s own culture can help keep communications clear between those of different cultures. Always keep in mind that what is said and heard by each individual may be interpreted differently. When all is said and done, don’t be afraid to ask for or offer clarification if there seems to be a misunderstanding.

Verbal Behaviors

SHRM defines verbal actions as, “the adjustment of one’s volume, tone and pace of speech.” Expanding on this, verbal behaviors may include the length of speech. For example, Riccardi compares the lack of “economy of language” used in the Italian culture to that used in the Nordic culture. The former using many words to convey even the smallest messages, while the later uses “minimum words, maximum message.” To improve the verbal aspect of behavioral cultural intelligence, practice. Once familiar with the words and phrases used by a culture, practice speaking those words in the cultural manner.

Nonverbal Behaviors

SHRM defines nonverbal behaviors as “adapting gestures, proximity, and facial expressions as needed.” The “little dance” analogy mentioned at the beginning of this article illustrates the importance of mastering nonverbal behaviors in addition to the speaking and verbal behaviors of other cultures. For example, consider the Indian conversational head movement or head bobble. Rather than indicate confusion, moving the head side-to-side is a sign of understanding and attentiveness in some Indian cultures. While some actions or behavioral preferences may seem out of place to individuals of one culture, they may be perfectly normal to those of another. Like speaking behaviors, the nonverbal aspect of behavioral cultural intelligence can be improved by asking questions of and interacting with individuals of the other culture prior to entering formal business settings.


Behavioral cultural intelligence encompasses many aspects of communication. With different variations and often more than one change from one culture to another, improving this skill may seem daunting when engaging in international business. However, if an individual is willing to ask questions, prepare ahead, and practice, behavioral cultural intelligence can improve cross-cultural business relationships through speaking, verbal, and nonverbal behaviors. Cross-cultural interaction may be a dance of its own, but it is most effective once partners learn to move together by respecting and accommodating the cultural behaviors of one another.

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