Understand Culture – Keep Your Foot Out of Your Mouth

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

On the Windows 95 operating system, Microsoft chose to color 800,000 pixels a slightly different shade of green which, unknown to Microsoft, represented disputed Kashmiri territory in India. The different color was interpreted in India as meaning that the territory was not part of their country. The product was promptly banned by the nation and 200,000 copies of the system were returned. Had the team at Microsoft taken more time to understand culture, the losses – both monetary and reputationally – could have been avoided.

Why Understanding Culture Matters

Countries, regions, communities, and companies all have distinct cultures with different mannerisms and unique histories. As in the Microsoft example, not accounting for those differences can be costly. Awareness and consideration of these differences is commonly referred to as cultural intelligence, or CQ—the ability to navigate another culture’s unfamiliar customs, practices, beliefs, and gestures. In an increasingly global economy, this skill is prized by employers and managers, rewarding those who demonstrate CQ with preferential consideration in promotion and hiring decisions.

Developing cultural understanding starts with proper motivation, transfers into building a cognitive understanding, and then concludes with practicing proper actions and reactions when interacting with those of another culture.

Skills for Understanding Culture

Motivational Cultural Intelligence

Building cultural intelligence starts with motivation. Feeling discouraged is common when adapting to a new culture. Gaining an understanding of unfamiliar customs, languages, and methods is challenging, and small mistakes can feel overwhelming and discouraging. An individual’s drive to push through those obstacles will ultimately be a key factor in this integration and the overall development of CQ. Goal setting and gamification are a great start to keep motivation high. But recognizing that the effort to develop CQ leads to better relationships and business opportunities will ultimately provide the natural incentive needed to understand and embrace new cultures.

Cognitive Cultural Intelligence

Developing CQ requires cognitive effort and time. People can possess drive, determination, and the ability to quickly adapt, but if they haven’t put in the cognitive effort to delve into a culture, their efforts will fall flat and appear hollow and self-interested. When the proper effort is exerted, however, leaders are significantly more prepared to make educated and culturally sensitive decisions that will help avoid costly mistakes when conducting business across borders. Connecting with locals, doing research, and learning from personal experience are helpful ways to become adept with the basics of any culture.

Behavioral Cultural Intelligence

Behavioral CQ involves knowing and applying appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Whether it is greeting a colleague, interacting with superiors, or ordering food at a restaurant, proper etiquette builds trust and respect. By learning the mannerisms and traditions of the hosts, a person will not only come to know the culture, but also how to avoid causing offense in it. Behavioral CQ can be cultivated by asking questions, seeking clarification, and practicing with locals. Gaining this knowledge not only helps build trusted business relations but can be influential in expanding a person’s acceptance and appreciation of cultural differences.


Despite prior mistakes, Microsoft has become a culturally rich and diverse organization – making cultural intelligence one of the reasons for their worldwide success. As Tom Edwards knew, the most successful leaders in any organization are those who have cultivated the ability to adapt and thrive in new circumstances. The good news is that with the proper motivation, cognitive effort, and behavioral sensitivity, anyone can develop CQ.

For more information on the path to cultural intelligence, check out our more in-depth articles below.

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