Cultural Intelligence in an Age of Terrorism

Joe Weinlick
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In the wake of the January 2015 Al Qaeda attack that resulted in the deaths of 11 journalists at the offices of Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment enveloped much of the West. European police tightened terrorist dragnets, and at least a dozen people were arrested on terrorism suspicions. Nearly 4 million people gathered in Paris to protest the attack on one of their most cherished values: freedom of the press.

Values are the heart and soul of any culture. What a society values defines its belief systems and cultural norms, and determines to a great extent what the individuals who comprise that society are prepared to defend. Understanding a culture’s cherished values allows people to move beyond xenophobia and distrust, into the realm of empathy and compassion — the core of what’s called cultural intelligence, cultural quotient or CQ.

Cultural intelligence is more than just political correctness or even cultural sensitivity. Similar to emotional intelligence, it is the ability to detect, comprehend and accept without judgment the underlying morals that drive the behaviors of someone perceived to be different. In today’s increasingly global economy, the geographic borders between nations are disappearing far more rapidly than the cultural divides that exist between people. Developing higher levels of cultural intelligence at home and in the workplace helps fuel mutual respect by bridging the gap between vastly different values.

Developing cultural intelligence is not easy, nor does paying lip service to mutual acceptance make for a quick fix. Human beings communicate on many different levels, and non-verbal communication often speaks more truthfully than words. Nonetheless, the first step toward building a bridge between vastly differing points of view is a conversation in which both sides agree to temporarily suspend judgment and listen to what the other has to say. In the workplace, this can be achieved by something as simple as inviting a co-worker from a different cultural background to lunch — or as complex as holding regular staff meetings during which individuals share their cultural traditions and norms.

Individuals can foster a culturally intelligent workplace by avoiding the temptation to stereotype others based on their cultural background or ethnicity and by challenging overt profiling when it occurs. Simply pointing out the absurdity of assigning a point of view to another based on his race or religious beliefs is often enough to stop this type of cultural ignorance in its tracks.

Hiring practices are another area where cultural intelligence pays off. Although most businesses seek to recruit employees and managers who are a cultural fit, workplace diversity pays high dividends when it comes to improving the organization’s CQ. Hiring managers need to be aware of any cultural biases they bring to the workplace and, when appropriate, actively seek out prospective employees who don’t quite fit in.

Humans have an innate desire to separate themselves from the unfamiliar. Terrorism is fueled by that desire: Those who perpetrate acts of violence like the attack on Charlie Hebdo seek to create confusion, horror, fear and separation because they know that world solidarity is their enemy. Conversely, the strongest weapons available to the global community and to each individual in the fight against terrorism are cultural intelligence and genuine empathy for humanity.


Photo courtesy of Chris at



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