Connect Across Cultures Blog

How To Develop Cultural Intelligence Without Going Overseas?

Not all of us have the luxury of time and budget to travel abroad. So, how can you learn about cultures without going overseas?

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

How To Develop Cultural Intelligence Without Going Overseas?

In the time of COVID19, it may be a while till we're able to travel, migrate or take trips abroad freely. Living and working within a limited space does not mean there is a lack of intercultural encounters.

Twitter threads, Facebook groups, LinkedIn updates, Instagram images, and now TikTok videos expose us to humanity's diversity. There is a higher chance for us to connect with a Nigerian professional on LinkedIn, a Khazakstani makeup artist on TikTok, or a Nepali Feminist on Twitter.

From a business perspective, companies who are remotely working now see the limitless possibilities that this diverse and global market offers. Now more than ever before, we need Cultural Intelligence to meaningfully connect and build relationships in an increasingly diverse online world.

In essence, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is an individual's ability to perform effectively in diverse situations and environments. However, not all of us have the luxury of time and budget to travel abroad and learn about other cultures. So, what can be done is to prepare ourselves without going overseas? Using the available tools and resources at hand, anyone can develop CQ locally and prepare for their overseas assignment.

To do this, we need to take time to reflect on our goals, commit to a development plan, gain exposure, connect with a local and get quality training. This may seem like a lot of effort to prepare for our overseas assignment. Developing CQ will speed up the learning and adaptation process. Before we start, it is beneficial to understand the needs and benefits of developing CQ.

Why do we need to focus on CQ?

Two significant trends have not abated in the past couple of decades, and it looks to continue to rise in the coming decades. The two major trends are the accessibility to diverse markets as well as the increasingly diverse workforce.

Diverse Market

Leaders and modern thinkers anticipate that global economic growth will come from emerging markets such as China, Brazil. India and Indonesia, within the next few decades.

According to Doug Flint, Chair of banking giant HSBC1

Suppose you were to go into any business forum in Europe and America and ask which country is going to be most important in the global environment in the next 25 years. In that case, I suspect that a vast majority would say China, and the second-highest number might say India.
If you then ask how much do people in Europe and America understand about the history and culture of those countries, the answer would be a negligible amount.

For organisations to expand into these diverse markets, they will need talents who understand the local market and the local customer behaviour and preferences. With the local insight and connection, organisations will be better able to customise their products and services to fit the culture and fulfil the needs of their diverse customers.

Diverse workforce

As organisations expand from country to country, region to region, the talents will be absorbed from these countries and regions to form a diverse workforce. When leveraged wisely and strategically, a diverse workforce will be able to provide first-hand knowledge of local markets and their customers. It's like having insider knowledge of the customer's motivations, behaviours, needs and concerns within a cultural context unfamiliar to the organisation.

Even talents seek out companies with a diverse workforce. According to Glassdoor's survey, 67 per cent of job seekers consider workplace diversity an essential factor when considering employment opportunities. Also, more than 50 per cent of current employees want their workplace to do more to increase diversity 2.

Both diverse workforce and diverse markets are interlinked. Companies need their employees to adapt to local cultures while advocating their values, products and services. The employees become the intermediary between the concerns and needs of the customer as well as their company.

The ability to balance the needs between both the customer and the company requires Cultural Intelligence. Thus, companies that focus on Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity training may realise it is not enough. On the other hand, cultural intelligence considers how individuals can adapt their mindsets and behaviours.

The Three Major Benefits of Developing CQ

There are many benefits for organisations and individuals who invest their time, money and effort in developing Cultural Intelligence. Of the many benefits, we will delve into the three significant advantages.

Enhancing Business Performance

A diverse workforce brings tangible benefits to the organisation. As companies expand beyond their markets, a diverse workforce will help navigate the cultural complexities and collaborate successfully with various stakeholders.

According to PwC's 18th Annual Global Survey, 64 per cent of CEOs have a diversity strategy. Of the CEOs with a diversity strategy, 94 per cent cite enhance business performance as the top benefit for having a diverse workforce3. However, the benefits of diversity cannot be leveraged if the workforce is not culturally intelligent.

High-quality service to culturally diverse customers

High CQ employees are better able to anticipate the needs and concerns of your diverse customers. They are also more able to respond effectively to mistakes.

According to Salesforce's State of Connected Customer report, 76 per cent of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations 4. An employee with high CQ takes the time to understand the needs of others, find practical and creative ways to solve problems and design solutions that are relevant and relatable to the customers.

Multicultural team effectiveness

Multicultural teams who have made an effort to improve their CQ saw an improvement in their communication and performance. Multicultural teams are more effective and can offer new ideas and perspectives. Such teams are also known to be a rich resource for innovation. Research indicates that companies had 19% higher innovation revenues if they had higher than average diversity in the workforce5.

What are some ways to improve Cultural Intelligence before going overseas?

No doubt, experience is needed to internalise and become skilled in Cultural Intelligence. Though, experience without a mental model to hang on will be unprocessed wisdom. Before embarking on your intercultural journey, we can prepare ourselves by adopting the suggested methods.


As many of the world's greatest and wisest thinkers espouse, the path to greater insight is the deep understanding of the self. Self-reflection is looking within and being honest with yourself about a situation. Self-reflection builds greater confidence and a more profound sense of purpose. Having thought through what is most important and valid for you, you will have greater clarity on how to proceed in your personal development and achieve your goals.

Take the time to reflect on your personal goals and motivations for developing CQ. All you need is to block out distractions and set a time with yourself, pen, paper or any note-taking device. Take an hour or even a day. Ask yourself the following questions. More questions may arise as your reflection goes deeper.

  • What do you think about this situation?
  • What do you feel about it?
  • What do you fear about this?
  • What do you hope to gain from this situation?
  • Is this the best way to go about it?

Commit to your development plan

As you consider your goals, strengths, areas of improvement, resources and so on, you may start to put together a plan. A plan will help keep track of your progress in developing a skill. Taking the time to create a plan will help you to think deeply about the various factors that contribute to your skills development. In creating your development plan, you might consider

  • the amount of dedicated time per week
  • the ideal time of day and location for your learning
  • your preferred learning style, which could be self-paced, classroom or virtual workshops
  • a realistic budget for your development
  • the method or metrics to track the progress of skills development
  • a trustable and reliable social support to seek guidance, feedback, play devil's advocate or become your sounding board

Once you have drafted a plan, commit to it. Be sure to inform your trusted social support, which could be an accountability buddy or your credible colleague or a supportive mentor, of your plan so that they can keep you on track.

Watch movies. Listen to music. Read books.

Technology has advanced so that access to the world's knowledge and entertainment is only at the tip of our fingers. Within a few clicks, we can watch the latest films of the country of our destination. Press play, and we can listen to the rhythm and melodies unfamiliar to us. Browsing through ebook stores or even your national library, you'll have access to travel guide books, historical books, and popular literature in multiple translations.

While we may not fully understand the meaning and context behind the movies, music and books we've acquired, it can provide us with a sense and cues on what is valued in a particular culture.

For example, the song Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles, the climactic scene of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the quirky book called The Cloud Spotter's Guide by the Cloud Appreciation Society indicates the importance of the weather in British society.

Go to your local library, physical or digital. Search for music and movie streaming platforms. Take a few minutes to enjoy and make a note of questions that may arise. These questions will meaningfully shed light on the following method.

Connect with a local

As technology has given us access to knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips, certain things cannot be explained by mere words, images or videos. The rich history, political dynamics, economic trends and many other factors influence the local culture, which cannot be understood if you are not in the culture to experience it.

For example, upon the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA, #blacklivesmatter sparked a global movement. Millions of people protest on the streets daily to demand change, greater equality and justice for police brutality against minority groups. However, if you are a leader who needs to speak up about the movement, it is best to seek guidance from someone involved. By doing so, you will consider the context, emotions and be better able to craft an impactful message that speaks to your targeted audience.

You might wonder, where can I find such connections? The internet has given us humanity's wealth of knowledge. It has also given us access to a wealth of online communities or networking groups of various topics concerns and based worldwide. Seek out these groups or organisations. Start conversations with them.

Learn the language

The 21st century is the golden age for learning languages. While we can learn about another culture without knowing their language, learning it will help you understand the untranslatable nuances and quirks of the culture. A plethora of virtual schools, apps, videos, podcasts, communities, and language buddies can support your language acquisition, even if no one in your community speaks the language.

TED Translator released a fun video of '12 untranslatable words'. My favourite word from this video is the Japanese word shinrinyoku, which means bathing in the forest.

​Get diverse exposure locally.

Take in the sights. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an average of 2 to 3 per cent of the global population migrate to other countries. In 2019, there are 272 million international migrants or 3.5 per cent of the world's population. The majority of international migrants move countries due to work, family or studies 6.

While this may not seem like a large number, cosmopolitans and urban areas have become increasingly diverse. Most major cities will have cultural microcosm. For example, cities such as Vancouver, London, San Francisco, and even Singapore has a Chinatown, the cultural centre for migrants from China. Or Little India in Dubai, Paris or Kuala Lumpur, an enclave of people with South Asian origins.

Spare an afternoon to wander about these cultural spaces, dine in their local restaurants. Shop in their markets. Take in the sights, smells and sounds. The exposure to diverse cultures locally helps you become familiar with the unfamiliar, comfortable with the uncomfortable and eventually develop your CQ to better respond to diverse situations in the future.

Get quality training

Quality training helps to fill knowledge gaps, provide meaningful feedback and a safe space to practice new skills. Where the internet cannot provide the relevant knowledge, training programs may help answer pertinent questions and expand your thinking to consider different perspectives.

When in search of quality training, first, we need to be clear on our objectives. We can do this by answering the questions

  • What is my desired outcome?
  • Why is this important?
  • How will this training help me?

For example, you have a goal to become more adaptable in working with diverse stakeholders. This goal is important to you because you will be preparing for a cross-functional role where you will engage with stakeholders worldwide. While searching for programs, look at the outcomes and objectives and ask if it matches your goals?

Bear in mind, if we're unable to access knowledge or experiences of our target culture, the exposure to diversity itself can greatly help sharpen our cultural intelligence. Seeking out diverse experiences can help us move beyond our comfort zone, allowing us to feel comfortable with discomfort and low-risk situations.

Go Away, COVID19!

No one knows when the COVID19 vaccine will be ready. Even when it is ready for distribution, scientists cannot guarantee the effectiveness of the vaccine. All this means is that we have to sit tight before we can move freely again. Till then, take this opportunity to develop your Cultural Intelligence, make meaningful connections, expand your business and explore the world virtually.


  1. The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2006). CEO Briefing: Corporate priorities for 2006 and beyond (p. 30). The Economist.
  2. Recruiting a Diverse Workforce | Glassdoor for Employers. (2014, November 17). US | Glassdoor for Employers.
  3. 18th Annual Global CEO Survey. (2014). PWC. 
  4. What Are Customer Expectations (and How Have They Changed)? (n.d.). Salesforce.Com.
  5. Lorenzo, R., & Reeves, M. (2018, January 30). How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance. Harvard Business Review.
  6. World Migration Report 2020. (2020). International Organisation for Migration.