Cultural Intelligence and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Key Elements of Expatriate Success

In a workplace scenario, cross-cultural competence can be defined as the ability to function effectively in a multicultural setting: a “culturally competent” employee is expected to be able to interact and communicate with people coming from different cultural backgrounds, and to understand (and contextualize) the impact of culture on their behavior, values, ideas, and personality.

Cultural intelligence and intercultural sensitivity: the key elements of expatriate success

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A study on The Impact of Expatriates’ Cross-Cultural Adjustment on Work Stress and Job Involvement in the High-Tech Industry that analyses the correlations between cross-cultural adjustment and work stress sustains that “from one specific culture to another culture, an individual had to readjust to cultural differences and change the accustomed lifestyles and thinking principles”, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - concludes that “cross-cultural competence is positively related to the performance of expatriate employees” (Min Chen, 2019).


If you currently travel abroad or plan to in the future, make sure you understand the cultural convention of the country that you are visiting. Particularly with regard to greetings. If someone gives you a weak hand-shake, don't grimace. If anyone takes your arm, don't wince. If you are in the Middle East and a person wants to hold your hand, hold it. If you are a man visiting Russia, don't be surprised when your male host kisses your cheek, rather than hand. All of these greetings are as natural as way to express genuine sentiments as an American handshake. I am honored when an Arab or Asian man offers to take my hand because I know that it is a sign of high respect and trust. Accepting these cultural differences is the first step to better understanding and embracing diversity.

- Joe Navarro, What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People -


A major problem highlighted by the study is concerned with offshore sourcing and market expansion in developing countries, as “expatriates with technologically suitable work experience are first considered by an organization, while the problems of personal and family factors are relatively ignored. Such expatriates might not be familiar with a foreign place, and most organizations do not provide relevant cultural adjustment training before the expatriation, while the selected expatriates, based on the desire to serve the company, will accept the offer without knowing their career prospects”.

A common framework used to explain cross-cultural adjustment issues is the U-Curve Theory (UCT), according to which the adjustment cycle follows a u-curve pattern and develops over four different stages (Lysgaard, 1955; Black and Mendenhall, 1991):

The u-curve theory of adjustment Source: Black & Mendenhall (1991)

(The u-curve theory of adjustment - Source: Halim, Haslina & Abu Bakar, Hassan & Mohamad, Bahtiar, 2019. Expatriation in Malaysia: Predictors of cross-cultural adjustment among hotel expatriates. International Journal of Supply Chain Management. 8. 664-67).


- during the honeymoon stage - that may last from a few weeks to a few months, depending on circumstances - expatriates begin to familiarize with the new environment: everything is different and fascinating, individuals feel optimistic and excited about the change;

- culture shock occurs as soon as expats get into a daily routine and realize that cultural differences exist: as a result, individuals may experience frustration, irritation, feelings of inadequacy, and social isolation. They may also grow hostile toward the new country and its people, and indulge in ethnocentric behavior and negative stereotyping as a result. It’s important to notice that, according to anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, “culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept”: not only these signs or cues are a significant part of the Iceberg Model of Culture theorised by anthropologist E. T. Hall (deep culture/below-the-water-line knowledge), but, in high-context cultures, they may also be especially difficult to understand for outsiders;

- the adjustment phase is when newcomers slowly begin to adapt to the culture of the host country: they start to interact with the locals, learn the basics of the local language, learn - mostly through observation - to interpret new cues and to navigate in the new environment. During this stage, the degree of personal satisfaction in being able to “function” without external assistance does usually increase;

- finally, the mastery stage - a continuation of the third phase - marks the end of the full adjustment period: people are able to distinguish between what’s considered appropriate in the new culture and what isn’t, and to behave accordingly.

A cross-cultural competence believed to be key to a successful expatriate adjustment process is cultural intelligence (or cultural quotient, CQ), defined by Professors Earley and Ang (2003) as a “person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts”. According to research, CQ is an aggregate multidimensional construct that includes four dimensions - metacognitive, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral - summarized by Professor Ang as follows:

- Metacognitive CQ refers to a person’s cognitive ability to recognize and understand expectations appropriately in certain cultural situations;

- Cognitive CQ refers to the information and experience possessed by an individual about adaptation to various aspects of culture (economic, social, and legal);

- Motivational CQ is used to gauge an individual’s level of self-efficacy and propensity to goal setting, in particular directing his/her energy toward learning about and functioning in cross-cultural situations;

- Behavioral CQ reflects the capability to exhibit verbal and nonverbal actions when interacting with people from different cultures.

[It must be noted that existing research suggests that CQ is not an innate ability, but rather something that can be taught, learnt, and accumulated over time].


Intercultural sensitivity can be conceptualized as an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences that promotes an appropriate and effective behaviour in intercultural communication. This definition shows that intercultural sensitivity is a dynamic concept. It reveals that interculturally sensitive persons must have a desire to motivate themselves to understand, appreciate, and accept differences among cultures, and to produce a positive outcome from intercultural interactions.

- Chen, Guo-Ming. (1997). “A review of the concept of intercultural sensitivity -


On a related note, studies conducted by Professor Chen suggest that “interculturally sensitive persons must possess the following elements: self-esteem, self-monitoring, open-mindedness, empathy, interaction involvement, and nonjudgment”:

- Self-Esteem is believed to be linked with a positive outlook on life and social interactions. People with high self esteem “are likely to think well of others and to expect to be accepted by others”;

- Self-monitoring indicates people’s ability to behave appropriately and competently in a given setting: “In interaction, high self-monitoring persons are more able to use strategies such as compromise, emotional appeals, coercion, ingratiation, and referent influence”;

- Open-Mindedness refers to someone’s capability to “recognize, accept, and appreciate different views and ideas”;

- Empathy, a core element of intercultural sensitivity, indicates the ability to “demonstrate reciprocity of affect displays, active listening, and verbal responses that show understanding”;

- Interaction Involvement, that “is comprised of responsiveness, perceptiveness, and attentiveness”, identifies people’s ability to “handle the procedural aspects of structuring and maintaining a conversation”;

- Non-Judgment indicates the tendency “to foster a feeling of enjoyment towards cultural differences. Interculturally sensitive persons not only need to acknowledge and accept cultural differences, but need to establish a sentiment of enjoyment which usually leads to a satisfactory feeling towards intercultural encountering”.



- Chen M. (2019). “The Impact of Expatriates' Cross-Cultural Adjustment on Work Stress and Job Involvement in the High-Tech Industry”. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2228.

- Lysgaard, S. (1955). “Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright grantees visiting the United States”. International Social Science Bulletin, 7: 45-5

- Black, J. S., Mendenhall, M. E, “The u-curve adjustment hypothesis revisited: A review and theoretical framework”. Journal of International Business Studies, 2nd Quarter, pp. 225-247, 1991

- Oberg, K. (1960). “Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environment”. Practical Anthropologist, 7, 177-182

- Earley, P.C., and Ang, S. (2003). “Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures”. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

- Wu, Pei-Chuan & Ang, Siah Hwee. (2011). “The impact of expatriate supporting practices and cultural intelligence on cross-cultural adjustment and performance of expatriate in Singapore”. The International Journal of Human Resource Management. 22. 2683-2702. 10.1080/09585192.2011.599956.

- Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., Koh, C., Yee Ng, K., Templer, K. J., Tay, C., and Chandrasekar, N. A. (2007). “Cultural intelligence: its measurement and effects on cultural judgment and decision making, cultural adaptation and task performance”. Manag. Organ. Rev. 3, 335–371. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8784.2007.00082.x

- Chen, Guo-Ming. (1997). “A review of the concept of intercultural sensitivity”. Paper presented at the Biennial Convention of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association

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