I love the study of cultural intelligence, commonly called “CQ”. This field of study is amazing and super-interesting to a world traveler like me. More than anything I find the concept of “cultural intelligence” immensely useful because it provides a bit of a framework of how to behave, interact and speak in a given cultural setting. It is verifiable and true to state that something that is perfectly acceptable in one culture could get your head chopped off in another culture. Sometimes a behavior that is trivial in a given location may be immensely offensive in another location. Knowing these differences and simply being aware of the fact that every group of people have a different set of priorities when it comes to human interaction will put you in a position to succeed and to navigate a culture more easily. Failure to recognize these differences or the decision to resist them could cause you to end up in a heap of trouble.
The United States is a big place and a lot of cultural flavors dot the map. However, there are a number of common cultural expectations that can be found throughout the United States and many of them are so valued in the culture that they are actually part of written law. Others are not legal issues, but rather “best practices” or “areas of sensitivity” that one can navigate easily if they are aware of them.
They are split into two categories: minor behaviors and major behaviors.
Remember M.A.D. because these things make other people mad at you:
M – Movement – how you move your body in a culture matters. In the United States, there is a lot of value and security that is shared among the people when everyone moves slowly and with purpose. People who are waving their arms, hopping around or acting jittery when they interact with other people put those around them on edge and increase anxiety among those in the general area. A person who moves very rapidly and haphazardly while they are in public is bound to meet with some level of public resistance or suspicion. While this is not at all illegal, nor is it necessarily wrong, it does create a level of suspicion from people in the United States.
A – Attentive – paying attention to the people you are interacting with is an important trait in American culture. If someone is speaking to you, it is considered “normal” if you are attentive to them and interact with them in a civil manner. Being inattentive to people and rules will cause people to become suspect of you and to consider seeking help to deal with you. If you are in a restaurant and you voice a concern to the manager and his/her talking seems to be flying past you without your attention while you continue to press your point and create a scene, I can guarantee that things are about to go badly for you. If a police officer is asking you questions and you are ignoring them, failing to make eye contact, and are otherwise inattentive to them, then you aren’t behaving in an acceptable manner in the United States. If you are in public and you lack the ability to remain attentive to the things and people around you a common assumption is that you “are on something” or that you “are up to no good” and people will most likely report you to the nearest cop or security guard which is going to lead to some real challenges for you. Being attentive and generally aware of where you are and who is around you is something that is valued in people from the United States.
D – Dress – how we dress matters. The United States is very diverse in the scope of possible dress that is viewed positively but there are some things that are definitely looked upon with suspicion or disapproval. Clothing that does not fit the person wearing it is seen as anti-social. For example, if I were to wear a pair of pants that are 5 inches larger than my waist size and had to hold them up with my hand instead of a belt, a large percentage of the people in the United States just wouldn’t see the point and would consider me odd or anti-social. Also, if I am in a suburban town and walk into a store with no shirt on I may be refused service or the people may look at me as if I had 10 heads. However, if I’m in a beach town or a town located next to a river then this would make perfect sense and they wouldn’t care because I may have just stepped off of a boat. In the United States how we dress should make sense for the place that we are in. Wearing a heavy sweatshirt or coat when it’s not cold out doesn’t seem congruent in the minds of most people in the U.S. and this type of dress is considered strange and is somewhat unacceptable.
These minor behaviors are definitely a factor in the cultural intelligence of every country, including the United States.
Remember D.E.A.T.H.S because these things can lead to massive trouble including death:
Major behaviors are those that can lead a person to real trouble in a hurry if they do not have the cultural intelligence to conduct themselves in a manner that is acceptable to the surrounding culture. In some cases these even cross from simple behaviors into breaches of actual law which of course carry a whole other level of potential outcomes for the person who ignores these concepts.
D – Drugs – if you buy, use, abuse or sell drugs in the United States you are asking for trouble. Cigarettes and alcohol are drugs that can be purchased, but are often abused, so they are not excluded from this aspect of cultural intelligence in the U.S. Anyone who is buying, using, abusing or selling drugs should be absolutely aware that their actions are not considered acceptable in the United States and they may even be illegal. Anyone who engages in these types of behaviors should not be surprised if they end up in a ton of trouble. Avoid buying, using/abusing and selling drugs in the United States.
E – Erratic – following up on body movement discussed in the previous section, people who act erratically are not behaving in a manner that is in line with the cultural expectations of the United States. Erratic behavior in the U.S., causes people to sense danger and put the majority of people in the area of guard because erratic behavior in the U.S., means that something is wrong. The U.S. is a country of order and of laws so the majority of people act calmly and in a rather organized manner. Erratic behavior in an otherwise normal setting will often lead the person to some kind of unfortunate interaction with security, management of a business or the police. Stay calm and behave “normally” as the other people around you are doing and you’ll avoid any problem that comes from acting erratic.
A – Argue – argumentative people are not held in esteem by the majority of people in the United States. Overall, the people in the U.S. value opinions, but do not appreciate open arguments in public. People who are loudly disagreeing with each other or are otherwise arguing in public are likely to either be shunned or may experience some kind of intervention, potentially even from the police. Disagreement that is tempered by civility is a valued aspect of the culture found in the United States while open verbal aggression and arguing is not. Arguing with the police is a dangerous behavior. You are entitled, in most instances, to disagree with the police, but allowing your disagreement to escalate into an argument is going to lead to trouble. A person who is willing to argue with a person of authority is seen as acting erratically and is seen as a threat. Respect is expected when people in the United States interact with one another and never is this so true as when we interact with the police. Arguing with the police is going to end badly for you. Depending on the nature of the argument, your behavior may give them legal reasons to engage you in a more aggressive and physical way. Don’t argue in public in the United States and never allow a situation with police to erupt into an argument.
T – Theft – stealing is one of the most detested acts that can be done in the United States. No one likes a thief and people who steal are treated with great contempt. The people of the United States tend to be very generous and have respect for people in need who ask for help. However, people who take things without asking are considered the lowest of the low and there is utterly no tolerance given to them when they are caught. Don’t steal anything, ever, in the United States. If you are in need, ask for it.
H – Harm – if you harm people you are destined for an interaction with the police and it will not be a friendly one. Physically hitting or harming a person in the United States is considered uncivilized and there is very little sympathy given to anyone who acts out by harming someone else. The people of the United States greatly value the ability to talk, openly discuss, and civilly work problems out. When problems between people cannot be worked-out, the culture in the United States expects those people to seek help and to continue doing so until the situation is resolved without violence. These behaviors are seen as mature, responsible and valued, whereas people who act out of emotion and lash out at others in anger and harm them are seen as delinquent and criminal.
S – Speech – how we talk matters in the United States. How we talk tells people around us a lot. It tells them about our upbringing, our level of education and our level of respect for cultural expectations. People who have poor speech, or limited speech due to lack of education will find it hard to find quality work and to interact with people in meaningful ways. As a business manager, it would be difficult to hire someone to represent your business who could not verbally express themselves and professionally interact with potential customers. Therefore, people in the United States who do not put effort into developing quality speaking skills tend to struggle. With television, YouTube, and all the other resources out there, very few excuses exist to have poor speech but many still do. I have known people to move into the United States with zero English skill who are fluent within a year or two and speak much more professionally, clearly, and expressively than many people who were born and raised in the United States simply because they put daily effort into learning the language and quality of speech. If you are in the United States and you do not know the language because you are from another country, just try. People in the U.S. will work to help you and will be very forgiving as long as you are making an effort. And, if you are from the United States and have poor speech skills then the culture will not accept you as a quality contributor to the greater society because your lack of ability to express yourself verbally will be seen as something you have resources to overcome, but have chosen not to use for your personal betterment. Failure to speak clearly, expressively and masterfully and will cause many hardships if you live in the United States.
And there you have it! M.A.D. and D.E.A.T.H.S. these are the 9 aspects of cultural intelligence, that when ignored, could cause a person great hardship or harm in the United States. Luckily, all of these are within our control because none of them are given to us or are inherently received. We must all learn to adopt the means of interacting within the culture of the United States in a way that leads to a rewarding, positive experience. And conversely, we must accept the notion that failure to act in accordance with any cultural expectation, while living under those expectations, is going to lead to a lot of challenges, hardships and conflict that we probably are not going to enjoy. Live well, be happy, and avoid hardship by learning and working to improve in the 9 areas discussed here.
Best to you my friends!