What is the difference between Cultural Intelligence and Cultural Competence?


Group of people talking. Discussion, chatting concept illustration
© hola illustrations | Vecteezy


The importance of being culturally intelligent and competent cannot be over-emphasized. More appreciation for cultural diversity creates an appreciation for diversity which leads to inclusion and equity. In order for each one of us to be better prepared, more able and more authentically ourselves, we need to understand how to apply cultural intelligence abilities or awareness to our own lives and workplaces. Breaking down these concepts in easy to understand pieces will help you and your team figure out ways to apply this to your DEI work and give you bright ideas on which strategies to implement in which situations. Let’s spend some time getting to know the specifics of CQ so that we can master it in our own lives and make our DEI work worthwhile.



What is Cultural Intelligence (CQ) according to David Livermore?


In the Cultural intelligence Difference, David Livermore outlines different aspects of CQ and how to develop them. CQ skills involve the motivation to learn about a new culture (CQ Drive); understand the influence of culture on people’s actions (CQ Knowledge); be positively responsive to cultural differences (CQ Strategy); and acting in ways that show cultural adaptation and appreciation (CQ Action).


Cultural intelligence expands on our current knowledge of cultural awareness and sensitivity by emphasizing specific capabilities and skillsets required to achieve goals in culturally-diverse circumstances. The objective is to gradually create anti-racist environments by demolishing structures that protect against racist tendencies and behaviours.

However, a significant question remains: how does a person’s cultural environment affect how they think about racism and how does it determine their level of cultural intelligence?



What is the Difference between Cultural competence and Cultural intelligence?



Cultural competence and cultural intelligence are often used interchangeably to describe an individuals’ ability to productively operate in a multicultural setting. Cultural intelligence is an understanding, a knowingness, that increases with exposure and insights from personal experience, which requires the individual to consider, understand and adapt to the beliefs, behaviours and cultural expectations of diverse people. It describes the ability to successfully and productively operate in such environments. A culturally competent individual possesses skills to work effectively with people from different backgrounds, and has embarked on the journey of understanding the cultural rules that shape how we interact like etiquette and communication protocol. Over time, cultural competence has morphed into the abilities we describe that comes with the development of one’s cultural intelligence. In this chart for example, you can see the similarities between cultural competence and cultural intelligence. Depending on the framework - you could say the cultural intelligence is the increased awareness that comes with becoming culturally competent, labelled below as cultural proficiency.



Continuum of Cultural Competency
Cultural Competency Framework

This example works well for educators. It allows facilitators or traditional teachers to implement learning activities into different areas of personal development, and to look at it from a holistic approach - your mindset, your behaviour and your end abilities.




Learning Journey of Cultural Competence
From the Educators' Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework

To achieve the benefits of cultural diversity, the individual operating in a multicultural society must appreciate their own culture, desire to learn about other cultures, and possess a positive attitude toward differences across various cultures. However, to become culturally intelligent requires surmounting unconscious bias.


The Relationship between Unconscious Bias and Cultural Intelligence


Unconscious bias is real. The unintentional tendency to separate people into groups based on similarities and differences to us is a form of bias. Cultural neuroscience tries to explain this by observing the relationship between our cultural environment and our brain activity.

For example, how does an American’s brain react to a dominant silhouette vs a Japanese’s? The differences in response demonstrate the impact our cultures have on our responses to external situations.

It wouldn’t be unfair to expand this to racism. For example, what is the brain activity of a white American when He/She sees a Black American? Does the American see “colour” (and all the negatives associated) because of a cultural disposition?

Cultural neuroscience explains the brain's responses to stimuli based on cultural distinction, and research has found that culture (including awareness of stereotypes) affects unconscious bias.

“Other work has found that awareness of stereotypes elicits activation in the oribitofrontal cortex (OFC) in White American and Chinese participants (Freeman et al., 2015). These regions have been linked to affective aspects of prejudice (Amodio, 2014), which may reflect the negative affective content of stereotypes about stigmatized groups in particular (e.g., Black vs. White individuals in the United States; Kawakami et al., 2000).” - source

To become culturally intelligent requires tackling these culture-based unconscious biases from the root. It is to change what is seen when operating in a multicultural group.


An example of cultural intelligence could be your response after seeing a Vietnamese nursing mother who left her child in the hospital. Your assumption may be that….but in vietnamese culture…. but a mother who cares; . There are also some ingrained stereotypes that need toeb retrained with new brain patterns from new experiences such as not automatically viewing your Black colleague as less competent because you have yet met and work with a Black engineer in this type of role.


To see people as equals and not fall into the white supremacy trap of superior groups of people is truly an exercise based on exposure, lived experience and unlearning what we’ve all been taught - that some folks are better than others.


DEI work can benefit from CQ


Whether achieving our objective to break the barriers of racism will be possible through intercultural communication is something time will reveal. But it is evident in companies that are implementing cross-cultural training that addressing bias and exposing others to values, perspectives and realities unknown before, create a new level of awareness and understanding. Maybe even a curiosity of the other person more than ever before. We’re interested in using strategies and tools that help your org build the type of inclusive culture it deserves. So if you’re interested in ensuring your employees are treated fairly, exposed to similar opportunities, and not boycotted for their differences then set up a complimentary consultation and let’s get working on your cultural intelligence.