Cultural Intelligence: Core vs. Flex

In her TEDx talk, “Cultural Intelligence: the Competitive Edge for Leaders,” Julia Middelton describes the concept of cultural intelligence and how it differs from IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence).

A few key points of this talk are summarized below.

  • Everyone has a “core” that is a crucial part of their identity. A person’s core is made up of beliefs, behaviors, and values that they won’t adjust or compromise. 
  • Everyone has a “flex” portion of their identity. This is composed of beliefs, behaviors, and values that a person is willing to adjust to better relate to others. 
  • People with high cultural intelligence know their own core and flex. They have a clear sense of what parts of their identity they will and won’t adjust. 
  • People with high cultural intelligence are able to move the core/flex boundary when appropriate. They can examine their assumptions and adjust their behaviors to adapt to different cultural contexts without compromising their integrity. 

At the end of her presentation, Middleton makes an important and somewhat counterintuitive point. She states that the true measure of someone’s cultural intelligence isn’t necessarily how much they’ve traveled or how many different cultures they’ve studied. Instead, a more important factor is how well they understand their own culture—the one(s) they grew up with or have spent considerable time immersed in. 

Culturally intelligent people understand what makes their own culture unique, how it influences their way of seeing the world, and how it can impact the way they judge and interact with people who are different. In other words, cultural intelligence begins with cultural awareness, and the best place to start is by becoming more aware of your own culture.