Lack of cultural intelligence can ruin your relationship

Saturday October 02 2021

If two people, from different cultural contexts fall in love, there will be need for the parties involved to improve their cultural intelligence for that relationship to thrive. PHOTO/net

By Michael Agaba

I visited one of the national parks in Uganda many years ago for my undergraduate research project. On one evening, during my visits to the neighbouring communities, I was welcomed into a home and served local brew.

I politely turned it down because of my faith. When I thought they had put off the idea, I learnt that they had put away the brew and sent for beer. I realised they were stretching their hearts and pockets to please me, so I did not reject the offer this time round. But I discreetly asked a man who had sat a little distance from me to drink this beer on my behalf.

My cultural shock was that while we offer tea or milk to a visitor where I come from, this community offers local brew. 

Uganda has 56 tribes and about nine indigenous communities. According to Freidman in his 2005 book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, you will find the need to be culturally intelligent.

This brings us to the concept of cultural intelligence. We have heard so much about Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EI), but we rarely hear or talk about Cultural Intelligence (CQ). Cultural intelligence is the ability for someone to relate or work effectively with others of a different cultural context. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.” People with a higher CQ are better at successfully adapting to other cultural environments than those with a lower CQ.

Culturally intelligent and competent individuals or teams in a work place or marriage partners negotiate “win-win” situations, hence increase performance across diversities such as gender, generations, and cultures because they are able to share information and trust each other to accomplish goals. 


There are people who easily adapt to cultures, while some fail at relationships because of cultural differences. But from some empirical studies, heterogeneous teams can succeed better than homogeneous teams if they have a good CQ.

Unlike IQ, CQ is not fixed. So with a little effort, we can improve our cultural intelligence capabilities when they look at these four main underpinning factors: CQ Drive (your motivation to learn a different culture), CQ knowledge (what you have learned about this culture, beliefs behaviour, norms and values), CQ strategy (devising a strategy based on the knowledge you have acquired to be effective in that culture), and CQ action (the actions you deliberately take to appropriately respond or initiate action in that culture). Here tips to improve your CQ:  


Knowing who you are before you go into a relationship to take on cultural complexities of another person is critical.  Operating from a position of self awareness will give confidence and ability to appreciate other people’s views without bias and judgment.

 I have seen people go into relationships with a poor self image and they suffer colossally. You do not want to date or marry someone whose happiness depends on you. They are a boatload to carry emotionally. In healthy relationships, there must be freedom for individuation on the basis of which you can engage with others.   

Accept cultural differences

After identifying who you are, make an effort to understand another culture. Start with major differences between your culture and theirs. This takes patience. My wife was raised by a father who was the breadwinner for the family while the mother stayed home to raise children.

In our marriage, when conflict arose in that area, she passionately argued for the same arrangement. I countered by arguing that I was raised by a mother who was the breadwinner. We finally settled for her view but for different reasons.   

Study the other culture

 There are two types of culture: a) High-context cultures –whose communication is less verbal. They rely heavily on context to transmit communication.  Examples are Asian and African

b) Less-context cultures- these heavily depend on verbal communication. Communication is direct and straight. Examples are Americans and Europeans. Communication is direct, simple and straight. If two people, from these two cultural contexts come together, then there will be need for the parties involved to improve their CQ for that relationship to thrive.

Find a cultural ally

 One of my close friends often acts as an inside ally for me whenever I need to understand anything about Baganda. Being a traditional Muganda, he interprets their culture to me. In this way, I work on my marital issues with less friction. 

Learn their language

Language and culture are inseparable. When you learn the other person’s language, you are interacting with the culture in which that language originates and communicating that you are interested in who the other person is. 

Live within cultural context

 Living in another culture where you are separated from your own is one great way to improve your CQ. You learn to appreciate how the other culture sees and does things. Look at the prism through their cultural eyes.