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Cultural competence is a game changer for Ethiopians in the Diaspora – By Assegid Habtewold

DR Assegid Habtewold
If you’re an Ethiopian, live, work, and do business in another culture, cultural intelligence is one of the key soft skills that you need to develop. With the opportunity to meet, interact, and work with diverse people comes the challenge to get along and succeed in what you do. This challenge is understandable. You may have extraordinary social intelligence when it comes to interacting and working with people who are within your native Ethiopian culture. You know the customs, beliefs, and anathemas very well. Thus, getting along is relatively easy since you communicate, interact, behave, and act according to the cultural codes without offending and entering into any misunderstanding and conflict with others.

However, to get along and succeed in the Diaspora, it takes more than having superb IQ, EQ, and Social Intelligence. The author of ‘The Cultural Intelligence Difference’ David Livermore wrote, “The number one predictor of your success in today’s borderless world is not your IQ, not your resume, and not even your expertise.” He continued, “It’s your CQ (Cultural Intelligence), a powerful capability that is proven to enhance your effectiveness working in culturally diverse situations.”

Sadly, many organizations still depend on IQ, EI, and Social Intelligence alone when they select supervisors and managers. The author of ‘Cultural Intelligence: CQ: The competitive edge for leaders crossing borders’, Julia Middleton said, “Organizations often appoint leaders for their IQ. Then, years later, sack them for their lack of EQ (Emotional Intelligence).” She predicted, “Common Purpose argues that in the future they will promote for CQ – Cultural Intelligence.”

The question is how we can increase our cultural intelligence, get along with people from different culture, and succeed in what we do? As you already know, there are thousands of cultures around the world, and it is tough to survive, let alone to develop the cultural competence to thrive in every culture for which we’re strangers. However, we should start improving our cultural intelligence somewhere. The right place to begin this rewarding journey is by understanding the difference between the two major cultural divides in the world.

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Some culture experts suggested dividing the world’s cultures into two broad categories: Individual-based cultures, and communal-based cultures. For instance, countries such as USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia are individual-based cultures. On the contrary, countries such as Africa, Asia, and South America are categorized under communal-based cultures. Of course, there are subcultures and individual exceptions within each national culture.

Among many parameters used to show the similarity and difference between the two primary cultures, I like the three parameters suggested by Edward Hall:
1. Time,
2. Context, and
3. Space.

Let me quickly compare the two major cultures briefly using the mentioned above three indicators. Time is treated casually in communal cultures while it’s well organized in individual based cultures. Context is high in collective cultures where people express themselves implicitly while individuals in the individual based cultures communicate explicitly and use verbal communication predominantly. People from communal cultures are less territorial while people from individual based cultures have high tendency to mark their territories.

As a person who lived in these two major cultures, I’ve witnessed first hand how people from the two principal cultures treat time, communicate, and handle space differently. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, a communal culture. Of course, don’t forget that there are subcultures and individual exceptions within each national culture. I then came to the US- an individual based culture, in 2005.

At the early stage of my stay in the US, I experienced culture shock. To succeed in my new home, I have made so many changes including the way I treat time, communicate, and relate. I’m still on the learning curve- stumbling here and there once in a while, which makes me humble and open to learning continually. Let me share with you some stories.

Back home, coming late is tolerable. It doesn’t matter who comes first. Since the relationship is valued more than time, none of us make coming late a big deal. We smile and hug each other affectionately and continue our business.

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Here in the US, coming late for work is considered as a sign of unprofessionalism and has severe consequences. Outside of work, coming late damages relationships since being late is perceived as disrespectful.

What is interesting is that many of my friends from Ethiopia and Africa compartmentalize their time here in the US. They arrive on time when it comes to their job and formal business affairs but treat time casually in social gatherings. You may get an invitation stating at what time the meeting starts. Unless you have lots of spare time to spend, you don’t come on time as stated on the letter or flyer. The event may start two hours late.

I had a Nigerian classmate when I was doing my doctoral degree (2009 – 2013). Whenever we wanted to meet, we used to ask one another, is this African time or American? If it’s African time, we don’t fix the time. One of us may be in the library or coffee shop working on school work, and the other person just stops by within the time range we agreed. If it’s American time, we fix the start and end time. We come and leave on time.

In Ethiopia, we use nonverbal communications heavily. On the other hand, here in the US (and other individual based cultures), people dominantly use explicit verbal communication. In communal cultures, if you explicitly talk about yourself, your accomplishments, qualifications, experiences, and needs, you may be labeled as egotistical and selfish. On the contrary, if you don’t communicate verbally, explicitly, and express your needs, aspirations, and experiences in an individual based culture, you may be regarded as shy that lack confidence.

I used to share bed, clothes, and shoes with my relatives and friends all the time. It was common to find yourself going to one of your friend’s home, and if it rains by the time you leave, you just pick the umbrella of your friend on your way out without asking permission. If you ask, it offends your host. He/she may feel that you distanced yourself. It doesn’t show intimacy and brotherhood/sisterhood. In the US, people are mindful of their spaces. You’re expected to respect other people’s boundaries. You cannot just grab and take someone’s stuff without risking being viewed as rude, or worst, thief.

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Nonetheless, understanding the difference between the two primary cultural divides is the beginning of a long journey. We need to increase our cultural intelligence on a continual basis to succeed in the Diaspora. With increased cultural intelligence comes understanding from where other come, and refraining from judging them based on the way they treat time, communicate, and handle space.

To get along with people from diverse cultures, we should stop treating our native culture as the standard bearer. We shouldn’t expect everyone to behave and act the way we do. We should increase our cultural intelligence to live and work with people from different cultures successfully. We should also make some efforts to help others understand our culture.

I wish I had known these insights when I first came to the US more than twelve years ago. I’d not have paid lots of dire prices. Fully understanding the vital role of cultural intelligence in the Diaspora is especially essential if you’re recently moved to a new culture or began working or doing business with people from different cultures. It equips you to cross the new culture (s) without committing lots of deadly cultural transgressions. Of course, those of us who have been long in a new culture, we may have the awareness. The question is: Are we working on our cultural intelligence on a consistent basis and improving our cultural competence to succeed in what we do? Hope, this article inspired you to invest your time and energy to work on your cultural competence and gave you a couple of useful lessons.


  1. If this is a message to new comers and/or to those who did not undergo acculturation through the established institutions, then it would be commendable you write in Amharic unless you have in mind immigrants of other nations.

  2. This is true about the cultural divides and the need to understand so as not to be misunderstood.

    However, I would also say that this leads to a cultural shift. Meaning, once we are adopting the new cultural setting, we have some difficulties to communicate with the the original culture of ours. For instance, those who lived abroad are mind full of time and space ; as a result, they are considered as distancing themselves in socialising than they were in the past. They don’t take things from friends and families without asking permission. Which means they underwent a cultural transformation or shift. That is bad to some extend though it is good in their host country. So, one has to play it intelligently

  3. Well thought and helpful advice to those of us who refused to assimilate to our new country and stuck up in our motherland traditional beauty and it’s wonderful cultures

  4. I agree with Alpha and Diro above. Who are you writing for? Have you looked at the subject in reverse? Article is a bit bookish. If you had an appointment with a doctor or for a new job interview or to appear before a court both contexts make little difference. Why do you think that is? Have you considered role of high unemployment back home. I am hoping you have not been missing your appointments. Consider also diverse communities in America [America of the past is shrinking fast].
    You quote “The number one predictor of your success in today’s borderless world is not your IQ, not your resume, and not even your expertise.” He continued, “It’s your CQ (Cultural Intelligence).” So you take a boat from Libya and land in Italy; How much of your CQ gets you a warm meal and a bed? How much of adapting to the new culture has to do with the law of the land and to the compassion of individual citizens/institutions? If America is generally “an individual based culture” then arriving with a buck in your pocket and with determination to work and succeed will help you overcome cultural hurdles.

  5. Assegid Kudos to you!

    What we are discussing, writing and reading need to be holistic to address the social, economical and political aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, the current trend is narrowly focused on the political aspects for the obvious reason that is due to the prevailing dire political situation that our country finds herself in.
    I am hereby requesting either you or someone with your permission to translate your article in Amharic for all to read.

    With respect!

  6. Thanks all for your constructive feedback! For your info, the article was taken from my new book entitled ‘Soft Skills That Make or Break Your Success: 12 soft skills to master self, get along with, and lead others successfully’. I just tweaked it a little bit, and repurposed it to benefit my fellow Ethiopian immigrants. Otherwise, the book was written in English and based on a story in the US. However, Ethiopians back home and here in the Diaspora, and people from other cultures could benefit a lot if they read it. There are lots of insights, stories, processes, and tools. I know I’m biased but it took me years to write it. It’s based on my experience as a former researcher for an international research organization, a software engineer working for a multinational organization, and my leadership experience as a youth and student leader back home, and here in the US as a trainer, coach, and consultant. The book is available at Amazon. For those of you would like to check out the book’s first part and its outline for free, I encourage you to check this link http://successpws.com/?page_id=2254 Assegid If you get a chance to read the book, please let me know your feedback. Assegid

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