cultural perspectives
Living, working and studying abroad increases your cultural intelligence. Source: Adolfo Félix/Unsplash

For international students, the impact of living, working and studying abroad may not show for a good few years. Who has time to philosophise when there’s a 4,000-word essay or an important exam to prepare for?

But something very important is happening as we go through these seemingly mundane activities: the development of cultural intelligence.

What this broadly means is a “clear and consistent understanding” of one’s self, as described by Mark Overmann in a blog post at Concordia Language Villages Worldview.

Overmann, Vice President of External Affairs at InterExchange, refers to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study on what a concept called “self-concept clarity”.

“Higher self-concept clarity helps you to develop more self-awareness and empathy, which leads to more confidence in your ability and decision-making. The authors’ research has shown that living, working, and studying abroad increases self-concept clarity,” Overmann wrote.

HBR traces this to these students’ “self-discerning reflections—musings on whether parts of their identity truly define who they are or merely reflect their cultural upbringing” as a “critical ingredient” leading to their higher self-concept clarity.

How then, do these musings manifest in a person who has studied abroad?

We can look to another IIE report to see how this then translates into traits and skills within this particular group of students. In said report, students claimed they had gained the following skills while studying abroad: “Curiosity, flexibility and adaptability, confidence, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, communication, [and] problem-solving.”

In other words, Overmann describes this as “soft skills” – valuable commodities for graduates in today’s employment sector. A second IIE report on the impact of international education on graduates’ employability cites research which found employers generally value soft skills in new employees as much or more than they value technical skills.

Hiring a fresh graduate with this set of skills can help companies avoid the usual pitfalls when venturing into international markets. Again, the most elementary of acts, such as handshakes to understanding subtle nuances in conversation, can have a lot of impact when it comes to communication, especially when it involves several nationalities and cultures.

While international students may not interact too much during their weekly trips to Tesco or their class discussions, but going through these experiences means they’ve learned and practiced the simple act of being with people of cultures other than theirs – even if they didn’t know they were doing so at that time.

A trip to Tesco is a lesson in communication, cultural barrier, language, social nuances and more. Source: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas

Yet, cultural intelligence is a skill that can make or break a business. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, almost seven out of every ten international business ventures fail because of cultural differences.

Overmann describes it best: “Boiled down, we can think about it like this: employers aren’t looking so much for what potential employees know, but rather what they can do, and how they do it. Cultural intelligence ultimately means knowing how to think and act in a complex environment.

“No environment is more complex than a new country, culture, and language. And by immersing students and young professionals in environments abroad, we’re pushing them to build the cultural intelligence that will bolster their career success.”

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