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August 2013

Here is a story that I would like to share with you.  It is a story that one of my coaching clients shared with me some time ago.  It was a moment that led him to understand the impact that culture can potentially have on business interactions.

My client was invited to a dinner that was between his European and Chinese counterparts.   The dinner took place in a Chinese restaurant in China. As is customary, the hosts selected the menu and adhered to foods and customs that were appropriate and respectful for their guest.  One of the many dishes was fish.  The fish head was placed on the table in front of the European guest.  When this fish head was served onto his plate he stood up, angry and disgusted that he was served something that he found extremely offensive, stating �I wouldn�t feed this to my dog�.

Was this a reaction or a response? 

Reacting and responding can have opposing effects on circumstances instantaneously, as was the case in this instance.  Luckily for everyone in the room my client realised immediately that this was in fact a cultural misunderstanding.  The fish head is always given to the guest of honour and it was clear to him that the guest of honour didn�t have this knowledge.  My client responded immediately by explaining this to both parties and diffused the situation.

In my mind this story is an example of a reaction.  He was defensive, angry and lost control.  The outcome was a tense and hostile environment that was received as offensive and rude by his hosts.

When we react to a situation or discussion it is automatic and instantaneous.  Our emotions takeover, we often lose control, change the tone of our voice, have angry outbursts, place blame on others, display intolerance and we can also have physical reactions such as excessive sweating.  A responsive approach involves thoughtful reasoning, allowing for a moment to gather thoughts and a greater degree of logic and observing our own emotions.

When we are working with people of different cultures reaction versus response is critical. There is a greater likelihood that you will find yourself in situations where you will need to check your behaviour more than you would otherwise.  A healthy level of emotional and cultural intelligence will help you to determine whether you are reacting or responding. 

Here are some strategies of how you can improve your levels of awareness and mindfulness when responding and reacting:

  • Immediately take a moment to stop.  Identify the situation, listen to what is being said and suspend judgement
  • Be empathetic.  Try to see the situation/argument from the other perspective for a moment
  • Be reflective of your thoughts and emotions.  How are they influencing your behaviour?
  • Diffuse the situation by putting some distance between you and the event.  This may involve temporarily suspending the conversation or requesting a moment for you to assess the situation and find your grounding
  • Remember that you have choices

This is by no means an easy feat; but it can heavily influence outcomes, broaden your perspectives and allow you to have greater control over the situation/conversation. 

For those of you who are still wondering how the European guest could have dealt with the fish head in a more appropriate manner he could have:

  • Moved the platter so that the head was facing his host or a delegate (the platter holding the fish will always be placed in a manner where the head points to the guest of honour)
  • He could have delegated the honour to the person on his left
  • He could have learned some of the customs associated with Chinese dining

Thank you for all of the great feedback from our July blog 'Consciousness and Cultural Intelligence'.  

If you would like to read or follow our Cultural Intelligence Blog go to:

To read our latest discussion paper - The Business Case for Cultural Intelligence go to:


Best Wishes
Tom Verghese

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Reacting Versus Responding



I was kindly reminded of this book by one of our blog followers.   

�Thinking, fast and slow� claims that we have two systems, system one is fast, intuitive and emotional; while system two is more deliberative, logical and slower. 
Our brains operate in two modes � fast and slow. Each system drives the way that we think, our biases and our thoughts and behaviours which ultimately shape our judgements and decisions.

Kahneman explains that we are not the rational beings that we think we are. He doesn�t imply that we are irrational, just that we are not always consistent. He explores the nature of human decision-making and how our minds process the world around us.  He offers some practical insights into how we make choices and some techniques that can guard against the mental glitches that can often get us into trouble.

I will warn you that it isn�t a quick read, it is quite dense, there is a lot in this book.  It does however include some rich personal anecdotes and some interesting insights from his research.




"Thinking, fast and slow; by Daniel Kahneman 2011


'Raising Your Cultural IQ - DVD and CD

'Raising Your Cultural IQ' explores the issues around culture, the challenges that culture can pose and provides some great strategies on how to leverage on cultural differences and similarities.

'The Invisible Elephant - Exploring Cultural Awareness'
2nd Edition by Tom Verghese

Many aspects of culture are invisible, yet culture has an enormous impact on our lives. Like an Invisible Elephant, if ignored these aspects can lead to misunderstanding, stress and conflict. Alternatively, if attention is given to the Invisible Elephant, it can enhance productivity, improve teamwork and create more joy in our lives.

Book testimonial by Asma Ghabshi
Learning And Development Manager, Shell Oman:

"The Invisible Elephant made my perspective of my national culture in comparison to my personal culture more visible. It has given me a deep insight into dealing with people of different cultural backgrounds."

'Pillars of Growth - Strategies for Leading Sustainable Growth' - Book by Tom Verghese, Kerry Larkan, Steven Howard and Brad Tonini

Written with the business leaders and entrepreneurs of Asia in mind, 'Pillars of Growth' provides a road map to assist you in thinking through four critical concerns that impact the sustainable growth of every business.