Interpretive CQ: Being Mindful and Aware of Cross-Cultural Differences

From Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence
by David A. Livermore

            Interpretive CQ is simply the degree to which we’re mindful and aware when we interact culturally. It’s turning off the “cruise control” we typically use as we interact with people an intentionally questioning our assumptions.  As we interpret the cue received through interpretive CQ, we continually adjust our knowledge CQ.  These two elements of CQ are very dependent upon one another.

            When we’re in our own culture, we move in and out of a lot of different kinds of interactions and events on “mental cruise control.” We don’t have to work extra hard to understand want someone means by a cliché they throw out or the embrace they offer before you walk away.  When we interact cross-culturally, all that changes, or at least it should. We need to suspend “mental cruise control,” step back, and pay close attention to the cues. That process of stepping back and becoming aware is interpretive CQ.

            Interpretive CQ is the ability to connect our knowledge with what we are observing in the real world.  It’s developing the awareness to see and interpret cues from our cross-cultural encounters. Interpretive CQ can help greatly in short-term missions to avoid a mistake like a group of missionaries who assumed smiles meant everyone in the country they were working in (Ecuador) were happy.  It reality the Ecuadorians were simply responding in a way to cover the awkward situation where words could not be used because of the language barrier.

            Interpretive CQ follows a three step process:

·         First, interpretive CQ leads us to PLAN our cross cultural interactions. Short-term missions trips that involve teaching, preaching or making any kind of presentation need planning in how to present the content specifically as it relates to that particular cultural context, as compared to how it would be taught at home. Understanding a culture’s score in individualism or power distance (See Knowledge CQW handout) aids us in planning our encounter.

·         Second, interpretive CQ begins to work itself through a keen sense of AWARENESS during cross-cultural interactions. Some people are naturally more observant than others, but all of us can grow in our ability to watch for cues – both explicit and implicit – sent by people and events we encounter cross-culturally.

·         CHECKING AND MONITORING is the final step in interpretive CQ.  This is when we compare what we planned with what’s actually happening. If we change an assumption, we need to continually test that altered assumption with other encounters and experiences.


Nurturing Interpretive CQ

The following is a list of ways to pursue interpretive CQ:

·         Be aware of your own assumptions, ideas and emotions as you engage cross-culturally.

·         Look for ways to discover the assumptions of others through their words and behaviors.

·         Use all your senses to read a situation rather than just hearing the words or seeing the nonverbals.

·         View every situation from several different perspectives by using an open mind.

·         Create new categories/paradigms for seeing things.

·         Use empathy to try to identify.

Stimulate Your Imagination

            Stimulating our imagination is one of the most important ways to nurture interpretive CQ.   Read novels and biographies about and by people in the places where you are going.  Spend some time reading pieces about and by people in other cultural contexts as well.  In addition, we can stimulate our imagination by simply forcing ourselves to do routine things differently.  Taking an alternative route to work, ordering a different kind of coffee and changing the order of your morning routine will impact your ability to think outside the normal paradigm of your life.

Open or Close Your Window

            Introverted people reveal little and tend to keep the window into their lives closed as they interact with others.  Others who are more extroverted reveal more of themselves and keep their windows open. Most of us tend to keep our windows relatively small when we’re in new and unfamiliar situations. In contrast, we tend to share more of ourselves when we’re with people where we feel safe and comfortable. Learning how to find the right balance is important for all encounters, but it’s especially important for cross-cultural conversations.

            The person with a growing measure of interpretive CQ learns how to read cues from both individuals and a culture at large.  In knowing how much of themselves to reveal, the point is not to try to be a chameleon, or to be whatever you think the other person wants you to be.  Instead, your point is to learn to interpret cues in order to adapt your communication and behavior in a way that puts the other person at ease.


            One of the most valuable tools for nurturing interpretive CQ is journaling. Participants often wrote about what they did each day, along with some prayer requests. Equally important is describing your observations are thinking about the meaning behind these observations and experiences. Writing allows us to understand our lives and others in ways that few things do. It forces us to slow down and become aware of our surroundings.  Commit some time to journaling on your next trip – do it before you leave, while you’re there, and after you come home. Describe things that make you uncomfortable.  Write down questions that come to mind. What insights are you gaining?  What are you seeing about yourself, others and God? How might your faith be different if you had grown up in this culture instead of at home?

            When we seek to understand, and question whether we really understood, and question it again and again, we begin to progress in using our cross-cultural experiences themselves as a way to nurture interpretive CQ. Obviously, cross-cultural immersions are a vital source of knowledge CQ as well. Hands-on experiences in different cultures are extremely effective ways to learn about cross-cultural dynamics and differences, especially when combined with interpretive CQ.

            Cross-cultural encounters abound all around us. A key component to team members being able to engage in interpretive CQ on a short-term mission trip is the leader scheduling times for planning and reflection. The chance to dialogue with others about the cues being received and the interpretation thereof is a real asset to doing short-term missions in community rather than by yourself.

            Open your eyes!  Wider!  Wider!  Once you get a glimpse of God’s world this way, you’ll never want to go back to life without cultural intelligence.

SALT, Inc. "To know the will of God, we need an open Bible and an open map." — William Carey