Mihi Forbes, Monique Faleafa and Bo Li: panel on cultural intelligence

How culturally intelligent are we? On Tuesday Global Women hosted a powerful panel to provide insights into how you can further develop your cultural intelligence (CQ) and cross-cultural communication skills The panel included Māori investigative journalist Mihingarangi Forbes, managing director of Asiaworks Bo Li, and chief executive of Le Va Monique Faleafa, facilitated by NZTE director of Māori business Liz Te Amo.

CQ is of particular importance now that New Zealand – specifically Auckland – is super-diverse. The future success of companies depends on CQ and building diverse and inclusive teams.

“Cultural intelligence gives us a major advantage in our businesses and in our lives,” says Te Amo. “You get diverse disruption and design thinking.”

We’ve taken some key points from the three speeches and summarised them below:

Monique Faleafa, chief executive of Le Va


Monique Faleafa holds up three qualities as essential for CQ and getting the best from cross-cultural communication:

1. Know yourself

Know how your values and emotions impact on others. Do we know what our cultural values are? How they affect how we behave, our decisions, our judgements? And we need to do research on other people’s cultures too. For example, for Faleafa an important Samoan value she was taught as a child is respect. This comes out in the way they communicate, but also in non-verbal communication. For example, don’t walk through the people, because you’ll be invading their space. You must lower your head, have eyes to the ground if you have to pass through people. At first it was challenging for Monique even as an adult in New Zealand to interrupt people and introduce herself at a cocktail party, and to walk through the crowd because she didn’t want to seem like she thought she was more important than others. To adapt, she had to learn about Western CQ.

2. Prioritise your relationships

Le Va, the name of Faleafa’s organisation, means ‘the space that connects’ in Samoan and refers to sacred relationships. Le Va includes relationships with people, with the physical world and environment, and with ancestors. In traditional Samoan culture, you must nurture and maintain Le Va – making sure everything is always in balance. In business, relationships trump intellect every time. If you invest a lot into creating a solid relationship up front, then everything else falls into place. It may take five meetings to close a business deal, but this pays off in the long run. Where the relationship is strong, anything can happen.

3. Applaud the discord

Focus on difference and gain strength from it. Where the differing viewpoints meet is where the cutting edge of cultural intelligence is. This is when the third solution that no one thought of appears. Globally, our corporations are gravitating towards focusing on differences, not sameness, because harnessing these positively impacts their bottom line.

People born into two cultures are good at harnessing these differences – not that they have been told this, with terms like cultural schizophrenia and identity loss thrown around. But these people can harness the potential to come up with solutions because they can see the discord and negotiate it naturally.

New Zealand could lead in the cultural intelligence space. If we master these three qualities, we can travel at the speed of trust.

Bo Li, managing director of Asiaworks


According to Bo Li, there are two types of Chinese – local born and Chinese born. Locally-born Chinese have the same way of thinking as Kiwis, but Chinese-born haven’t had their education in New Zealand and don’t fully understand Kiwi culture.

If culture means ‘way of life’ – including the way we dress, present ourselves, behave, see the world – then in general, Chinese culture is very different to Kiwi/Western culture.

For example, take the saying in Chinese culture: “People at birth are naturally good, and their natures are similar. It’s their habits that make them different.” Pairing the fact that the Bible – historically fundamental to Western culture – says people are inherently sinful from birth, with the Chinese thinking we are good at birth, there lies a fundamental difference.

Difference in philosophy can lead to deep misunderstanding. For example, Confucianism believes everybody is responsible for everyone around them – family, friends, workmates. A few years ago the New Zealand Herald ran a piece about a young Chinese driver, who with no driver license ran over a young girl in a driveway, causing her death. It was reported that the man’s parents soon flew out from China and offered the girl’s family money, attempting to “buy their way out of the guilt”. But this was a cultural misunderstanding. The Chinese really believed that because their son had made a mistake and they were responsible for everyone around them, they should compensate the parents as part of the apology.

So how do you communicate with Chinese people in the workplace?
People say they don’t like to make trouble and are very quiet. But a common reason is the language barrier, which means they can’t mingle as easily. And if they don’t know rugby or cricket etc, they don’t have a common background to share. But just because they’re quiet, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to talk.

Mihingarangi Forbes, Māori investigative journalist


Mihingarangi Forbes says CQ in journalism is critical. Knowing when people are likely to be receptive to telling their story (like for example at the conclusion of a tangi and not before), or knowing how to phrase questions so as to not offend a culture different to your own.

“That’s cultural intelligence in my industry – knowing patterns, knowing behaviours. Some people say journos needs guts. But I think they need patience and understanding. We need to walk in other people’s shoes for more than a moment.”

“Listening to stories like Bo Li’s example of the Chinese parents makes me sad. Not always is it an individual reporter that gets a story to air; often lines and angles get changed with the input of editors and producers.”

She says journalists have an extremely important job – holding the powerful to account – but that we as the public audience need to vote with our remotes. We need more diversity in our newsrooms with more understanding and knowledge of cultures. We must vote to see diverse teams with diverse viewpoints, write letters, and most of all be aware of who is presenting the stories and what is in the message.