As regular readers of my column know, I moved abroad for love and have lived in Europe for over a decade. It"s been a wild experience that has taught me tons about the countries where I've lived as well as about America, but according to research out of Columbia and INSEAD it's probably also made me more creative and entrepreneurial. 

And in good news for business owners stuck at home in the time of Covid, you don't actually have to get on an airplane to use these insights to become more innovative. You just have to develop close relationships with folks from different backgrounds. 

Love your way to greater creativity 

Over the last twelve years my Cypriot husband and I have had to negotiate countless cultural differences big and small (Is 10pm or 7pm a better time to eat dinner? How often should you see your in-laws? How many soccer leagues is it reasonable for one man to follow?). Sometimes these conversations have been stressful, but according to a series of studies by Columbia's Adam Galinksy, INSEAD's William Maddux, and collaborators, they probably also made me more creative. 

In one study, for instance, the research team surveyed participants about their dating histories. Those who had been in serious relationships with foreigners did better on standard tests of creativity. And the longer those relationships, the better participants were at coming up with creative names for a new product. 

In another study, the researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people who had worked in America but since returned to their home countries. The more close friendships with Americans these professionals reported having, the more likely they were to be innovative at work and to become entrepreneurs. 

Why might that be? In a fascinating Hidden Brain podcast, Galinsky offers an anecdote from his past to explain. In high school he spent a semester abroad. Before he left, he went to an orientation. There he learned that in China, leaving food on your plate indicates you've had enough to eat and is a sign of respect. If you do the same thing in Indonesia, it's interpreted as a sign that the food wasn't very good and is a sign of disrespect. 

"The same object - food on a plate - could have very different meanings and implications depending on the culture," Galinsky says. 

Which is the incredible power of close relationships with those from different cultures. They teach you that there are many different ways to see and interpret the world. They nudge you to question things you were raised to think of as natural. By showing you just how many ways to look at an issue there are out there, these experiences empower you to think more creatively about problems and opportunities. You learn to find innovative solutions that may not occur to those with less cross-cultural experience. 

A COVID- friendly takeaway 

Which is just what entrepreneurs need to do when confronted with tricky business problems. But it's not like you would ever ditch your current partner and get on a plane in search of intercultural love just to boost your creativity. And you especially wouldn't do it with a pandemic raging.  

Happily, the research suggests you don't have to. Sure, being in a romantic relationship with someone from a very different background is innovation gold. But the data show any kind of intercultural relationship will increase your creativity as long as it's deep rather than casual. A week at a foreign resort or chit chat with diverse co-workers are lovely, but they won't impact your creativity much. A whole-hearted friendship with someone raised in a different culture or a long-standing collaboration with a brilliant mind from overseas will. 

The bottom line is you don't have to travel to reap the benefits of cross-cultural relationships. You just have to seek out diverse friends and colleagues (and dates if that's your stage of life). By deeply engaging with their culture, viewpoints and assumptions, you'll shake up your own and end up far more creative.