What Is Intercultural Competence?

The way to intercultural competence can be illustrated in three steps: cultural awareness, cultural knowledge and application.
intercultural competence
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How do you gain intercultural competence? In order to answer this question it is useful to know that intercultural competence stems from social skills.
But what are social skills? Being socially competent enables you to recognise role expectations in certain situations and it encompasses skills that are necessary for successfully interacting with other people.

Some Of These Social Skills Are:

  • Understanding and predicting other peoples’ behaviour and reacting accordingly
  • Knowing how to act appropriately according to the situation
  • At least avoiding “sanctions“ in response to inappropriate behaviour
  • The ability to deal with your fellows in a confident, sensitive, fair and constructive manner
  • Capacity for teamwork – the ability to empathise with others as well as to solve conflicts in a constructive way.
  • Treating emotions and moods in an emotionally intelligent way
  • Perceiving and reacting to the emotions and moods of others
  • The ability to give constructive feedback and to accept feedback and criticism

Thus, Intercultural Competence Stands For The Ability To

  • act socially competent even if your dialogue partners have different cultural backgrounds.
  • know-how “roles” and “situations” in which we act are comprehended in certain foreign cultures.
  • accept that the “unlike” behaviour of people from other cultures is just as well conform to the norm as our own behaviour that we consider correct.

Intercultural competence is therefore always a combination of certain properties and the knowledge of the other culture respectively.

The Following Properties Are Helpful In Order To Interact Successfully With People From Other Cultures:

  • Ambiguity tolerance/frustration tolerance: The ability to handle ambiguous situations
  • Resilience: Bearing additional strain e. g. through the composition of new structures or new cultural surroundings. You need to be able to bear this additional load.
  • Outgoingness: Social contacts with people from your own as well as foreign cultures will help you considerably to find your way in a different culture and it will accelerate the process of gaining knowledge and applying it.
  • Empathy: A high level of empathy allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This enables you to explain their actions with the right cross between cultural determination and individual peculiarities.
  • Impartiality: It is important to recognise your own position as relative since it is characterised by your own culture and its determinations.
  • Action flexibility: In case certain behavioural patterns from your own cultural environment fail, it is necessary to adapt your actions according to the situation by looking at it in the light of the other culture and the people you are dealing with.

(Source: Kühlmann/ Stahl, 1998)

The Intercultural Competence Triad

The way to intercultural competence can be illustrated in three steps: awareness, knowledge and application.

1 – Awareness

Cultural differences are almost always underestimated. This leads to blaming “mistakes” on people rather than on their cultural background. In order to deal with both implicit and explicit cultural differences in an appropriate way, it is important to become aware of these differences. Only by doing this do we attain the necessary candour that enables us to interpret the behaviour and work style of our colleagues and business partners from other cultures. Moreover, it gives us the opportunity to hypothesise and even anticipate their future actions.

2 – Knowledge

The second component is about collecting knowledge of what is above and what is below the surface of the iceberg. Only by doing this, we will gradually be able to anticipate our business partners’ lines of action. On this level – similar to social skills in general – the learning process will never end.

3 – Application

Last but not least it is essential to take appropriate action by applying both the awareness and the knowledge to find alternatives to our usual approaches. It is your personal choice to decide how far you want to extend this application. It starts with certain manners – such as the question whether to use a handkerchief or to deal otherwise with a running nose – and ends with the question if you want to be dispatched to a country that deals with human rights in a rather “casual” way.

The decision to adjust yourself to your environment is a very personal one and is determined by how purposeful you want to proceed in the matter.

Key Takeaways

  • Successfully transferring social competences to a different cultural context is called intercultural competence.
  • The three steps Awareness – Knowledge – Application lead the way to intercultural competence.
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