Intercultural competence – is it really needed?

Deutsche Version

Essay Dr. Christa Uehlinger

An Asian exchange student hardly answers any questions in class. In the exam, she writes just a couple of sentences per task, which results in her failing. The lecturer has had the impression for some time now that Asian students aren’t very clever. During multicultural project work, the Swiss students are becoming increasingly annoyed because the other team members from Spain hardly keep to the deadlines and agreed times. Do these situations sound familiar to you?

What is happening? The answer is surprisingly simple, yet complex at the same time. Simple because it is merely a case of different people from different cultural backgrounds coming together but still behaving like they always do. Complex because culture is multifaceted and difficult to comprehend, yet it has such a major influence on us.

Culture defines comfort zone

To get to the bottom of this, we’ll first take a closer look at culture and how it affects interactions between people. Culture encompasses the values, beliefs and basic assumptions of a group of people, such as a nation, a religion or a certain age group. All of these factors influence our behaviour, our perception, our way of thinking, and how we communicate. This applies to all people on this planet, but to different extents depending on their social backgrounds. Culture conveys meaning and provides security and orientation. It defines our comfort zone, within which we act according to what we believe is “normal”. Everything that lies outside this comfort zone is perceived as “foreign”, or even bothersome.

Every person is influenced by culture and contributes their own ways and idiosyncrasies to interactions with others. We subconsciously assume that the other person is essentially the same as us. But this is not the case in intercultural situations, which usually gives rise to misunderstandings. When working with people from other cultures, we have to step outside our comfort zone.

Culture influences perception

In the aforementioned examples, everyone is acting how they would normally act within their own cultural circles, even though they are in a situation in which different cultures are overlapping. That’s just human nature. The Asian exchange student finds it uncomfortable to be addressed directly. To express herself, she needs fewer words and she takes the context into account. But the lecturer is used to students justifying their answers. Because his own judgement is based on what they say, the Asian students’ lack of words leads him to conclude that they are not as clever. Punctuality is very important to Swiss students. If they come across someone with a different concept of time, they get annoyed. In Spain, however, people have a more flexible approach to time.

Interculturalism as the norm

The experiences of these people are daily occurrences all over the world and in all spheres of activity. We live in a multicultural, interdependent, global and increasingly digitalised world in which people of different cultural backgrounds are constantly interacting with one other. Interculturalism is no longer the exception but the norm.

Although awareness of interculturalism has risen, the topic is not yet being addressed on a wide scale. However, anyone who wants to work effectively across different cultures in environments such as those described will need intercultural competence. It forms the basis for effective and appropriate actions when people from different cultures wish to collaborate to achieve common goals.

The call for intercultural competence is becoming louder in all areas. There is no doubt that it has become an indispensable key skill in today’s globalised world. However, there are different views of what exactly intercultural competence encompasses. An initial basic consensus has developed in the USA, according to which intercultural competence consists of cognitive, affective and behavioural skills and characteristics. These support effective, cross-cultural interaction and are interrelated.

Appreciation and respect

Thus, intercultural competence can be described in short as the ability to interact and communicate with people from other cultural backgrounds in an appreciative, respectful and reflective way. This includes one’s attitude, i.e. being open towards the other person, showing an interest in them and having positive intentions. But it also includes one’s own behaviour, i.e. being respectful, appreciative and empathetic towards others; this requires things such as listening and perception skills, as well as the ability to pay attention. Finally, it also calls for knowledge of one’s own culture as well as other cultures and ways of living.

Reflecting upon one’s own behaviour

This is not a given. Intercultural competence requires a sharpened awareness of one’s own culture, the ability to perceive other things, and the willingness to reflect upon one’s own behaviour and intercultural experiences. This makes it necessary to step outside of one’s own cultural comfort zone and deal with uncertainty. Knowledge, learning another language or acquiring international experience are therefore not enough alone. They can facilitate the development of intercultural competence, but they do not automatically result in it.

Intercultural competence isn’t acquired overnight – it is a lifelong learning process which, depending on experience, may sometimes be characterised by set-backs.

Being more culturally aware

If the Asian student, the lecturer, the Swiss students and their Spanish counterparts had more intercultural competence, and had they handled these situations with greater awareness, misunderstandings could have been avoided and mutually beneficial forms of cooperation found.

Is intercultural competence therefore needed? Absolutely. Everywhere. And the longer, the better.

Dr. Christa Uehlinger

Dr. Christa Uehlinger is a lecturer in the fields of intercultural management and intercultural communication. After gaining her PhD in law, she spent more than 10 years working for international companies. She currently works as a coach and consultant, specialising in the development of intercultural excellence.