is the ability of successful communication
with people of other cultures
. This ability can exist in someone at a young age, or may be developed and improved. The bases for a successful intercultural communication are emotional competence
, together with intercultural sensitivity
A person who is interculturally competent captures and understands, in interaction with people from foreign cultures, their specific concepts in perception, thinking, feeling and acting. Earlier experiences are considered, free from prejudices; there is an interest and motivation to continue learning.
Cross-cultural competence (3C), another term for inter-cultural competence, has generated its own share of contradictory and confusing definitions, due to the wide variety of academic approaches and professional fields attempting to achieve it for their own ends. One author identified no fewer than eleven different terms with some equivalence to 3C: cultural savvy, astuteness, appreciation, literacy or fluency, adaptability, terrain, expertise, competency, awareness, intelligence, and understanding (Selmeski, 2007). Organizations from fields as diverse as business, health care, government security and developmental aid agencies, academia, and non-governmental organizations have all sought to leverage 3C in one guise or another, often with poor results due to a lack of rigorous study of the phenomenon and reliance on “common sense” approaches based on the culture developing the 3C models in the first place (Selmeski, 2007). The U.S. Army Research Institute, which is currently engaged in a study of the phenomenon, defines 3C as: “A set of cognitive, behavioral, and affective/motivational components that enable individuals to adapt effectively in intercultural environments” (Abbe et al., 2007). Cross-cultural competence does not operate in a vacuum, however. One theoretical construct posits that 3C, language proficiency, and regional knowledge are distinct skills that are inextricably linked, but to varying degrees depending on the context in which they are employed. In educational settings, Bloom’s affective and cognitive taxonomies (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1973) serve as an effective framework to describe the overlap area between the three disciplines: at the receiving and knowledge levels 3C can operate with near independence from language proficiency or regional knowledge, but as one approaches the internalizing and evaluation levels the required overlap area approaches totality.
Cultures can be different not only between continents
, but also within the same company
or even family
) resp. cultural affiliation or cultural identity
Typical examples of cultural differences
The perception is different and often selective
- Behavior and gestures are interpreted differently:
- Showing the thumb held upwards in certain parts of the world means "everything's ok", while it is understood in some Islamic countries (as well as Sardinia and Greece) as a rude sexual sign. Additionally, the thumb is held up to signify "one" in France and certain other European countries, where the index finger is used to signify "one" in other cultures.
- "Everything ok" is shown in western European countries, especially between pilots and divers, with the sign of the thumb and forefinger forming an "O". This sign, especially when fingers are curled, means in Japan "now we may talk about money", in southern France the contrary ("nothing, without any value"), in Eastern Europe and Russia it is an indecent sexual sign. In Brazil, it is considered rude, especially if performed with the three extended figures shown horizontally to the floor while the other two fingers form an O.
- In the Americas as well as in Arabic countries the pauses between words are usually not too long, while in Japan pauses can give a contradictory sense to the spoken words. Enduring silence is perceived as comfortable in Japan, while in India, Europe and North America it may cause insecurity and embarrassment. Scandinavians, by the standards of other Western cultures, are more tolerant of silent breaks during conversations.
- Laughing is connoted in most countries with happiness – in Japan it is often a sign of confusion, insecurity and embarrassment.
- If invited to dinner, in some Asian countries it is well-mannered to leave right after the dinner: the ones who don’t leave may indicate they have not eaten enough. In the Indian sub-continent, Europe, South America, and North American countries this is considered rude, indicating that the guest only wanted to eat but wouldn’t enjoy the company with the hosts.
- In Mediterranean European countries, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, it is normal, or at least widely tolerated, to arrive half an hour late for a dinner invitation, whereas in Germany and in the United States this would be considered very rude.
- In Africa, Arab cultures, and certain countries in South America (not in Brazil), saying to a female friend one has not seen for a while that she has put on weight means she is physically healthier than before and had a nice holiday, whereas this would be considered an insult in India, Europe, North America and Australia - and Brazil.
- In Africa, avoiding eye contact or looking at the ground when talking to one's parents, an elder, or someone of higher social status is a sign of respect. In contrast, these same actions are signals of deception or shame (on the part of the doer) in North America and most of Europe.
- In Persian and Pakistani culture, if a person offers an item (i.e a drink), it is customary to not instantly accept it. A sort of role play forms with the person offering being refused several times out of politeness before their offering is accepted. This tradition is known as 'tarof' or 'takaluf' which in Persian literally means 'offer'. A similar exchange happens in many East Asian countries.
- In African, South American and Mediterranean cultures, talking and laughing loudly in the streets and public places is widely accepted, whereas in some Asian cultures it is considered rude and may be seen as a mark of self-centeredness or attention-seeking.
- In Italy and Guatemala is common for people in gatherings to say goodbye many times when they leave. For example, someone could say goodbye in the living room and chat for a while. Then say goodbye at the door again, chat a little more, finally saying goodbye in their car's door and then chat a little more until people leave. This behavior is also common in Irish and Irish American gatherings. This act of saying goodbye, then walking to the door to leave only to visit more is commonly called an "Irish Goodbye".
- Different cultures are used to maintaining a different amount of personal space when conversing, and it is even noticeable that Northern Europeans leave each other more space than Southern Europeans. In this example a Northern European who understood the difference would not feel threatened by someone who got closer than usual, interpreting it correctly as normal to the person doing it rather than a deliberate act of aggression.
Basic needs are sensitivity
: the understanding of other behaviors
and ways of thinking as well as the ability to express one’s own point of view in a transparent way with the aim to be understood and respected by staying flexible where this is possible, and being clear where this is necessary.
It is a balance, situatively adapted, between three parts:
- knowledge (about other cultures, people, nations, behaviors…),
- empathy (understanding feelings and needs of other people), and
- self-confidence (knowing what I want, my strengths and weaknesses, emotional stability).
Cultural characteristics can be differentiated between several dimensions and aspects (the ability to perceive them and to cope with them is one of the bases of intercultural competence), such as:
of intercultural competence as an existing ability and / or the potential to develop it (with conditions and timeframe), the following characteristics are tested and observed: ambiguity tolerance
, openness to contacts, flexibility in behavior, emotional stability, motivation to perform, empathy
, metacommunicative competence
Assessment of 3C is another field rife with controversy. One survey identified eighty-six assessment instruments for 3C (Fantini, 2006). The Army Research Institute study narrowed the list down to ten quantitative instruments for further exploration into their reliability and validity (Abbe et al., 2007). Three examples of quantitative instruments include the Inter-cultural Development Inventory
, the Cultural Intelligence Scale, and the Multi-cultural Personality Questionnaire (Abbe et al., 2007). Qualitative assessment instruments such as scenario-based assessments are also useful tools to gain insight into inter-cultural competence. These have proven valuable in poorly defined areas such as 3C (Davis, 1993; Doll, 1993; English & Larson, 1996; Palomba & Banta, 1999). Research in the area of 3C assessment, while thin, also underscores the value of qualitative instruments in concert with quantitative ones (Kitsantas, 2004; Lessard-Clouston, 1997; Lievens, Harris, Van Keer, & Bisqueret, 2003).
It is important that intercultural competence training and skills not break down into application of stereotypes of a group of individuals. Although the goal is to promote understanding between groups of individuals that, as a whole, think somewhat differently, it may fail to recognize the specific differences between individuals of any given group. These differences can often be larger than the differences between groups, especially with heterogeneous populations and value systems (such as found in the USA.)
- Cultural DetectiveA collaborative project of over 100 of the world's leading interculturalists has produced a series of training and development tools based on a core intercultural competence development process. It has been correlated with the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory)
- The Swedish Empathy Center Organizes knowledge about empathy across disciplines
- Intercultural Competence Assessment Assessment tool developed under the support of Leonardo da Vinci II program
- Key Competencies A complex project about the most important key competencies within the enlarged Europe - performed in the framework of a Leonardo da Vinci Pilot project
- Who needs Intercultural Competence? a video-cast by Neil Payne
- Centre for Intercultural Learning, http://www.intercultures.gc.ca
- Centre for Intercultural Training and Research, http://www.intercultural.org.uk
- Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, http://www.sietar.org
- Young Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, http://www.youngsietar.org (for students and young professionals)
- Thai-Maori Musical Exchange Project
- Farnham CastleA UK Not for profit organisation providing intercultural training
- Artemisszió Foundation, http://www.artemisszio.hu/index_en.htm
- Intercultural Press, http://www.interculturalpress.com