13 Mrz 2018
Ten smart ways to become interculturally competent

Cultures can be very different: not only between nations and continents, but also within the same country, city, company and even Familie.


What is intercultural competence?

Whenever we study a new language, we automatically learn some cultural aspects of the people who speak the language. But if we want to be intercultural competent, we also need to reexamine our own perceptions, thinking and feelings so that we can communicate and act effectively and appropriately with people from other cultures.


Why is it so important? Three personal stories

Being interculturally competent can make our lives much easier in unfamiliar environments and countries and help us avoid offending people due to false cultural assumptions. I will share with you three personal stories that illustrate this point:

  1. When I arrived in the USA for the first time I was invited to a big party. Upon entering the venue, the hostess asked me if I wanted to have something to eat and I, politely, said “no, thanks” as I had been raised in Peru, which has the custom that it is bad manners to visit someone and start eating their food soon after (I didn´t come primarily to eat, you see). I was expecting that she would asked me at least two times more before it was appropriate for me to say “yes”. The trouble is that the hostess left and never asked me again and I went hungry for a very long time before a trusted friend came to my rescue. Lesson learned: don´t assume anything.
  2. If you think that you are culturally competent, you will know that in southern countries whenever you ask a local person for a specific address, he might very often send you in the wrong direction. This is because due his willingness to help you (and perhaps to save face), he will probably not admit that he doesn´t know or isn’t exactly sure where the place really is. Instead, he will give you some directions that hopefully help you get closer to your destination with full conviction, and then you will find the next local who can help you further. For this reason, it is wise to ask at least three different locals for an address before you start marching in. Lesson learned: don´t assume anything.
  3. As a student in the USA, I encountered a friend from Colombia who had just been declared “persona non grata” by her roommates. Her sin was not to have told them that the chocolates that she was proudly sharing with them from time to time were not filled with raisins as they had supposed, but with roasted ants instead. This was a delicacy in the region she came from. The problem was that she never felt the need to explain anything – until her roommates asked. The lesson learned? You guessed: don´t assume anything.

My list of personal stories deriving from false cultural assumptions could be quite extensive. Instead, I will share with you what I had promised at the beginning:

Ten smart ways to become interculturally competent:

  1. Know and identify with your own culture first.
  2. Study other cultures in more depth than a standard Facebook entry.
  3. Study or, even better, speak other languages.
  4. Listen carefully, even in your own culture and language.
  5. Respect communication preferences.
  6. Improve your own communication skills: write and speak clearly.
  7. Have a curious and open attitude to what is different.
  8. Have empathy about the feelings and needs of other people.
  9. Feel confident about your own desires, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional stability.
  10. Build new bridges of understanding among different social groups.


Intercultural competency is a two-way street for all the parties concerned. If we do it right, the personal rewards can be unmeasurable, even in our own familiar surroundings and social groups.

Whenever we feel we are not making much progress building intercultural bridges, it is already an achievement to have the mutual belief that we are beginning to understand each other.
What has helped you become more interculturally competent?


About the author: Carlos Aleson is the director of i-diom, an institute specialized in language and communications training in Austria.

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