Intercultural competence is a range of cognitive, affective, and behavioural skills that lead to effective and appropriate
communication with people of other cultures. Effective intercultural communication relates to behaviors that culminate with the accomplishment of the desired goals of the interaction and all parties involved in the situation. Appropriate intercultural communication includes behaviors that suit the expectations of a specific culture, the characteristics of the situation, and the level of the relationship between the parties involved in the situation. It also takes into consideration one’s own cultural norms and the best appropriate, comfortable compromise between the different cultural norms.
- 1 Basics
- 2 Creating intercultural competence
- 3 History in American ethnic studies
- 4 Education in the United States
- 5 Healthcare
- 6 Cross-cultural competence
- 7 Cultural differences
- 8 Assessment
- 9 Criticisms
- 10 See also
- 11 Footnotes
- 12 References
- 13 External links
It’s very important for someone to be culturally competent at work and at school. Individuals that are effective and appropriate in intercultural situations display high levels of cultural self-awareness and understand the influence of culture on behavior, values, and beliefs. Intercultural competence is achieved through a set of skills that includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes.
First, cognitive processes imply the understanding of situational and environmental aspects of intercultural interactions and the application of intercultural awareness, which is affected by the understanding of the self and own culture. Self-awareness in intercultural situations refers to the ability of self-monitoring in such interactions to censor anything not acceptable to another culture. On the other hand, cultural awareness leads the individual to an understanding of how his/her own culture determines feelings, thoughts, and personality.
Secondly, affective processes define the emotions that span during intercultural interactions. These emotions are strongly related to self-concept, open-mindedness, non-judgementalism, and social relaxation. In general, positive emotions generate respect for other cultures and their differences.
Finally, behavioral processes refer to how effectively and appropriately the individual directs actions to achieve goals. Actions during intercultural interactions are influenced by the ability to clearly convey a message, proficiency with the foreign language, flexibility and management of behavior, and social skills.
Creating intercultural competence
Intercultural competence is determined by the presence of cognitive, affective, and behavioral abilities that directly shape communication across cultures. These essential abilities can be separated into five specific skills that are obtained through education and experience:
- Mindfulness: the ability of being cognitively aware of how the communication and interaction with others is developed. It is important to focus more in the process of the interaction than its outcome while maintaining in perspective the desired communication goals. For example, it would be better to formulate questions such as “What can I say or do to help this process?” rather than “What do they mean?”
- Cognitive flexibility: the ability of creating new categories of information rather than keeping old categories. This skill includes opening to new information, taking more than one perspective, and understanding personal ways of interpreting messages and situations.
- Tolerance for ambiguity: the ability to maintain focus in situations that are not clear rather than becoming anxious and to methodically determine the best approach as the situation evolves. Generally, low-tolerance individuals look for information that supports their believes while high-tolerance individuals look for information that gives an understanding of the situation and others.
- Behavioral flexibility: the ability to adapt and accommodate behaviors to a different culture. Although knowing a second language could be important for this skill, it does not necessarily translate into cultural adaptability. The individual must be willing to assimilate the new culture.
- Cross-cultural empathy: the ability to visualize with the imagination the situation of another person from an intellectual and emotional point of view. Demonstrating empathy includes the abilities of connecting emotionally with people, showing compassion, thinking in more than one perspective, and listening actively.
History in American ethnic studies
Despite the diverse ethnic composition of the U.S. and the challenges to many minority groups, the dominant models of education and social services retained models developed by northern and western European intellectuals through the early 1950s. Even such well-meaning and important reformers as Jane Addams and Jacob Riis followed northern and western European intellectual perspectives. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, though, social workers, activists, and even healthcare providers began to examine their practices to see if they were as effective in African American, Latino, and even Asian American communities in the U.S. The arrival of more than half a million Southeast Asian refugees, from 1975 to 1992, for example, tested the ability of medical and social workers to continue effective practice among speakers of other languages and among those coming from very different understandings of everything from mental health to charity.
Education in the United States
With the larger population of minorities and racial integration during the 1960s and 1970s, the public school system of the United States had to grapple with issues of cultural sensitivity as most teachers in public school system came from white, middle class backgrounds. Most of these teachers were educated, primarily English speaking, and primarily from the Western European cultures. They often had trouble trying to communicate with speakers of limited English proficiency, let alone people of vastly different value systems and normative behaviors from that of Anglo-European culture. The purpose of training educators and others in the area of cultural competence is to provide new teachers the background and skills to work effectively with children of all backgrounds and social classes.
With the growing diversity of the student body in U.S. public school, it is increasingly imperative that teachers have and continually develop a cultural competence that enables them to connect with, respond to, and interact effectively with their pupils. The achievement gap between cultural minority and majority students suggests a communication disconnect often occurs in minority classrooms because cultural mismatch between teachers and students is common and should not prevent positive, productive for both parties, provided the educator is a culturally competent communicator. Over the last few decades, scholars have increasingly shown interest in the relationship between learning, reading, schema, and culture. People’s schema depends on their social location, which, as Anderson (1984) explains, includes a reader’s age, sex, race, religion, nationality, and occupation, amongst other factors. Considering schemata determine how people understand, interpret, and analyze everything in their world, it is clear that background and experience really do affect the learning and teaching processes, and how each should be approached in context. “In short,” Anderson (1984) says, “the schema that will be brought to bear on a text depends upon the reader’s culture” (p. 374-375). More simply, Anderson (1984) describes a person’s schema as their “organized knowledge about the world” (p. 372). In considering the role of schema, one of the educator’s principal functions in teaching, particularly with literacy, is to “‘bridge the gap between what the learner already knows and what he needs to know before he can successfully learn the task at hand'” (Anderson, 1984, p. 382). This is important because Staton (1989) explains that student learning—i.e. successful communication between instructor and pupil—occurs when teachers and students come to “shared understandings” (p. 364). Thus, teachers must remember that they are “cultural workers, not neutral professionals using skills on a culturally-detached playing field” (Blanchett, Mumford & Beachum, 2005, p. 306).
Teachers and administrators in the public school systems of the United States come in contact with a wide variety of sub-cultures and are at the forefront of the challenge of bringing diverse groups together within a larger American society. Issues confronting teachers and administrators on a daily basis include student learning disabilities, student behavioral problems, child abuse, drug addiction, mental health, and poverty, most of which are handled differently within different cultures and communities.
Examples of cultural conflicts often seen by teachers in the public school system include:
- role of women in the family and the decisions they can make
- practices among cultural groups (e.g. fire cupping)
- symbol systems among cultural groups (see semiotics)
Examples of sub-groups within the United States: African American, Asian American, Indian American, Irish American, Jewish American, Mexican American, Native Americans or American Indians and refugees.
The provision of culturally tailored health care can improve patient outcomes. In 2005, California passed Assembly Bill 1195 that requires patient-related continuing medical education courses in California medical school to incorporate cultural and linguistic competence training in order to qualify for certification credits. In 2011, HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research implemented the EBAN Experience™ program to reduce health disparities among minority populations, most notably East African immigrants.
Cross-cultural competence (3C) has generated confusing and contradictory definitions because it has been studied by a wide variety of academic approaches and professional fields. One author identified eleven different terms that have some equivalence to 3C: cultural savvy, astuteness, appreciation, literacy or fluency, adaptability, terrain, expertise, competency, awareness, intelligence, and understanding. The United States Army Research Institute, which is currently engaged in a study of 3C has defined it as “A set of cognitive, behavioral, and affective/motivational components that enable individuals to adapt effectively in intercultural environments”.
Organizations in academia, business, health care, government security, and developmental aid agencies have all sought to use 3C in one way or another. Poor results have often been obtained due to a lack of rigorous study of 3C and a reliance on “common sense” approaches.
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 serve as an effective framework for describing the overlapping areas among these three disciplines: at the receiving and knowledge levels, 3C can operate with near-independence from language proficiency and regional knowledge. But, as one approaches the internalizing and evaluation levels, the overlapping areas approach totality.
The development of intercultural competence is mostly based on the individual’s experiences while he or she is communicating with different cultures. When interacting with people from other cultures, the individual experiences certain obstacles that are caused by differences in cultural understanding between two people from different cultures. Such experiences may motivate the individual to acquire skills that can help him to communicate his point of view to an audience belonging to a different cultural ethnicity and background.
Immigrants and international students
A salient issue, especially for people living in countries other than their native country, is the issue of which culture they should follow: their native culture or the one in their new surroundings.
International students also face this issue: they have a choice of modifying their cultural boundaries and adapting to the culture around them or holding on to their native culture and surrounding themselves with people from their own country. The students who decide to hold on to their native culture are those who experience the most problems in their university life and who encounter frequent culture shocks. But international students who adapt themselves to the culture surrounding them (and who interact more with domestic students) will increase their knowledge of the domestic culture, which may help them to “blend in” more. In the article it stated, “Segmented assimilation theorists argue that students from less affluent and racial and ethnic minority immigrant families face a number of educational hurdles and barriers that often stem from racial, ethnic, and gender biases and discrimination embedded within the U.S. public school system” (Bondy).
Such individuals may be said to have adopted bicultural identities.
Another issue that stands out in intercultural communication is the attitude stemming from Ethnocentrism. LeVine and Campbell (as cited in Lin and Rancer, 2003) defines ethnocentrism as people’s tendency to view their culture or in-group as superior to other groups, and to judge those groups to their standards. With ethnocentric attitudes, those incapable to expand their view of different cultures could create conflict between groups. Ignorance to diversity and cultural groups contributes to prevention of peaceful interaction in a fast-paced globalizing world. The counterpart of ethnocentrism is ethnorelativism: the ability to see multiple values, beliefs, norms etc. in the world as cultural rather than universal; being able to understand and accept different cultures as equally valid as ones’ own. It is a mindset that moves beyond in-group out-group to see all groups as equally important and valid and individuals to be seen in terms of their own cultural context.
Cultural characteristics can be measured along several dimensions that were defined by Geert Hofstede in his studies of cultural differences. The ability to perceive them and to cope with them is fundamental for intercultural competence. These characteristics include:
Individualism versus Collectivism
- Decisions are based on the benefits of the group rather than the individual;
- Strong loyalty to the group as the main social unit;
- The group is expected to take care of each individual;
- Collectivist cultures include Pakistan, India, Japan, and Guatemala.
- Autonomy of the individual has the highest importance;
- Promotes the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance;
- Decisions prioritize the benefits of the individual rather than the group;
- Individualistic cultures are Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Masculinity versus Femininity
- Masculine Cultures
- Value behaviors that indicate assertiveness and wealth;
- Judge people based on the degree of ambition and achievement;
- General behaviors are associated with male behavior;
- Sex roles are clearly defined and sexual inequality is acceptable;
- Masculine cultures include Austria, Italy, Japan, and Mexico.
- Feminine Cultures
- Value behaviors that promote the quality of life such as caring for others and nurturing;
- Gender roles overlap and sexual equality is preferred as the norm;
- Nurturing behaviors are acceptable for both women and men;
- Feminine cultures are Chile, Portugal, Sweden, and Thailand.
- Reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty;
- Uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which a person in society feels comfortable with a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.
- High uncertainty avoidance cultures
- Countries exhibiting high Uncertainty Avoidance Index or UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas;
- Members of society expect consensus about national and societal goals;
- Society ensures security by setting extensive rules and keeping more structure;
- High uncertainty avoidance cultures are Greece, Guatemala, Portugal, and Uruguay.
- Low uncertainty avoidance cultures
- Low UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
- Low uncertainty avoidance cultures accept and feel comfortable in unstructured situations or changeable environments and try to have as few rules as possible;
- People in these cultures are more tolerant of change and accept risks;
- Low uncertainty avoidance cultures are Denmark, Jamaica, Ireland, and Singapore.
- High uncertainty avoidance cultures
- Refers to the degree in which cultures accept unequal distribution of power and challenge the decisions of power holders;
- Depending on the culture, some people may be considered superior to others because of a large number of factors such as wealth, age, occupation, gender, personal achievements, family history, etc.
- High power distance cultures
- Believe that social and class hierarchy and inequalities are beneficial, that authority should not be challenged, and that people with higher social status have the right to use power;
- Cultures with high power distance are Arab countries, Guatemala, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
- Low power distance cultures
- Believe in reducing inequalities, challenging authority, minimizing hierarchical structures, and using power just when necessary;
- Low power distance countries are Austria, Denmark, Israel, and New Zealand.
- High power distance cultures
Short-term versus Long-term Time Orientation
See also: Chronemics
- Short-term or Monochronic Orientation
- Cultures value tradition, personal stability, maintaining “face,” and reciprocity during interpersonal interactions;
- People expect quick results after actions;
- Historical events and beliefs influence people’s actions in the present;
- Monochronic cultures are Canada, Philippines, Nigeria, Pakistan, and U.S.A.
- Long-term or Polychronic Orientation
- Cultures value persistence, thriftiness,and humility;
- People sacrifice immediate gratification for long-term commitments;
- Cultures believe that past results do not guarantee for the future and are aware of change;
- Polychronic cultures are China, Japan, Brazil, and India.
The assessment of cross-cultural competence is another field that is rife with controversy. One survey identified 86 assessment instruments for 3C. A United States Army Research Institute study narrowed the list down to ten quantitative instruments that were suitable for further exploration of their reliability and validity.
The following characteristics are tested and observed for the assessment of intercultural competence as an existing ability or as the potential to develop it: ambiguity tolerance, openness to contacts, flexibility in behavior, emotional stability, motivation to perform, empathy, metacommunicative competence, and polycentrism.
Quantitative assessment instruments
Three examples of quantitative assessment instruments are:
- the Inter-cultural Intercultural Developmental Inventory
- the Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Measurement
- the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire
Qualitative assessment instruments
Research in the area of 3C assessment, while thin, points to the value of qualitative assessment instruments in concert with quantitative ones. Qualitative instruments, such as scenario-based assessments, are useful for gaining insight into intercultural competence.
Intercultural coaching frameworks, such as the ICCA™ (Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal), do not attempt an assessment; they provide guidance for personal improvement based upon the identification of personal traits, strengths, and weaknesses.
It is important that cross-cultural competence training and skills does not break down into the application of stereotypes. Although its goal is to promote understanding between groups of individuals that, as a whole, think differently, it may fail to recognize specific differences between individuals of any given group. Such differences can be more significant than the differences between groups, especially in the case of heterogeneous populations and value systems.
Madison (2006) has criticized the tendency of 3C training for its tendency to simplify migration and cross-cultural processes into stages and phases. Madison’s article offers an outline of the original research.
See also a recent article by Witte summarizing objections to cultural theories used in business and social life.
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