Intercultural competence

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A theoretical construct for cross-cultural competence, language proficiency, and regional expertise.

Intercultural competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other cultures:[1]

  • Appropriately. Valued rules, norms, and expectations of the relationship are not violated significantly.
  • Effectively. Valued goals or rewards (relative to costs and alternatives) are accomplished.

In interactions with people from foreign cultures, a person who is interculturally competent understands the culture-specific concepts of perception, thinking, feeling, and acting.

Intercultural competence is also called "cross-cultural competence" (3C).


Cultures can be different not only between continents or nations but also within the same company and even within the same family. The differences may be ethical, ethnic, geographical, historical, moral, political, or religious.

The basic requirements for intercultural competence are empathy, an understanding of other people's behaviors and ways of thinking, and the ability to express one's own way of thinking. It is a balance, situatively adapted, among four parts:

  • Knowledge (about other cultures and other people's behaviors)
  • Empathy (understanding the feelings and needs of other people)
  • Self-confidence (knowledge of one's own desires, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional stability)
  • Cultural identity (knowledge of one's own culture)

Cross-cultural competence

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.[2] 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."[3]

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.[2]

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[4][5] 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. Such individuals may be said to have adopted bicultural identities.

Cultural differences

Cultural characteristics can be measured along several dimensions. The ability to perceive them and to cope with them is fundamental for intercultural competence. These characteristics include:

  • Collectivism
    • Interdependence of every human;
    • Reverse of individualism;
    • High priority on group than individual;
    • Collectivist cultures include Pakistan, India and Japan.
  • Individualism[6]
    • moral worth of individual;
    • promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance;
    • advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group;
    • Liberalism, existentialism and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual
  • Masculine
    • characteristics or roles appropriate to, a man;
    • Opposite can be expressed by terms such as "unmanly'" or epicene.
    • Masculinity pertains to societies in which social gender roles are clearly distinct
  • Feminine [6]
    • set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with girls and women;
    • made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors;
    • Traits traditionally cited as feminine include gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity.
    • Femininity pertains to societies in which social gender roles overlap.
  • Uncertainty avoidance[6]
    • 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 uncomfortable with a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity;
    • Countries exhibiting strong Uncertainty avoidance Index or UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
    • People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional. 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 tend to be more pragmatic, they are more tolerant of change.
  • Power distance[6]
    • people in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures;
    • high power distance culture the relationship between bosses and subordinates is one of dependence;
    • low power distance society the relationship between bosses and subordinates is one of interdependence;
    • People in high distance countries tend to believe that power and authority are facts of life
  • Chronemics:
  • Monochrone
    • time-fixed, "one after the other”
    • Doing one thing at a time
    • Involved with doing the job
    • Time commitments taken seriously
    • Follows plan
    • Deals with short-term relations
    • Narrow focus
    • Lower risk tolerance
    • Self-reliant ethic
    • Sequential tasks
    • Positional power
  • Polychrone[6]
    • Many things at the same time, "multitasking". Also called "long-term orientation."
    • Involved with family, friends, customers
    • Commitments in time mean little
    • Changes plan
    • Builds lifetime relationships
    • Big picture
    • Higher risk tolerance
    • Networking focus
    • Simultaneous engineering
    • Charismatic leadership
    • Intuitive
    • Error-tolerant system
  • Structural characteristics:


The assessment of cross-cultural competence is another field that is rife with controversy. One survey identified 86 assessment instruments for 3C.[7] 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.[3]

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:[3]

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.[8][9][10] Qualitative instruments, such as scenario-based assessments, are useful for gaining insight into intercultural competence.[11][12][13][14]

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.[15][16]

An interesting aspect in management offers Riether in his book "Business Cooperation - cultural Integration as Keyfactor - Reasons for Failing and improving chances for success" of business-related cooperation and globalization. He assumes in his CRT-model that Communication, Relationship building and Trust are the essential factors to enable cooperation.[17] Integration is not just to understand the other but to accept and to integrate the others behavior i.e. to act in a way which the other will understand, accept but also to meet expectations[17]


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.[18]

Madison (2006)[19] 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.[20]

See also


  1. Messner, W., & Schäfer, N. (2012) The ICCA Facilitator's Manual. Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal. London: GloBus Research, p. 41 (also see:; Spitzberg, B. H. (2000). A Model of Intercultural Communication Competence. In L. A. Samovar, & R. E. Porter, Intercultural Communication - A Reader (pp. 375-87). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Selmeski, B.R. (2007). Military cross-cultural competence: Core concepts and individual development. Kingston: Royal Military College of Canada Centre for Security, Armed Forces, & Society.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Abbe, A., Gulick, L.M.V., & Herman, J.L. (2007). Cross-cultural competence in Army leaders: A conceptual and empirical foundation. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Research Institute.
  4. Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
  5. Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S., & Masia, B.B. (1973). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: McKay Co., Inc.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Fantini, A.E. (2006). 87 Assessment tools of intercultural competence [Electronic version]. Brattleboro, VT: School for International Training. Retrieved June 20, 2007 from
  8. Kitsantas, A. (2004). Studying abroad: the role of college students' goals on the development of cross-cultural skills and global understanding. College Student Journal, 38(3). Retrieved July 9, 2007 from ERIC database.
  9. Lessard-Clouston, M. (1997). "Towards an understanding of culture in L2/FL education". Ronko: K.G. studies in English. 25: 131–150.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Lievens, F.; Harris, M.; Van Keer, E.; Bisqueret, C. (2003). "Predicting cross-cultural training performance: The validity of personality, cognitive ability, and dimensions measured by an assessment center and a behavior description interview". Journal of Applied Psychology. 88 (3): 476–489. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.3.476. PMID 12814296.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Davis, B. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  12. Doll, W. (1993). A post-modern perspective on curriculum. New York: Teacher's College Press.
  13. English, F. & Larson, R. (1996). Curriculum management for educational and social service organizations. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.
  14. Palomba, A. & Banta, T. (1999). Assessment essentials. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  15. Messner, W. & Schäfer, N. (2012). The ICCA™ Facilitator's Manual London: Createspace.
  16. "What is The ICCA?". Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal. GloBus Research Ltd. Retrieved 25 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 Riether W.(2014). Business Cooperation cultural Integration as Keyfactor Saarbruecken: AV Akademikerverlag ISBN 978-3-639-67924-3
  18. Rathje, S. (2007). Intercultural Competence: The Status and Future of a Controversial Concept. Journal for Language and Intercultural Communication, 7(4), 254–266
  19. Madison, Greg (2006). "Existential Migration". Existential Analysis. 17 (2): 238–60.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Witte, A. "Making the Case for a Post-National Cultural Analysis of Organizations," Journal of Management Inquiry (2012) 21:141. Originally published online 13 September 2011.