5.1 Introduction to Intercultural Competence

This book provides insights into intercultural competencies and the different approaches to develop them.

Description of Intercultural Competence

Description of Intercultural Competence

Definition of Intercultural Competence

Monash.edu gives a first general definition of intercultural competence:

"lntercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad. Intercultural competence is a valuable asset in an increasingly globalised world where we are more likely to interact with people from different cultures and countries who have been shaped by different values, beliefs and experiences.

Intercultural competence is part of a family of concepts including global competence, graduate attributes, employability skills, global citizenship, education for sustainable development and global employability. Core to all these concepts is recognition of globalisation as a force for change in all aspects of the contemporary world, and the importance for graduates to be able to engage and act globally."

Intercultural competence goes hand in hand with communication skills.

Based on "Intercultural Competence" by Jürgen Bolten (2012) Intercultural Competence can be described with the following aspects:




Description of Intercultural Competence

Concept of Culture and Perspective on Culture

In accordance with the expanded concept of culture, we understand cultures as living worlds that people have created and are constantly creating anew through their actions. These lifeworlds exist without standards of evaluation. They are not based on a selection of the beautiful, the good and the true, but encompass all expressions of life of those who have contributed and are contributing to their existence. This also includes religion, ethics, law, technology, educational systems and all other material and immaterial products. Likewise, they interact with processes of the natural environment.

Cultures are historically to a large extent the result of intercultural processes, which include in particular migratory movements, trade relations and colonisation. Consequently, there is a greater or lesser degree of overlap between cultures. Cultures are blurred at their edges, "fuzzy," and cannot be represented as homogeneous units in the sense of containers.

How cultures are perceived and described always depends on the point of view and the interests of the person describing them - among other things, also on how strongly he or she "zooms in" on the subject area. A close-up perspective will be able to provide much more detailed information, while a macro perspective is more for orientation, but can also be prone to stereotypes.

Cultures essentially represent products of millennia of communication processes. Normality, plausibility and meaningfulness are the crucial elements to be able to recognise a lifeworld as "one's own". They are permanently communicatively determined by the members of a culture. This can be done in a constant way by using what has already been communicated in an unchanged form, such as laws and interpretations of laws, manners, curricula or even technical tools. But it can also be done with intentions of change, by questioning what already exists, communicating new possible solutions, and thus contributing to at least minimal changes in what is "normal" or "plausible".

Intercultures are to be understood dynamically as meetings of members of different cultures. In this respect, they have a processual rather than a spatial character. Intercultures do not represent syntheses, but potentials for synergy. Whether and in what way synergies unfold is largely situation-dependent and thus unpredictable.

Description of Intercultural Competence

Interculturality - Perception and Expectations

Perception takes place essentially as a hypothesis-guided search process. The expectations or hypotheses that are built up during this search process are based on already existing and individually very different experiences and knowledge. New  knowledge and experiences are compared with already existing patterns and assigned to them. If experiences and expectations do not match, this leads under the premise "There should be a meaning!" either to an "unfair" assignment of the experience to an only conditionally suitable expectation pattern or (in the positive case) to a correction, differentiation and expansion of the expectation pattern.

The more diverse our experiences are, the more open and thus flexible must be the patterns with which we act. If, on the other hand, we have only a few (and always the same) experiences, the patterns with which we interpret and construct realities harden. Our possibilities of interpretation are then smaller, so that we tend either not to tolerate the unknown at all or to classify it "stereotypically" or in a relatively fixed pattern network.

The core of cultural knowledge stocks is often handed down over centuries as relatively fixed pattern networks - analogous to the lower layers of a sand mountain. They have proven themselves again and again as tools for interpretation and problem solving in historically progressing life-world contexts and therefore appear plausible. Since transmission processes take place communicatively, cultural knowledge stocks are at the same time a product of communication and a basis for communication. They thus essentially shape the communication, thinking and action style of those who are socialised in this mediation context. The more restricted and closed this context of mediation is (e.g. due to lack of media diversity, lack of travel opportunities, strict formation of canons), the greater is the collective indifference and binding nature of the common knowledge stock. Conversely, the more diverse the possibilities of experience of the individual in a transmission process (in that facts can be thematised and questioned), the greater the individual deviations from the underlying cultural knowledge stock and the correspondingly lower is the binding nature of a "common" cultural style.

Description of Intercultural Competence

Self-, Other- and Meta-Images, and Multiculturalism

Self-, Other- and Meta-Images

Something seems strange to us when it contradicts normality expectations, when it is not plausible, when it "makes no sense" (to us) and when routine actions are no longer possible "in the usual way".

Self-, other-, and meta-images are mutually dependent. Judgments, opinions and attitudes towards others are therefore neither "objective" nor unchangeable, but are always formulated in relation to the person making the judgment.

The use of stereotypes and prejudices cannot be avoided, especially in intercultural contexts, because a correspondingly differentiated view of the world cannot be achieved. On the one hand, the spectrum of our possibilities to gain experience is necessarily limited, on the other hand, everyday communication, in order to function at all, will always depend on reducing complexity and using "simple" images for orientation purposes.

Successful integration, or better: networking, only works on the basis of the recognition of heterogeneity. Striving for homogeneity - from whatever side - provokes dangers of identity surrender.


The spectrum within which the term "multiculturalism" is used in public is broad and essentially characterised by the degree of interculturation that takes place or is permitted between the individual lifeworlds. The greater the density of interaction, the more pronounced the interculturality of the respective "multiculturalism".

Integration should not be carried out by the receiving culture, but is conceivable as a mutual process of negotiating margins of acceptance, in which coexistence is created in this way. The negotiation itself is a synergetic process, which should accordingly be moderated rather than controlled.

Mutual respect for the autonomy of the partners prevents demands for homogeneity and consensus, which ultimately cannot be met by any of the participants. The goal should be to realise a "unity in the face of diversity" in the sense of accepting a pluralistic, permanently evolving world of values.

How to Develop Intercultural Competence

How to Develop Intercultural Competence

Introduction to Intercultural Competence Development

Intercultural competence does not represent an independent area of competence, but is best understood in the sense of Latin competere: "to bring together" as the ability to relate individual, social, professional and strategic partial competences in their best possible combination to intercultural contexts of action. Accordingly, intercultural competence is not a key qualification, but a cross-sectional task whose success requires the interplay of various key qualifications.

Holistic-integrative teaching of competence is supported by conscious didactic development of intercultural teaching materials. In the rarest cases, correspondingly elaborated learning units are available. "Quarry" materials such as role plays, critical incidents or case studies lead to an unbalanced and often interconnected distribution of learning content.

Intercultural competence is realised very differently depending on the primary socialisation contexts of the participants. Consequently, it is not a universal but a decidedly culture-specific competence.

Systematic development of intercultural competence usually takes place either "off the job" as instruction or training or "on the job" in the form of coaching and mediation measures.

The video gives some detail on the reasons, objectives and processes related to mediation in an intercultural business context.

How to Develop Intercultural Competence

Recommendations for an Intercultural Competence Approach

The following recommendations for an intercultural competence approach are based on the recommendations proposed in "Intercultural Competence" by Jürgen Bolten (2012):

1. Understanding cultures

In order to be able to understand one's own and foreign cultures adequately, as many forms of expression of these cultures as possible must be taken into account in an equal manner. In this context, it is inadmissible to differentiate between cultural products of higher or lower value, as e.g. canon formations committed to one's own concept of culture try to suggest. This is also true for cultural comparisons. There are no more or less "advanced" or "more developed" cultures, since it is always a matter of very specific complex systems, which elude such comparisons precisely because the common basis for comparison is missing. On the other hand, the urged equal validity of cultures must not be confused with indifference. The value neutrality sought with the lifeworld concept of culture by no means excludes, for example, a critique of the violation of human rights.

2. Avoid categorisations of cultures

Even if it seems advisable from a pragmatic point of view to speak of, for example, a "French" or an "English" culture for better orientation, one should be aware that such labels always contain generalisations and inaccuracies. The French or the English do not exist. There are, at best, millions of French and English individuals, each of whom has a common language, and in some cases similar socialisation and educational backgrounds, but who may well be completely "atypical" as individuals and thus may ultimately cause cultures to change in terms of accepted values and behaviours. In this respect, caution is advised with guide books that categorise cultures (e.g. into "authoritarian", "polychronic", "male", "context-oriented"). Even if one does not want to, stereotyping is encouraged in this way.

3. Consider historical contexts of cultures

Just as important as the description of cultures is the explanation of their historically developed system interrelationships. Travel reports, travel guides or cultural information are mostly dedicated to the description level only. If one restricts oneself to such a description, this can easily have the consequence that one does not understand certain facts as results of an independent foreign cultural development due to ignorance of the background, but that one interprets them from the perspective of own cultural norms. Thus it happens that, for example, certain actions are booked under "corruption" from the German point of view, which seem perfectly natural and morally correct from the perspective of other culture members. To prevent such misinterpretations and misunderstandings, cultural knowledge should always be historically underpinned. It is important here to understand developmental contexts. This excludes any factual-historical approach ("time tables") and even more so monocausal attempts at explanation.

4. Develop social skills in intercultural trainings

As tempting as it may be to follow rules of conduct for dealing with members of foreign cultures: Lists of "dos and taboos," a "cultural etiquette manual," or the like are usually of little use, because in intercultural contact no one behaves as they would in their own culture (and for whom such rules of conduct may still apply in a very generalised form). Behaviour in intercultural situations, on the other hand, is essentially determined by foreign images, by previous intercultural experiences, by the degree of familiarity of the interacting persons, or even by the language chosen. In order to be able to act successfully in such situations, behavioural competencies such as empathy, role distance, tolerance, flexibility or the ability to "endure" contradictions are required. These skills are taught as part of intercultural awareness training.

5. Discover and understand foreignness

Intercultural competence is also related to the diversity of one's own experiences of foreignness. Those who are not only open-minded towards the unknown, but also show a willingness to actively discover and understand what is foreign, will be able to react much more flexibly and appropriately in intercultural situations.

Ignoring the foreign or shying away from the unknown is often done out of convenience or fear of insecurity. Such behaviour benefits neither the foreign nor "one's own" because parallel worlds are created in which it is difficult for innovative developments to take place due to a lack of new "input". Even if the persistence in the face of the unknown, if the desire to understand the implausible can lead to the breaking of one's own everyday routines and perhaps even cause feelings of fear, the confrontation with the unfamiliar is fundamentally enriching because it enables new experiences that can expand one's own horizons - in whatever way.

6. Promote self-understanding and self-reflection

We cannot discover and understand the foreign if we do not reflect on our own - especially the relationship between our own and the foreign. For this reason, activities on intercultural competence development should always include the promotion of self-understanding and the knowledge of the connections between one's own and the foreign culture.

7. Make the unknown familiar

Prejudices and stereotypes are not per se a failure condition for intercultural communication. However, we should be aware of the consequences of using stereotypes and prejudices and force ourselves to take as differentiated a view as possible. In this context, it is important to understand the contexts in which, for example, stereotypes are formed in other cultures as foreign stereotypes in relation to one's own culture. This has a lot to do with wanting to understand the other at least up to certain extent. This understanding does not necessarily mean accepting the other's ways of thinking and behaving. First of all, it is the otherness as such that is to be accepted, whereby this also never presents itself as the absolute other, but always only as the more or less other, unknown. Accordingly, intercultural competence also consists of the ability to make the unknown more familiar, to include it in one's own reciprocity network without appropriating it.

Accommodation processes should be moderated as processes of conscious and guided dialogue between source and receiving cultures. This is the task of intercultural coaches (and, if necessary, mediators).

8. Promote collaboration in multicultural scenarios

Multicultural scenarios should be structured in such a way that - while preserving monocultural refuges - as many incentives for joint action as possible are created. These incentives should be formulated as vaguely as possible and as concretely as necessary - but, if possible, largely developed by the participants themselves. What is possible and what is necessary will vary greatly from case to case. For example, a multicultural kindergarten naturally operates under different conditions than a multicultural youth club or than a company.

9. Increase awareness of positive and negative effects of integration processes

Even if we understand integration as a two-way process, there are factors that can have a negative impact in addition to those that promote it. These include a long phase of enculturation in the original culture, a lack of diversity of experience, either/or thinking, ethnic isolation (residential areas, group formation) and pressure to adapt on the part of the new environment. Positive factors include curiosity about the unfamiliar, willingness to learn, recognition of the added value of unfamiliar experiences, willingness to negotiate in terms of scope for acceptance, both/and thinking, ability to think in networks and very good knowledge of the "intercultural language".