Cultural competence, also known as intercultural competence, is a range of cognitive, affective, behavioural, and linguistic skills[1][2] that lead to effective and appropriate communication with people of other cultures.[3][4][5] Intercultural or cross-cultural education are terms used for the training to achieve cultural competence.

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.[5][6]


Individuals who 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.[7][4] 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 interactions requires self-monitoring to censor anything not acceptable to another culture. Cultural sensitivity or cultural awareness leads the individual to an understanding of how their own culture determines feelings, thoughts, and personality.[5][1]

Affective processes define the emotions that span during intercultural interactions. These emotions are strongly related to self-concept, open-mindedness, non-judgmentalism, and social relaxation. In general, positive emotions generate respect for other cultures and their differences.[1] 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.[5][1]

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:[4]

  1. 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?"[4]
  2. 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.[4][8]
  3. 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 beliefs while high-tolerance individuals look for information that gives an understanding of the situation and others.[4]
  4. 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.[4][9]
  5. 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.[4][10][11]


The assessment of cross-cultural competence is a field that is rife with controversy. One survey identified 86 assessment instruments for 3C.[12] 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.[13]

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. According to Caligiuri, personality traits such as extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness have a favorable predictive value to the adequate termination of cross-cultural assignments.[14]

Quantitative assessment instruments

Three examples of quantitative assessment instruments are:[13]

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.[18][19][20] Qualitative instruments, such as scenario-based assessments, are useful for gaining insight into intercultural competence.[21][22][23][24]

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.[25][26]


Main article: Cultural competence in healthcare

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.[27] 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.[28][29]

Cross-cultural competence

Main article: 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.[30] 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".[13]

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.[30]

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[31][32] 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.

Intercultural competence models

Intercultural Communicative Language Teaching Model. In response to the needs to develop EFL learners' ICC in the context of Asia, a theoretical framework, which is an instructional design (ISD) model ADDIE with five stages (Analyze – Design – Develop – Implement – Evaluate) is employed as a guideline in order to construct the ICLT model for EFL learners. The ICLT model is an on-going process of ICC acquisition. There are three parts: Language-Culture, the main training process. (Input – Notice – Practice – Output), and the ICC, which are systematically integrated. The second part is the main part consisting of four teaching steps to facilitate learners' ICC development, and each step reflects a step of the knowledge scaffolding and constructing process to facilitate learners' ICC development.[33]

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".[34] Such individuals may be said to have adopted bicultural identities.


See also: Ethnocentrism

Another issue that stands out in intercultural communication is the attitude stemming from ethnocentrism. LeVine and Campbell 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.[35] 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 differences

See also: Geert Hofstede

According to Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory, 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:

Individualism versus collectivism

Masculinity versus femininity

Uncertainty avoidance


Power distance


Short-term versus long-term orientation

Further information: Chronemics


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.[38]

Madison (2006)[39] has criticized the tendency of 3C training for its tendency to simplify migration and cross-cultural processes into stages and phases.

See also


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