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Intercultural Competence

This blog post was originally posted on Medium under EdTech KISK publication.

Whether you study abroad and seek to socialise, speak at international conferences or ponder how to manage international teams, you might encounter difficulties from the cultural mismatch. Misunderstanding of different cultures might generate all sorts of unhappiness for all involved.

When people from multiple cultures interact together, all these differences play an important role. We need a helper concept to think about these situations and our ability to thrive in them in a useful way. And that’s intercultural competence [1].

The reason why we devote so much attention to culture is that the way we see the world is more or less affected by our cultural background. According to Hofstede et al. [2], our worldview is a mixture of our life situation, personal aspects, the overall context of communication and the culture. We assume that culture is a kind of set of standards among groups or as Hofstede calls it a “software of the mind”. Such cultural wiring contains behaviour and thought patterns behaviour as well as beliefs and values.

In general, intercultural competence is communication and behaviour that is effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions [6].

We might emphasise different notions of desired competencies given different purposes. For example, military personnel interacting with civilians on a mission abroad have different goals and deal with different situations compared to educators teaching an international group of students. [3]

In education, we can see the competencies represented among important competence frameworks. It is mentioned among key competencies for lifelong learning by European Commission, included in OECD’s [4] PISA Global Competence Framework or in a bit earlier OECD’s [5] DeSeCo project that listed intercultural competence as one of the key competencies for interacting in a heterogeneous group. [2, p. 33]

Since competencies are often described in terms of skills, knowledge and attitudes, we might break down intercultural competence into their components by the following explainer formula:

Intercultural Competence = Attitudes + Skills + Intercultural knowledge [7, pp. 218–220], [8].

The right attitudes are foundational for the acquisition of any competence whatsoever. Intercultural communication is no exception. What seems to be crucial is a trait called tolerance of uncertainty that helps us to deal with situations in which we don’t have all the clues needed to understand each other at the moment. It also takes a certain degree of open-mindedness, and desire to learn to appreciate different cultures without being judgemental of them in the first place.

Crosscultural knowledge is central to being able to distinguish cultures and know their differences. It encompasses the historical backgrounds and other subtleties such as prefered communication styles in a given culture. For example, some cultures put more emphasis on the non-verbal part of communication and vice versa [6].

Being able to see the world from the perspectives of others is perhaps the most important skill we could have. It takes patience or in other words great, thoughtful listening and observation ability to understand the other side. It gets all easier if we can better understand the worldview of the other culture.

Although this cannot be clearly distinguished, dealing with intercultural interactions is partly about mastering the language side and partly about mastering the socio-cultural side of communication.

We already mentioned that we must take into account the cultural values and so on that take place in the interactions. These are captured by conceptualisations of the societal culture studied by researchers. There is an especially influential framework among them, sometimes called Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory.

The framework was initially based on an analysis of the business environment and lists dimensions on which cultures differentiate [9]. In its updated version, the framework lists 6 dimensions. Since they can manifest themselves differently based on the situation, I will cover them only briefly for the purpose of motivation:

  • Power distance is “the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. In high power distance societies, the hierarchical order needs no justification and the people don’t strive to equalise the power distribution.
  • Individualism versus collectivism represents “whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we.’” In a collectivist culture, the interest of the collective is superior and there is a preference for “a tightly-knit framework in society”.
  • Masculinity vs feminity. A society with a high degree of masculinity is more competitive and has a stronger preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. With high feminity, there bigger orientation on consensus and the preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance stands to what degree “the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity”. A high degree of uncertainty avoidance indicates following and maintaining more fixed beliefs and behaviour. With a lower degree, more relaxed attitudes prevail.
  • Long-term vs short-term orientation is about dealing with present and future problems. Short-term orientated society prefers to “maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion” whereas long-term oriented society takes a more pragmatic approach.
  • Indulgence vs restraint is the most recently added dimension to the framework. Societies are indulgent if they value the satisfaction of human needs and desires over being restrained, which means suppressing gratification of needs to align with and meet societal norms. [9]–[11]

Note we should understand the framework in the context from which it was derived from. So it poses a opinionated view that is mostly western and business oriented.

What I find personally useful is that we can assess our own position on each dimension and see our bias toward views of other cultures. Hofstede Insights agency runs a web application that allows displaying the dimensions and comparison of countries based on their research, see Compare Countries on their website. An example screenshot of the comparison chart is shown below.

I find intercultural competence useful to reduce all sorts of unnecessary friction generated by cultural differences in communication. Especially, since working, studying or participating in global or local communities that join multiple cultures online and offline has become a de-facto standard. Dealing with these situations requires the right attitudes, skills and knowledge I outlined. When multiple cultures join together in a shared pursuit, an enrichment beyond mere ineffectiveness avoidance takes place. These are matters of lifelong learning and we can learn and gain them informally or with our active contribution.


  1. V. Várhegyi and S. Nann, ‘Identifying Intercultural Competence’, Intercultool project, 2008.
  2. G. H. Hofstede, G. J. Hofstede, and M. Minkov, Cultures and organizations: software of the mind: intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
  3. Joseph Rodman, ‘Cross-Cultural Competence: Introduction and Overview of Key Concepts’. United States. Department of the Army, Apr. 2015. [Online]. Available:
  4. OECD, ‘PISA 2018 Global Competence Framework’. 2018. [Online]. Available:
  5. OECD, ‘The definition and selection of key competencies [Executive Summary]’. 2005. [Online]. Available:
  6. D. K. Deardorff, ‘Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization’, Journal of Studies in International Education, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 241–266, Sep. 2006, doi: 10.1177/1028315306287002.
  7. J. M. Bennett, Ed., The Sage encyclopedia of intercultural competence. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2015.
  8. T. Kaltenborn, ‘Competences = Skills + Knowledge + Attitudes’, Nov. 10, 2014.
  9. R. Kumar and J. S. Chhokar, Cross-Cultural Leadership. Oxford University Press, 2012. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195398793.013.0014.
  10. M. MacClachlan, ‘Indulgence vs. Restraint — the 6th Dimension’, Nov. 01, 2013.
  11. Hofstede Insights, ‘National Culture’, Aug. 26, 2019.