Intercultural Competences for Your Success in Europe

As soon as you start working in an international context – or if you want to prepare yourself and your team for international work – the topic of intercultural competences will come into play. In short, intercultural competence is the ability to work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. It sounds simple, almost as if it’s just one more skill you need acquire. But intercultural competence goes much further. It combines various attitudes, knowledge and social skills that will enable you to go beyond the limits of your own culture and make encounters with other cultures not a perceived threat but an opportunity for personal, team and organisational growth.

Intercultural competence requires:
  • an awareness of your own cultural background, namely your shared values, accepted norms, beliefs and stereotypes, and the impact they have on your interactions with people who are perceived as different;
  • an attitude of cultural relativism when dealing with representatives of other cultures;
  • the ability to factor in knowledge of cultural differences when interacting with people.

Being Aware of Your Own Cultural Background

No human being can access objective reality. We perceive the world through our cognitive filters, which are shaped by the cultural background, values, norms and beliefs that we share with people who stem from the same culture. Our filters are influenced by the age in which we were born (our generation), our family upbringing, significant people who surrounded us while growing up (teachers, friendships), our gender, ethnicity, social group, belonging to a majority or minority group, religion, region (factoring in both geographical differences and the differences between urban and rural areas), the type of education we have had, the groups, organisations and associations we have belonged to, our social experiences (including contact with other cultures or lack thereof), our professional career and our successes or failures in life that have shaped our identity.

Intercultural competence means reflecting on your own background and being aware of how this affects your interactions with people from other cultures.

An Attitude of Cultural Relativism

The cognitive filters mentioned above are like contact lenses that are so light and comfortable you may not realise or forget that you are wearing them – especially if you live in a culturally homogeneous country. People without intercultural awareness often think that ‘their world’ is the right one and that others are wrong. Their values are the right ones and others are wrong. Their culture is better, and others are worse. If we were asked to draw a map of the world, the countries we live in would probably be in the centre. For most people, looking at a world map drawn by inhabitants of other continents will evoke strange feelings. Putting one’s own culture at the centre and the rest of the world on the periphery is the essence of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is an attitude that expresses itself in the conviction that one’s own culture is the point of reference for describing and evaluating the cultures of others. This baggage makes it natural to cultivate unconscious bias and communicate in a disparaging way with representatives of other cultures.

The antithesis of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism. Cultural relativism means recognising and accepting the diversity and distinctiveness of cultures without making any judgements. This attitude will lead to a greater understanding of the ways in which people from other cultures act, think and experience the value, meaning and specific rules of things. Cultural relativism requires an attitude of openness, curiosity, respect and discovery, all of which contribute to the ability to tolerate ambiguity.

The Ability to Factor in Knowledge about Cultural Differences when Interacting with Others

It is important for you to realise that the people you work with are influenced by their cultures. When working with those from different cultural backgrounds, cultural differences should be explored and addressed to avoid misunderstandings. We likely do not identify in every way with the mainstream image of our own culture and should also take this into account when thinking about others. This is why we should get to know our counterparts on a personal level. To avoid falling into stereotypes, intercultural competence requires the following skills, among others: active listening, observing, analysing, empathising with the other person’s perspective and adapting your communication style for the smoothest possible communication.

Useful Links and Further Information

This introductory information can only be your first step towards tackling the topic of intercultural competences with regard to your cross-border work within Europe. We therefore recommend that you read the chapter ‘Intercultural Competences’ from INCLUDE. Inclusive leadership in the digital age. Handbook for leaders and everyone who wants to become one from page 402 onwards.

You can find more helpful articles and tips in this upgrade2europe learning tool, in our learning videos and in our upgrade2europe handbook. In the handbook you will also find an introduction to the topic of personnel development, which also addresses the importance of intercultural skills throughout a process of Europeanisation. You can use our self-assessment tool if you would like to immediately check online to what extent your organisation is well positioned for Europe.