Intercultural Competences

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This article concerns all degree students regardless of whether they are studying in the new degree programmes or according to the old degree structuresIt also concerns both incoming and outgoing students looking for resources to grow while studying in an international environment. 

Note that you can develop intercultural competences both at your home institution as well as overseas. It's just a matter of keeping an open mind. 

Why Studying Internationally?

Study Abroad_Instagram Post_Australia

Benefits of studying internationally

Here's a former exchange student's experience:

In addition to the stunning nature and beautiful weather, this year’s wildfires were less extensive there than in the East.

I didn’t experience severe culture shock and quickly got used to using English. Small talk confused me at first, but when I could anticipate the situation and how it’d go, it started to go relatively smoothly. By the way, the first impression reminded me of the United States (which I have never visited) - the infrastructure is designed for cars, the distances are long, the consumer culture is stronger than in Finland and the food packaging sizes are large.

Even though I knew when I came to Australia, it was summer here, the intensity of the sun surprised me, plus my skin is used to winter. This is because the ozone layer in the atmosphere here is thinner than in Europe and therefore the skin burns faster. Despite the warm weather, cool winds, especially on the beaches, can be confusing.

What are intercultural competences?

Intercultural competence is often described as specific skills, knowledge and attitudes, such as open-mindedness or language proficiency. However, it is important to note that intercultural competence is more than a fixed set of skills that one could simply acquire and master. Intercultural learning is an ongoing, lifelong process that takes places in interaction between individuals. Similarly, "culture can be viewed as a process that is constructed through communication." Therefore, it is important to take into account the "larger global, economic, political and social contexts in which intercultural interaction is taking place."

Dimensions of intercultural competence regarding international mobility

  • Knowledge

    • Knowledge on one’s own culture in the global context
    • Knowledge about the host/visiting country’s culture
    • Understanding global issues, processes, trends, and systems
  • Skills

    • Ability to acquire, analyze and evaluate information, use cultural references to think critically and solve practical learning problems
    • Skills to listen, observe and relate, as well as communicate and connect with people from other cultural backgrounds
    • Capacity to use acquired knowledge to extend one’s access to learn the unknown
  • Attitudes

    • Openness to intercultural opportunities
    • Tolerance to cultural differences and ambiguity

 

Source: Erasmus Skills Project

A dip into intercultural communication theory

ABC-MODEL: (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2011) Intercultural competence is something that someone has. Theory builds on three different dimensions of skills:

  1. Affective: respect, open-mindedness, nonjudgmentalness, empathy, curiosity, and attitudes
  2. Behavioral: both macro (e.g., adaptability, flexibility, social skills, and decoding skills) as well as micro (e.g., eye gaze, head nods, self-disclosure, and message skills) = communicating skills
  3. Cognitive: self-knowledge and cultural knowledge, language proficiency, mindfulness, and ability to create new categories

Constructionist approach (Byram, 2000; Angouri, 2010) sees intercultural competence as an ability to interact effectively with people from cultures that we recognize as being different from our own.  Culture builds in interaction between people, in discourses. Culture is constructed through communication so it is a reflexive and ongoing process. Intercultural competence is something that can be developed endlessly.

Dialectical approach (Martin&Nakayama, 2015) sees intercultural competence as something that exists in intercultural communication process. The dialectical approach also pushes people to think about the larger global, economic, political, and social contexts in which their intercultural interaction is taking place).

Hofstede's Cultural Compass
Individualism  Collectivism 
Power Distance  Power Distance
Masculinity  Femininity
Uncertainty Avoidance Uncertainty Avoidance
Long-Term Orientation Short-Term Orientation
Indulgence  Restrain

Learn more about each category of the Hofstede’s Cultural Compass 

 

Sources:

Jo Angouri (2010) ‘If we know about culture it will be easier to work with one another’: developing skills for handling corporate meetings with multinational participation, Language and Intercultural Communication, 10:3, 206-224, DOI: 10.1080/14708470903348549

Judith N. Martin & Thomas K. Nakayama (2015) Reconsidering intercultural (communication) competence in the workplace: a dialectical approach, Language and Intercultural Communication, 15:1, 13-28, DOI: 10.1080/14708477.2014.985303

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2011). Interpersonal skills. The Sage handbook of interpersonal communication4, 481527.

How do employers view international competence and experience?

The Hidden Competences research project identified the following skill areas that develop through international experience and that employers value in recruitment:

  • Traditionally identified competences: language skills, cultural knowledge, tolerance, communication skills
  • Productivity: efficiency, analytical ability, problem-solving ability, reliability, creativity
  • Resilience: adaptability, confidence, persistence, self-knowledge
  • Curiosity: interest towards new issues, intercultural knowledge, co-operation, networking ability

An essential asset to have is not only to know about each of these but to be able to verbalize such competences through examples drawn from personal, work experiences. Try it out! How would you verbalize that you have these hidden competences? 

A guide to help you reflect while growing

Before your internationalization occurs

Reflective tasks

In order to make the most out of your internationalization, take some time to write your thoughts down before your departure. They will prove valuable when you look back at your experience and reflect on what you have learned and achieved.

  • Motivation: What motivates you to study internationally?
  • Expectations: What do you expect to experience and learn? What would you like to learn? How could you learn it?
  • Emotions and Thoughts: What do you look forward to? Is there something you are afraid of or worry about? Any questions on your mind?

Intercultural competences

Take a look at the different dimensions of intercultural competence and hidden competences. How do you feel about your competences today? In what kind of situations have you already used your competences? What knowledge, skills or attitudes do you identify as your strengths? What would you like to learn and develop further? What skills and knowledge do you think will be the most useful during your time abroad?

Reflection on identity/culture?

Find a self-assessment guide in Erasmus Skills Project. You may have to create an account to access such a questionnaire.

During your internationalization

While you are busy with studying in a foreign language, discovering your new hometown and spending time with your new friends, it may feel hard to keep a daily diary. However, it is worthwhile to take a few moments every now and then to record your thoughts during your internationalization. Writing things down will help you remember all the new experiences and ideas but it is also a good way to help process your thoughts if you’re feeling overwhelmed by any aspects of living in a new environment.

  • Reflect on what you have already learned.

    • What have you learned about yourself, others, your field of study?
    • Have you been surprised by something? Have your ways of thinking been challenged?
    • What would you like to learn more about? How could you learn it? It is never too late to set a learning goal!
  • What kind of challenges have you faced? What have you done or what could you do to overcome the challenge? What was the result? (these challenges may include culture shock adaptation and communication)
  • Describe a meaningful encounter and its context. Who were involved? What did you and other people involved do? What was the outcome? How did you feel? What did you learn from the encounter?

Ways to immortalize moments during your internationalization:

  • Write at least once a month in your personal journal. This doesn't have to be for public usage, just write what you have in your mind and heart at that moment. You will eventually come back to this text and use it to gain perspective on how you solved issues.
  • Instagram posts. Instagram is also a great way to keep a visual library with thoughts of how you feel. Let that be your own album to access memories and reflect in the processes of your learning. It can be as easy as “the first time I had lunch with my boss” or “the first presentation I gave about Finland.” 
  • Create a playlist. While this may seem ordinary, music can transport you to very precise memories. You can use to understand yourself better.
  • Make small videos of yourself for yourself. If you're not into posting on social media platforms, you can always rely on the privacy of your phone gallery to record videos speaking to your present and future selves about your plans, feelings, what has gone well or wrong, how you have developed, and many more things.
  • Make a "My Seconds" Project: The idea of this is to record at least one moment in your daily life that you'd like to remember. Anything can work: a cup of coffee, a brown leaf, an essay or book... Once you've returned, you put them together to create a short-clip of snippets of your experience. 
  • Breathe and think. Once you have found the place you like the most in your new campus, you can go there to breathe and think every now and then.
  • Be present. Remember to seize the day; that is, remember to be there when talking to others. That’s a present your future self will appreciate, and it will help you build genuine relationships with others.

After your internationalization

Reflection on learning

Take a look at the notes you wrote before and during your exchange. How were your expectations and learning objectives met? Did something turn out different from what you expected?

Questions to help you reflect on what and how you learned during your stay abroad.

  • Any specific knowledge, skills or attitudes?
  • What have you learned about yourself, others, your host country or culture, your home country or culture, your field of study?
  • Were surprised by something? Have your ways of thinking been challenged?
  • What kind of challenges or setbacks did you face? What did you do to overcome the challenge? What skills and knowledge did you apply in overcoming the obstacle? What was the result? How could you use similar competence in a professional context?
  • Describe other meaningful encounters. Who was involved? What made the encounter intercultural? What did you and other people involved do? What was the outcome? How did you feel? What did you learn from the encounter?

Find a self-assessment guide in Erasmus Skills Project. You may have to create an account to access such a questionnaire.

Beyond Studying Internationally

How to utilize the international experience you gained?

Studies

Employment

  • According to the Hidden Competences research project (2014), employers value competences developed through international experiences but they are not able to connect job seekers’ international experience to said competences. Therefore, it is important to learn to recognize and express skills and knowledge acquired during your exchange.
  • Take part in the What I learned during my exchange” event organized by Career Services to learn more about how to utilize the experience gained abroad in working life and how to sell your experience to recruiters.
  • Additional information on hidden international competences and toolkits for recognizing and describing your international competence (available in Finnish, English and Swedish)
  • Additional information on Cultural Shock