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A theoretical construct for cross-cultural competence, language proficiency, and regional expertise.

(Inter)cultural competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other cultures:[1]

  • Appropriately. Valued rules, norms, and expectations of the relationship are not violated significantly.
  • Effectively. Valued goals or rewards (relative to costs and alternatives) are accomplished.

In interactions with people from foreign cultures, a person who is interculturally competent understands the culture-specific concepts of perception, thinking, feeling, and acting.

Intercultural competence is sometimes also called "cross-cultural competence" (3C) although there is a tendency to use the former for the intercultural contact and the latter for comparison between cultures.



Cultures can be different not only between continents or nations but also within the same company and even within the same family. The differences may be ethical, ethnic, geographical, historical, moral, political, or religious.

The basic requirements for intercultural competence are empathy, an understanding of other people's behaviors and ways of thinking, and the ability to express one's own way of thinking. It is a balance, situatively adapted, among four parts:

  • Knowledge (about other cultures and other people's behaviors)
  • Empathy (understanding the feelings and needs of other people)
  • Self-knowledge (recognizing one's own desires, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional stability)
  • Cultural identity (knowledge of one's own culture)


  • A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together as a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.
  • Cultural competence requires that organizations have a defined set of ethics and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally.
  • Cultural competence is a developmental process that evolves over an extended period. Both individuals and organizations are at various levels of awareness, knowledge and skills along the cultural competence continuum.

Cultural incompetence in the business community can damage an individual's self-esteem and career, but the unobservable psychological impact on the victims can go largely unnoticed until the threat of a class action suit brings them to light.

Notice that some definitions emphasize the knowledge and skills needed to interact with people of different cultures, while others focus on attitudes. A few definitions attribute cultural competence or a lack thereof to policies and organizations. It's easy to see how working with terms that vary in definition can be tricky.


In an attempt to offer solutions for developing cultural competence, Diversity Training University International (DTUI) isolated four cognitive components: (a) Awareness, (b) Attitude, (c) Knowledge, and (d) Skills.

  • Awareness. Awareness is consciousness of one's personal reactions to people who are different. A police officer who recognizes that he profiles people who look like they are from Mexico as "illegal aliens" has cultural awareness of his reactions to this group of people.
  • Attitude. Paul Pedersen's multicultural competence model emphasized three components: awareness, knowledge and skills. DTUI added the attitude component in order to emphasize the difference between training that increases awareness of cultural bias and beliefs in general and training that has participants carefully examine their own beliefs and values about cultural differences.
  • Knowledge. Social science research indicates that our values and beliefs about equality may be inconsistent with our behaviors, and we ironically may be unaware of it. Social psychologist Patricia Devine and her colleagues, for example, showed in their research that many people who score low on a prejudice test tend to do things in cross cultural encounters that exemplify prejudice (e.g., using out-dated labels such as "negroes" or "colored".). This makes the Knowledge component an important part of cultural competence development.

Regardless of whether our attitude towards cultural differences matches our behaviors, we can all benefit by improving our cross-cultural effectiveness. One common goal of diversity professionals, such as Dr. Hicks from URI, is to create inclusive systems that allow members to work at maximum productivity levels.

  • Skills. The Skills component focuses on practicing cultural competence to perfection. Communication is the fundamental tool by which people interact in organizations. This includes gestures and other non-verbal communication that tend to vary from culture to culture.

Notice that the set of four components of our cultural competence definition—awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills— represents the key features of each of the popular definitions. The utility of the definition goes beyond the simple integration of previous definitions, however. It is the diagnostic and intervention development benefits that make the approach most appealing.

Cultural competence is becoming increasingly necessary for work, home, community social lives.

History in American ethnic studiesEdit

The United States in its earliest history had a culture influenced heavily by its Northern European population, primarily from the British Isles, who originally settled in the original British Colonies. While the indigenous peoples, known as Indians, were the largest population of North America, they were slowly pushed away from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of North America during the 17th century, 18th century, and 19th century (see Indian Removal Act describing specific actions during early 19th century). During this period, people from the British Isles (England and Scotland primarily) brought the culture and religion of the British Isles with them to the United States and became the dominant political and cultural group along the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

Both voluntary immigration from other regions as well as the results of the Atlantic slave trade, brought a mix of people to the Americas, including Europeans, Africans, and, to a lesser extent until the 20th century, Asians. Thus began the process of diversifying the population of the Western Hemisphere. While the majority of the U.S. population were white immigrants from northern and western Europe and their descendants, they maintained most of the power, social and economic, of the nation.

In the U.S. context, immigration from the 1840s onward diversified the ethnic composition of the nation. During the early part of the 20th century, southern and eastern European immigrants and their descendants became a larger percentage of the population, but as recent immigrants concentrated in urban areas were also very often poor and lacking in basic healthy living and working conditions. Descendants of African slaves and immigrants faced a much more difficult challenge due to their skin color and discrimination enforced by legal systems, such as the Jim Crow laws in the United States. Since the 1960s, African Americans as well as other minority groups such as Mexican Americans have gained greater social and economic status and power.

Nonetheless, the dominant models of education and social services retained models developed by northern and western European intellectuals, even such well-meaning and important reformers as Jane Addams and Jacob Riis. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, though, social workers, activists, and even healthcare providers began to examine their practices to see if they were as effective in African American, Latino, and even Asian American communities in the U.S. The arrival of more than half a million Southeast Asian refugees, from 1975 to 1992, for example, tested the ability of medical and social workers to continue effective practice among speakers of other languages and among those coming from very different understandings of everything from mental health to charity.

Education in the United StatesEdit

With the larger population of minorities and racial integration during the 1960s and 1970s, the public school system of the United States had to grapple with issues of cultural sensitivity as most teachers in public school system came from white, middle class backgrounds. Most of these teachers were educated, primarily English speaking, and primarily from the Western European cultures. They often had trouble trying to communicate with speakers of limited English proficiency, let alone people of vastly different value systems and normative behaviors from that of Anglo-European culture. The purpose of training educators and others in the area of cultural competence is to provide new teachers the background and skills to work effectively with children of all backgrounds and social classes.

With the growing diversity of the student body in U.S. public school, it is increasingly imperative that teachers have and continually develop a cultural competence that enables them to connect with, respond to, and interact effectively with their pupils. The achievement gap between cultural minority and majority students suggests a communication disconnect often occurs in minority classrooms because cultural mismatch between teachers and students is common and should not prevent positive, productive for both parties, provided the educator is a culturally competent communicator. Over the last few decades, scholars have increasingly shown interest in the relationship between learning, reading, schema, and culture. People's schema depends on their social location, which, as Anderson (1984) explains, includes a reader's age, sex, race, religion, nationality, and occupation, amongst other factors. Considering schemata determine how people understand, interpret, and analyze everything in their world, it is clear that background and experience really do affect the learning and teaching processes, and how each should be approached in context. "In short," Anderson (1984) says, "the schema that will be brought to bear on a text depends upon the reader's culture" (p. 374-375). More simply, Anderson (1984) describes a person's schema as their "organized knowledge about the world" (p. 372). In considering the role of schema, one of the educator's principal functions in teaching, particularly with literacy, is to "‘bridge the gap between what the learner already knows and what he needs to know before he can successfully learn the task at hand'" (Anderson, 1984, p. 382). This is important because Staton (1989) explains that student learning—i.e. successful communication between instructor and pupil—occurs when teachers and students come to "shared understandings" (p. 364). Thus, teachers must remember that they are "cultural workers, not neutral professionals using skills on a culturally-detached playing field" (Blanchett, Mumford & Beachum, 2005, p. 306).

Teachers and administrators in the public school systems of the United States come in contact with a wide variety of sub-cultures and are at the forefront of the challenge of bringing diverse groups together within a larger American society. Issues confronting teachers and administrators on a daily basis include student learning disabilities, student behavioral problems, child abuse, drug addiction, mental health, and poverty, most of which are handled differently within different cultures and communities.[2]

Examples of cultural conflicts often seen by teachers in the public school system include:

  • role of women in the family and the decisions they can make
  • practices among cultural groups (e.g. fire cupping)
  • symbol systems among cultural groups (see semiotics)

Examples of sub-groups within the United States: African American, Asian American, Indian American, Irish American, Jewish American, Mexican American, Native Americans or American Indians and refugees.


The provision of culturally tailored health care can reduce disparities among patient populations and reduce problems associated with linguistic barriers. In 2005, California passed Assembly Bill 1195 that requires patient-related continuing medical education courses to incorporate cultural and linguistic competence training in order to qualify for certification credits.[3] 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.[4][5]

Hispanic versus Latin AmericanEdit

The term "Hispanic" is problematic[according to whom?]. It is impossible to refer to "a Hispanic-American perspective" or to "a single Latino culture".(1)(2) The label "Hispanic" is controversial because it was coined by the Federal Government to describe a heterogeneous ethnic population whose ancestors come from a Spanish-speaking country. Although these American citizens have Latin American roots, the term "Latino" to characterize them is more correct since it is more inclusive of non-Spanish-speaking Latinos. However, the term "Latino" does not include individuals from Spanish-speaking countries outside of Latin America (e.g., Spain).

There is also a lack of adequate research into how race and ethnicity affects members of a group.(3)(4)(5) There are few life histories and phenomenological studies of illness as experienced by people outside the American white, urban, middle class, especially of immigrant and native populations. Race has been used to explain the absence of research. Racial classifications are based on outmoded concepts and dubious assumptions regarding genetic differences. In fact, outside of skin color, race is poorly correlated with biological or cultural phenomena, which sharply diminishes its validity in biomedical or social research. Yet, unlike race or national origin, ethnicity is a sociological construct highly correlated with behavioral and cultural phenomena, particularly language, dress, adornment, food preference, religion, social interaction, marriage and family customs.

Further research is needed to determine whether race and ethnicity among Latinos are rather driven by mechanisms of discrimination and macrosocial factors or social status. Fortunately, not too long ago, the National Institutes of Health took an important step by insisting that any NIH- supported clinical investigation include, where appropriate, minority populations, women and the aged.(6) However, we must guard against what has been called a new "tokenism", that is, having a large aggregate of "non-whites", and a few African Americans and Hispanics included. This aggregate will never produce a proper sample. Rigorous attention to sample size, composition and sampling strategies is required to research basic psychosocial processes and clinical responses of minority populations. Accordingly, the heterogeneity of the Hispanic community has to be taken into account. The Hispanic's country of origin, cultural history, migration history, language, family, traditions, religion, educational level, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age and generation—all need to be explored.

Cross-cultural competenceEdit

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.[6] 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".[7]

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.[6]

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[8][9] 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.

Immigrants and international studentsEdit

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" (Bondy).[10] Such individuals may be said to have adopted bicultural identities.


Another issue that stands out in intercultural communication is the attitude stemming from Ethnocentrism. LeVine and Campbell (as cited in Lin and Rancer, 2003)[11] 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. 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.

Cultural differencesEdit

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:

  • Collectivism
    • Interdependence of every human;
    • Reverse of individualism;
    • High priority on group than individual;
    • Collectivist cultures include Pakistan, India and Japan.
  • Individualism[12]
    • moral worth of individual;
    • promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance;
    • advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group;
    • Liberalism, existentialism and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual
  • Masculine
    • characteristics or roles appropriate to, a man;
    • Opposite can be expressed by terms such as "unmanly'" or epicene.
    • Masculinity pertains to societies in which social gender roles are clearly distinct
  • Feminine[12]
    • set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with girls and women;
    • made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors;
    • Traits traditionally cited as feminine include gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity.
    • Femininity pertains to societies in which social gender roles overlap.
  • Uncertainty avoidance[12]
    • reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty;
    • uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which a person in society feels uncomfortable with a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity;
    • Countries exhibiting strong Uncertainty avoidance Index or UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
    • People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures accept and feel comfortable in unstructured situations or changeable environments and try to have as few rules as possible;
    • People in these cultures tend to be more pragmatic, they are more tolerant of change.
  • Power distance[12]
    • people in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures;
    • high power distance culture the relationship between bosses and subordinates is one of dependence;
    • low power distance society the relationship between bosses and subordinates is one of interdependence;
    • People in high distance countries tend to believe that power and authority are facts of life
  • Chronemics:
  • Monochrone
    • time-fixed, "one after the other”
    • Doing one thing at a time
    • Involved with doing the job
    • Time commitments taken seriously
    • Follows plan
    • Deals with short-term relations
    • Narrow focus
    • Lower risk tolerance
    • Self-reliant ethic
    • Sequential tasks
    • Positional power
  • Polychrone[12]
    • Many things at the same time, "multitasking". Also called "long-term orientation".
    • Involved with family, friends, customers
    • Commitments in time mean little
    • Changes plan
    • Builds lifetime relationships
    • Big picture
    • Higher risk tolerance
    • Networking focus
    • Simultaneous engineering
    • Charismatic leadership
    • Intuitive
    • Error-tolerant system
  • Structural characteristics:


The assessment of cross-cultural competence is another field that is rife with controversy. One survey identified 86 assessment instruments for 3C.[13] 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.[7]

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.

Quantitative assessment instrumentsEdit

Three examples of quantitative assessment instruments are:[7]

Qualitative assessment instrumentsEdit

Research in the area of 3C assessment, while thin, points to the value of qualitative assessment instruments in concert with quantitative ones.[16][17][18] Qualitative instruments, such as scenario-based assessments, are useful for gaining insight into intercultural competence.[19][20][21][22]

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.[23][24]


It is important that cross-cultural competence training and skills does not break down into the application of stereotypes. 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.[25]

Madison (2006)[26] has criticized the tendency of 3C training for its tendency to simplify migration and cross-cultural processes into stages and phases. Madison's article offers an outline of the original research.

See also a recent article by Witte summarizing objections to cultural theories used in business and social life.[27]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Messner, W., & Schäfer, N. (2012) The ICCA Facilitator's Manual. Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal. London: GloBus Research, p. 41 (also see:; Spitzberg, B. H. (2000). A Model of Intercultural Communication Competence. In L. A. Samovar, & R. E. Porter, Intercultural Communication - A Reader (pp. 375-87). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  2. ^ "THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURAL COMPETENCE IN HEALTHCARE". Cultural Candor Inc. Retrieved 25 November 2015. 
  3. ^ "State Legislation Requires Inclusion of Cultural and Linguistic Competence in Continuing Medical Education, Increasing Acceptance of Their Importance by Educational Programs and Clinicians". Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. 2013-09-25. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  4. ^ "Clinics Offer Culturally Tailored Diabetes Education and Culturally Appropriate Care to Ethiopian Patients, Leading to More Engagement, Better Outcomes, and Reduction of Health Disparities". Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. 2014-01-29. Retrieved 2014-01-29. 
  5. ^ Josepha Campinha-Bacote (2002). "The Process of Cultural Competence in the Delivery of Healthcare Services: A Model of Care". Journal of Transcultural Nursing. 
  6. ^ a b Selmeski, B.R. (2007). Military cross-cultural competence: Core concepts and individual development. Kingston: Royal Military College of Canada Centre for Security, Armed Forces, & Society.
  7. ^ a b c Abbe, A., Gulick, L.M.V., & Herman, J.L. (2007). Cross-cultural competence in Army leaders: A conceptual and empirical foundation. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Research Institute.
  8. ^ Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
  9. ^ Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S., & Masia, B.B. (1973). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: McKay Co., Inc.
  10. ^ Bondy, Jennifer; Peguero, Anthony; Johnson, Brent. "The Children of Immigrants’ Academic Self-Efficacy: The Significance of Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Segmented Assimilation". Sage Journals. Sage publications. Retrieved 17 July 2017. 
  11. ^ Lin, Y. & Rancer, A.S. (2003). "Ethnocentrism, intercultural communication apprehension, intercultural willingness‐to‐communicate, and intentions to participate in an intercultural dialogue program: testing a proposed model". Communication Research Reports. 20 (1): 62–72. 
  12. ^ a b c d e "Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions". 
  13. ^ Fantini, A.E. (2006). 87 Assessment tools of intercultural competence [Electronic version]. Brattleboro, VT: School for International Training. Retrieved June 20, 2007, from
  14. ^ "Cultural Intelligence Portal". Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  15. ^ Halim, Haslina; Bakar, Hassan Abu; Mohamad, Bahtiar (2014-11-06). "Expatriate Adjustment: Validating Multicultural Personality Trait among Self-initiated Academic Expatriates". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. The International Conference on Communication and Media 2014 (i-COME’14) - Communication, Empowerment and Governance: The 21st Century Enigma. 155: 123–129. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.10.267. 
  16. ^ Kitsantas, A. (2004). Studying abroad: the role of college students' goals on the development of cross-cultural skills and global understanding. College Student Journal, 38(3). Retrieved July 9, 2007, from ERIC database.
  17. ^ Lessard-Clouston, M. (1997). "Towards an understanding of culture in L2/FL education". Ronko: K.G. studies in English. 25: 131–150. 
  18. ^ Lievens, F.; Harris, M.; Van Keer, E.; Bisqueret, C. (2003). "Predicting cross-cultural training performance: The validity of personality, cognitive ability, and dimensions measured by an assessment center and a behavior description interview". Journal of Applied Psychology. 88 (3): 476–489. PMID 12814296. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.3.476. 
  19. ^ Davis, B. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  20. ^ Doll, W. (1993). A post-modern perspective on curriculum. New York: Teacher's College Press.
  21. ^ English, F. & Larson, R. (1996). Curriculum management for educational and social service organizations. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.
  22. ^ Palomba, A. & Banta, T. (1999). Assessment essentials. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  23. ^ Messner, W. & Schäfer, N. (2012). The ICCA™ Facilitator's Manual London: Createspace.
  24. ^ "What is The ICCA?". Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal. GloBus Research Ltd. Retrieved 25 June 2012. 
  25. ^ Rathje, S. (2007). Intercultural Competence: The Status and Future of a Controversial Concept. Journal for Language and Intercultural Communication, 7(4), 254–266
  26. ^ Madison, Greg (2006). "Existential Migration". Existential Analysis. 17 (2): 238–60. 
  27. ^ Witte, A. "Making the Case for a Post-National Cultural Analysis of Organizations," Journal of Management Inquiry (2012) 21:141. Originally published online 13 September 2011.