Intercultural Competence Through Studying Abroad

By | July 29, 2021

There are many reasons for studying abroad. In addition to academic motivation, many students naturally also want to acquire important soft skills. These are just as important in later professional life as the technical skills. In our globalized society, intercultural competence is now required in almost every professional field, be it in international companies, in the field of education and teaching, or in science.

But what does intercultural competence actually mean? And how can you acquire this special ability? Studying abroad is the first step in the right direction. In the following you will learn what intercultural and intercultural competence is all about and how you can acquire this important competence while studying abroad.

Intercultural competence: definition

Intercultural competence is the ability to navigate confidently in intercultural situations. Anyone who can understand why the intercultural partner acts as he does, because he knows the deeper values and thought patterns behind them, and at the same time uses this knowledge to positively influence the intercultural situation, has intercultural competence. Intercultural competence does not mean adapting to the other culture without reservation or even “giving up” one’s own culture. On the contrary: the aim is to get the best out of both cultures in order to develop new perspectives and ideas. Both sides should adapt, respect and dignify, and be productive with each otheravoid cultural differences.

Intercultural competence is not a single skill, but consists of various individual competencies and their interplay. These include, for example

  • Social skills: ability to work in a team, empathy, adaptability, ability to metacommunicate
  • Individual skills: willingness to learn, role distance / self-reflection, enduring contradictions and ambiguities, optimism, empathy
  • Strategic skills: problem solving skills, knowledge management, organizational skills, foreign language skills
  • Expertise: work experience, specialist knowledge in the respective area

You wo n’t learn intercultural competence overnight while studying abroad either. Rather, it is a lifelong learning process, because you learn something new in every new intercultural situation.

Intercultures in studying abroad

An “interculture” always arises when two people come into contact with one another who have a more or less different cultural background. So intercultures arise again and again and correspond neither to one nor the other culture. Instead, the interaction creates an intermediate culture that becomes a common field of action. So intercultures are dynamic, they arise through interaction. They are always new and unknown – that can be perceived as something exciting and stimulating as well as a threat and uncertainty.

Anyone who goes abroad to study is, to a certain extent, permanently involved in intercultures, especially when communicating with the people in the host country. But intercultural communication is not synonymous with intercultural competence. Intercultural competence means communicating successfully with people who have a different cultural background. Successful means that communication is satisfactory for both parties and that one even enriches one another. But that’s not as easy as it first appears. Because due to its own cultural character, intercultural communication has a wide variety of pitfalls ready and so it can easily lead to intercultural misunderstandings.

Intercultural misunderstandings

Intercultural misunderstandings arise especially when one is not aware that both one’s own perception and that of the intercultural partner are strongly influenced by culture. The cultural differences are sometimes bigger than one would initially like to admit. In an intercultural communication situation, one tends to assume that there is a common idea of “normality”. It is assumed similarities that are not actually present. Because of this, one often reinterprets the other person’s behavior until it appears plausible to oneself. At some point, however, it becomes obvious that the respective ideas, perceptions and expectations of the situation or of the other are completely opposed to each other. One also speaks here of critical incidents.

In order to avoid intercultural misunderstandings and thus to achieve intercultural competence, it is important to be aware of how strongly the perception, behavior and expectations of oneself and the other person are shaped by one’s own culture. The cultural scientist Geert Hofstede speaks of culture as “mental programming”.

Self-cultural imprinting as mental programming

Much of what you take for granted and quite logical is only because it corresponds to the thinking and values of your culture in which you grew up. In the course of growing up, people learn how to behave in certain situations within their culture. The culture in which a person grows up can be compared to a kind of “mental programming” that controls behavior to a not inconsiderable degree. It’s like software on a computer.

General human nature, that which is common to all human beings, which is genetically determined and not learned, is analogous to the operating system. Above all, this includes our ability to perceive, observe, reflect and communicate emotions, as well as our desire for company. However, the way someone deals with these basic human traits is heavily influenced by the cultural environment.

The own culture provides a familiar framework on which to align his behavior and manner of communication. It gives certain patterns of thought and behavior for certain situations. Everyone follows the logic of their own cultural software as a matter of course, but without always being fully aware of it.

If you want to be interculturally competent, you should be aware of your mental programming. At the same time, he should make it clear that in an intercultural communication situation the other person is also shaped by his culture and that this inevitably results in differences in thinking and behavior.

In an intercultural situation, you have to deal with two more or less different types of programming that usually already have common interfaces. Intercultural competence is about dealing constructively with the differences and thereby creating something new. After all, the good thing about software is that its individual components are easy to change and expand.

Acquisition of intercultural competence through studying abroad

But how do you concretely succeed in acquiring intercultural skills? Intercultural practice is of course the be-all and end-all, because you won’t get very far with gray theory. Studying abroad is of course perfect for this. After all, there are hardly any places with a more international atmosphere than at universities. Here you will be challenged and encouraged every day by the intercultural situation.

In general, the acquisition of intercultural competence takes place on three levels, which are interrelated:

  • Knowledge (cognitive): This includes not only knowledge of foreign languages, but also general knowledge of culture (cultural terms, cultural dimensions, ethnocentrism and polycentrism) as well as specific cultural knowledge (regional studies, history of culture, rituals, symbols and values of culture). In addition, the awareness that one’s own culture influences perception and behavior.
  • Skills (affective): These include very basic individual and social skills such as sensitivity, empathy, tolerance, flexibility, the ability to self-reflect and observe.
  • Skills (behavioral): These include skills such as dealing appropriately with stress and critical situations, coping strategies in the event of culture shock, and appropriate communication.

Achieve intercultural competence: Tips for your studies abroad

During your studies abroad, you will not only have contact with the locals, but you will probably also get to know a lot of people with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Of course, there are just as little generally applicable rules of communication as there are “the” Americans or “the” Chinese. After all, in conversations you are always dealing with individuals. However, it is always helpful to think about the cultural imprint of yourself and your conversation partner.

Intercultural Competence Through Studying Abroad

The following points are general recommendations that can be helpful in acquiring intercultural competence through studying abroad:

  • Cultures have developed historically. In order to avoid misinterpretations and misunderstandings, it is an advantage to deal with the history of a culture before and during the study abroad. Visiting religious sites, museums and cultural monuments could provide a deeper understanding of the host culture and is also fun.
  • Intercultural willingness to learn: In every intercultural encounter there is the chance to learn something new. Be curious about new things and stay open. The more openly one deals with experiences of foreignness, the more likely one will break down prejudices and stereotypes. Your own perception becomes much more differentiated.
  • Use the possibility of intercultural training, for example at the university.
  • Try to prevent possible misunderstandings through metacommunication and rather ask again if you have not understood something.
  • Ambiguity tolerance: In intercultural communication, not everything makes sense straight away. Sometimes it is better to first wait and accept apparent contradictions.