Intercultural competence

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Intercultural competence is the ability to successfully communicate with people of other cultures. This ability can exist in someone at a young age, or may be developed and improved due to willpower and competence. The bases for successful intercultural communication are emotional competence, together with intercultural sensitivity.

The term interculturally competent describes a person who captures and understands, in interaction with people from foreign cultures, their specific concepts in perception, thinking, feeling and acting. Earlier experiences are considered, free from prejudices; there is an interest and motivation to continue learning.


Cultures can be different not only between continents or nations, but also within the same company or even family: every human being has their own history, their own life and therefore also (to a certain extent) their own culture (geographical, ethnical, moral, ethical, religious, political, historical), cultural affiliation or cultural identity.

Typical examples of cultural differences

The perception is different and often selective [1]:

  • In Arabic countries the odours of condiments, coffee etc. are often perceived in more differentiated ways than, for example, in northern America.
  • In Asian countries the perception of time is rather past-oriented (ancestors, values), in Latin American countries as well as southern European countries, rather present-oriented, and in western Europe as well as North America rather future-oriented (achieving goals).
    • Shaking one's head horizontally means in most countries "no", but in India it means "yes", and (in the Hindi language) the voice lowers in pitch at the end of a question.
    • Showing a thumb held upwards in Europe and Latin America, especially Brazil, means "everything's OK", while it is understood in Islamic countries as a rude sexual sign.
    • "Everything OK" is shown in western European countries, especially between pilots and divers, with the sign of the thumb and forefinger forming an "O". This sign means in Japan "now we may talk about money", in southern France the contrary ("nothing, without any value"), and in Spain, some Latin American countries, Eastern Europe and Russia, it is an indecent sexual sign.
  • In North America as well as in Arabic countries the pauses between words are usually not too long, while in Japan pauses can give a contradictory sense to the spoken words. Enduring silence is perceived as comfortable in Japan, while in India, Europe and North America it may cause insecureness and embarrassment. Scandinavians, by Western standards, are more tolerant of silent breaks during conversations.
  • Laughing is associated in most countries with happiness; in Japan it is often a sign of confusion, insecureness and embarrassment.
  • In the UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries the word "compromise" has a positive meaning (as a consenting agreement where both parties win something); in the US it may have rather negative connotations (as both parties lose something).
  • If invited to dinner, in some Asian countries and Central America, it is well-mannered to leave right after the dinner: the ones who don’t leave may indicate they have not eaten enough. In the Indian sub-continent, European and North America this is considered rude, indicating that one only wanted to eat and does not enjoy the company of the hosts.
  • In Mediterranean European countries, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, it is normal, or at least widely tolerated, to arrive half an hour late for a dinner invitation, whereas in Germany this would be extremely rude.


Basic needs are sensitivity and self-consciousness: the understanding of other behaviors and ways of thinking as well as the ability to express one’s own point of view in a transparent way with the aim to be understood and respected by staying flexible where this is possible, and being clear where this is necessary.

It is a balance, situatively adapted, between three parts:

  1. knowledge (about other cultures, people, nations, behaviors),
  2. empathy (understanding feelings and needs of other people), and
  3. self-confidence (knowing what one wants, one's strengths and weaknesses, emotional stability).

Cultural differences

Cultural characteristics can be differentiated between several dimensions and aspects (the ability to perceive them and to cope with them is one of the bases of intercultural competence), such as:


For assessment of intercultural competence as an existing ability and / or the potential to develop it (with conditions and timeframe), the following characteristics are tested and observed: ambiguity tolerance, openness to contacts, flexibility in behavior, emotional stability, motivation to perform, empathy, metacommunicative competence, polycentrism.