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What is intercultural competence?

In our increasingly connected and globalized world, intercultural competence is becoming more and more important. But how can we define intercultural competence? It is essentially the ability to communicate effectively across different cultures and to work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

There’s no doubt that intercultural competence is a valuable asset today where connections around the world have become commonplace. Every day, both at work and in our private lives, we interact with people from diverse countries and cultures who are likely to have different values and beliefs than we do. This is where intercultural competence comes in useful—and is a must in today’s world.

If your company works with clients and employees in other countries or continents, you might want to consider investing in cross-cultural training by EHLION. Our professional coaching services can help you be aware of cultural sensitivities and build successful relationships with your contacts around the globe.

Contact us today to find out more!

Definition and components of intercultural competence

Intercultural competence can be defined as “the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills, and attitudes that lead to visible behavior and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions”. (Global Perspectives Project).

So the fundamental characteristics of intercultural competence are knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Let’s take a closer look:

  • knowledge: requires cultural self-awareness and culture-specific insights as well as an awareness of global issues
  • skills: the ability to see the world from another perspective and listen patiently where required
  • attitudes: respect, curiosity, and openness towards other cultures


All of these traits and abilities don’t come naturally, and they can’t be learned over night. Rather, acquiring them can be a lifelong process. Intercultural competence requires ongoing commitment to learning about other cultures, values, and customs. People who are keen to learn and engage in the process will find that they’ll benefit from two types of outcomes: internal and external effects.

Internal effects:

The individual acquires the ability to be flexible and adopt an empathetic approach to people from other cultures or backgrounds, and they learn how to see things from different cultural perspectives and no longer just their own.

External effects:

The external effects are observable in the behavior and communication style of the individual. We can regard them as clearly visible proof that the individual has acquired the necessary cultural competency.

Why is intercultural competence important?

Intercultural competence ensures that you or your staff members do not commit any cultural faux pas, which could potentially damage your relationship with the other party. Without intercultural knowledge, it’s easy to make a mistake and offend the other party without realizing it. Even unintentional insults can lead to strained relationships and a breakdown of communication. In the private domain, this can negatively impact friendships and confuse both friends and acquaintances. In the business world, negotiations or business deals might be affected, or whole supplier agreements terminated based on a simple misunderstanding.

It is therefore extremely important to acquire the necessary intercultural competence for the benefit of our personal and professional relationships. Armed with the right knowledge, misunderstandings can be prevented and embarrassing faux pas avoided.

Examples of intercultural competence

A good example of intercultural differences is the different attitudes to politeness in different cultures. What is considered polite in one country can be seen as rude in another.

When offering a Japanese business partner your business card, for example, you should present it standing up and holding it out on your hand; this is usually accompanied by a small bow to show your respect. If you lay out a stack of business cards on a table and ask your Japanese counterparts to just grab one, as is customary in Western cultures, they’re likely to be offended. By the same token, if a Japanese business contact offers you their business card, you should take a moment to read it and study it carefully. Don’t just throw it in your handbag or wallet; this is considered very rude in the Japanese business culture.

Another example of a situation where intercultural competence comes in useful is taboo topics of conversation. While a Ukrainian visitor might think nothing of asking about your income, political stance, and marital status, this is considered rude in the UK and U.S., for example, where these topics are considered a private matter.

Finally, attitudes to food and dining vary greatly from country to country. In the U.S., for instance, a host may offer you food or seconds once or twice, and if you decline, they’ll stop asking and will assume you’re full and don’t want any more food. They may even clear the table. In some Arab cultures, on the other hand, it is considered polite to decline repeated offerings of food, and Arab guest may decline your offer seven or eight times. This doesn’t mean they’re not hungry and won’t eventually dig in, it’s just part of their politeness culture.

Overview of examples:

  • Politeness: In Japan, the process of handing out and of business cards is more formal than in western culture.
  • Taboos: In Ukraine, marital status and salary are perfectly acceptable topics of conversation, unlike in the U.S. or UK.
  • Food attitudes: Dining etiquette differs greatly from country to country; in Arab culture, food offerings are often repeatedly declined although more food is eventually consumed.

How to increase intercultural competence

You may be wondering what strategy can be used to increase intercultural competence. Intercultural competence can be acquired and increased through the right cross-cultural training.

At EHLION, we pride ourselves in our personalized intercultural coaching. We don’t use any out-of-the-box materials but tailor the content of each course to your specific requirements Our offering includes both individual and team classes. By participating in our training sessions, you and your staff will increase your knowledge and confidence in the following areas:

  • How to communicate in a multinational team
  • The cultural characteristics of different countries or regions
  • How to resolve conflict in multicultural teams
  • How to negotiate with people from different cultural backgrounds
  • Business etiquette around the world


The result participants can look forward to is strong cultural and intercultural competence. This list is not exhaustive, so


Intercultural competence in a nutshell

In today’s globalized world, intercultural competence is not optional but a must. It fosters positive relationships among individuals and business partners alike, and it helps to avoid simple misunderstandings or, worse, unintentionally insulting your counterpart. Intercultural problems can lead to severed business relationships and negatively impact your business.

Given the avenues available to learn about other cultures and etiquettes today, this can very easily be avoided. With the right cross-cultural training, intercultural competence should be a must-have quality for every employee in today’s interconnected world.

The world is becoming ever smaller, so learning about different cultures, values, and customs, should be a top priority. You can find out more about countries such as China, Japan, or South Korea in our EHLION Magazine.

EHLION can help you with cross-cultural training as well as a range of other services ranging from interpreter services and professional translation services to website localization, app localization, and software localization. Address your target market in their own language and you will already have an advantage. Top it off with the right intercultural skills, and your success in different countries and regions is almost certain!

Contact our friendly team today to discuss how we can help you!

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