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There are many reasons for studying abroad. In addition to academic motivation, many students are also interested in acquiring important soft skills. These are just as much in demand in later professional life as the technical skills. In our globalized society, intercultural competence is meanwhile required in almost every professional field, be it in internationally active companies, in the field of pedagogy and teaching or also in the scientific field.
But what does intercultural competence actually mean? And how can you acquire this special ability? The way to study abroad is already the first step in the right direction. In the following you will find out what intercultural and intercultural competence is all about and how you can acquire this important competence in studying abroad.
Intercultural competence: definition
Intercultural competence is the ability to find one’s way safely 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 have a positive influence on the intercultural situation, possesses intercultural competence. Intercultural competence does not mean to adapt to the other culture without reservation or even to “give up” one’s own culture. On the contrary, both cultures are supposed to be brought out of the best in order to develop new perspectives and ideas. Both sides should adapt, respect and appreciate each other and deal productively with cultural differences.
Intercultural competence is not a single ability, but rather consists of different individual competencies and their interaction. Examples include
- Social skills: Ability to work in a team, empathy, adaptability, metacommunication skills
- Individual competencies: Willingness to learn, role distance / self-reflection, endurance of contradictions and ambiguities, optimism, empathy
- Strategic competencies: Ability to solve problems, knowledge management, organisational skills, foreign language skills
- Professional competence: Professional experience, expertise in the respective field
You don’t learn intercultural competence overnight, even when studying abroad. Rather, it is a lifelong learning process, because in every new intercultural situation you learn something new.
Intercultural studies abroad
An “interculture” arises when two people come into contact with each other who have a more or less different cultural background. Thus, intercultures arise again and again and do not correspond to either one culture or the other. Instead, the interaction creates an intermediate culture that becomes a common field of action. Intercultures are therefore dynamic, they are created through interaction. They are always new and unknown – this can be perceived as something exciting and stimulating as well as a threat and uncertainty.
Those who go abroad for a course of study move in intercultural relations, especially when they communicate with the people in the host country. However, intercultural communication is not synonymous with intercultural competence. Intercultural competence means to communicate successfully with people who have a different cultural background. Successful means that communication is satisfactory for both sides and that you can enrich each other. But this is not as easy as it seems at first glance. Because due to their own cultural imprint, intercultural communication has a wide variety of pitfalls at its fingertips and intercultural misunderstandings can easily arise.
Intercultural misunderstandings arise above all when one is not aware that one’s own perception as well as that of the intercultural partner is strongly influenced by culture. Cultural differences are sometimes greater than one would like to realize. In an intercultural communication situation, one tends to assume that there is a common conception of “normality”. Commonalities are assumed, which actually do not exist at all. Because of this, one often reinterprets the other’s behaviour until it appears plausible to one. At some point, however, it becomes obvious that the respective ideas, perceptions and expectations regarding the situation or the other are completely contradictory. This is also referred to as critical incidents.
In order to avoid intercultural misunderstandings and thus acquire intercultural competence, it is therefore important to be aware of how strongly one’s perception, behaviour and expectations are shaped by one’s own culture, and those of others. The cultural scientist Geert Hofstede speaks here of culture as “mental programming”.
Self-cultural character as mental programming
Much that seems natural and logical to you is only because it corresponds to the thinking and values of the culture in which you grew up. In the course of adulthood, people learn how to behave in certain situations within their culture. The culture in which a human being grows up can be compared to a kind of “mental programming” that controls behavior to a considerable degree. It’s like software on the computer.
The general human nature, what all people have in common, what is genetically conditioned and not learned, is analogously the operating system. Above all, this includes our ability to feel, observe, reflect and communicate emotions and our desire for society. However, the way in which someone deals with these basic human traits is strongly influenced by the cultural environment.
The culture of one’s own culture provides a familiar framework for the alignment of one’s behaviour and communication. It prescribes certain patterns of thought and behaviour for certain situations. Everyone naturally follows the logic of their own cultural software without always being fully aware of it.
Those who want to be interculturally competent should be aware of their mental programming. At the same time, he should also make it clear that in an intercultural communication situation, the person opposite him or her is also influenced by his or her culture and that this inevitably leads to differences in thinking and behaviour.
In an intercultural situation, you have to deal with two more or less different types of programming, which usually already have common interfaces. Intercultural competence is about dealing constructively with differences and thereby creating something new. After all, the good thing about software is that it is easy to modify and expand its individual components.
Acquisition of intercultural competence by studying abroad
But how can intercultural competences be acquired in practice? Of course, intercultural practice is the be-all and end-all, because grey theory won’t get you far. Studying abroad is of course perfect for this. After all, there are hardly any other places with a more international atmosphere than universities. Here you are challenged and encouraged by intercultural situations on a daily basis.
In general, the acquisition of intercultural competence takes place on three levels, which are interrelated:
- Knowledge (cognitive): This includes not only foreign language skills, but also a general knowledge of culture (cultural concepts, cultural dimensions, ethnocentrism and polycentrism) as well as specific cultural knowledge (local studies, history of culture, rituals, symbols and values of culture). Also the awareness that one’s own culture influences perception and behaviour.
- Skills (affective): This includes basic individual and social skills such as sensitivity, empathy, tolerance, flexibility, self-reflection and observation.
- Skills (behaviorial): This includes skills such as adequate handling of stress and critical situations, coping strategies in the event of a culture shock, appropriate communication.
Acquire 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 different cultural backgrounds. Of course, there are no universally applicable communication rules, nor are there any “the” Americans or “the” Chinese. After all, you always deal with individuals in conversations. However, it is always helpful to think about the cultural imprinting of oneself and one’s interlocutor.
The following points are general recommendations that can help you acquire intercultural competence by studying abroad:
- Cultures have developed historically. In order to avoid misinterpretations and misunderstandings, it is advantageous to deal with the history of a culture before and during your studies abroad. Visiting religious sites, museums and cultural monuments could provide a deeper understanding of the culture of the host country and is also fun.
- Intercultural willingness to learn: In every intercultural encounter there is the chance to learn something new. Be curious about the unknown and remain open. The more openly one deals with experiences of foreignness, the more likely one will dismantle prejudices and stereotypical ideas. Your own perception becomes much more differentiated.
- Use the possibility of intercultural training, for example at university.
- Try to avoid possible misunderstandings through metacommunication and rather ask again if you have not understood something.
- Ambiguity tolerance: In intercultural communication, not everything makes sense. Sometimes it is better to wait and see and accept apparent contradictions.