Intercultural competence, but what is it? (by Dr. Christa Uehlinger)

Diversity is on the rise in all fields and intercultural competence is becoming more and more of a buzz word. It is acknowledged widely that intercultural competence, briefly defined as the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations, is an important requisite, even an indispensable key competence in today’s global and interdependent world. But what exactly is intercultural competence? Do we really know?

Figure 1: Intercultural competence – more than sheer knowledge
What is comprised by intercultural competence and the term’s exact definition is still a matter for debate. It is often viewed as a set of cognitive, affective and behavioural skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts. In order to develop intercultural competence knowledge, attitude and behaviour must work together. But again, the definitions of these factors and how they intertwine together is another topic of much debate. There are, however, several commonalities that exist among scholarly thinking:
  • cross-cultural contact and international work does not necessarily lead to intercultural competence and may even be destructive under certain circumstances;
  • knowledge on its own does not equal cultural competence;
  • language learning alone may not be sufficient for intercultural competence.
Since the 1990s, various intercultural competence concepts have been proposed. Among the most well known ones are the developmental model of intercultural sensitivity developed by Milton Bennett, the cultural intelligence approach based on the concept of emotional intelligence, as well as the process model of intercultural competence by Darla Deardorff.

However, despite attempts to conceptualize intercultural competence, one question remains: why is intercultural competence so elusive and complex?

In my view, it has a lot to do with the way people are shaped by their respective cultures, impacting orientation, identity and security. They therefore define their individual cultural comfort zones, i.e. the areas within which, from an individual viewpoint, everything is normal and familiar. Intercultural situations mean encountering what is different and foreign. Things can work completely differently. Security and orientation are called into question as one’s own perspective no longer exclusively defines what is appropriate. This demands an answer to the core questions: How do I, personally, deal with something that is different from what I am used to? Am I really ready to engage with what is different and thereby to extend my cultural comfort zone?

Intercultural competence does not come naturally. Acquiring it means engaging with the other, challenging and adapting one’s own, natural behaviour. It requires not only learning, but an inner developmental process. This cannot be done from one day to the other or through one training only. Achieving intercultural competence requires a life-long continuous, dynamic process of learning which includes self-reflection. How it is done and experienced – if at all – is very individual. This long-term development process is complex, multidimensional and multifaceted. It leads to changes on many levels and may also at times be marked by setbacks. Thus, one wonders if all the existing models and concepts, as helpful as they are, can ever fully facilitate in the mastering of the multiple facets of intercultural competence. Maybe it is not even possible to fully rationalise it.

Bennett, Milton J. (1993) Towards Ethnorelativism: A development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. In: Paige, M.R. (Editor) (1993): Education for the International Experience, Yarmouth, p.21-66
Deardorff, Darla (2009) The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks

Dr. Christa Uehlinger was born and bred in Zurich. She studied law at the University of Zurich. She has worked over 10 years in international business, and has studied intercultural communication at ICI in Portland. She is the founder of Christa Uehlinger Linking People  ( and works as an intercultural adviser and teaches intercultural communication. Christa is an author and has lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe, Canada, the US, India, Australia and Asia. She is the President of SIETAR Switzerland.

Share this post