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What is intercultural competence?

Intercultural competence includes recognition and appreciation of one’s own and others’ multiplicities and how they come into play in different situations. They should not resume to prescriptive solutions for ‘specific cultures’ and instead focus on preparing for the unexpected, careful perception and dealing with uncertainty. They imply readiness to deal with difference in an ethno-relative manner (viewing values and behaviours of others from broader perspectives, and not seeing one’s own as normal/superior). However they also need to avoid the mechanism of othering – seeing the world in categories us vs. them, where “them” are those who are different from me/us. Identifying and labeling “the other” tends to ascribe a fixed identity to them, where it may be difficult or impossible to contest the ascription (hence intercultural competence includes also issues of power and voice of interlocutors).

Intercultural competence is tightly linked to empathy, listening and observing, flexibility, conflict resolution skills and tolerance of ambiguity. They also go hand in hand with civic-mindedness, valuing democracy and human rights.


The assumed concept of culture

The non-essentialist view of culture (see Adrian Holliday, 2011) stresses the complexity and multiplicity of individual identities, going way beyond geographical or family backgrounds. People participate in different groups or cultures, which may be defined according to nationality, ethnicity, language, age, social class, gender, religion, political or sexual orientation, etc. Their sense of belonging is not only multiple, but it also shifts – increasing or diminishing in intensity – according to the context and purpose of their interactions, as well as their interlocutors. The cultural identity may be inconsistent, negotiated and co-constructed in different situations, and may depend on power and voice in a given relationship.


Intercultural situations (see Competences for democratic culture, CoE, p. 20)

Every interpersonal situation is potentially an intercultural situation. Often, when we encounter other people, we respond to them as individuals who have a range of attributes distinguishing them from other people. However, sometimes we respond to them instead in terms of their cultural affiliations, and when this occurs we group them together with other people who share these affiliations with them. There are several factors which prompt us to shift our frame of reference from the individual and interpersonal to the intercultural. These include, among others:

–      the presence of salient cultural emblems or practices that invoke the cultural category in the mind of the perceiver,

–       the frequent use of cultural categories to think about other people so that these categories are readily accessed when interacting with others,

–      usefulness of a cultural category in helping to understand why another person is behaving in the way that they are,etc.

Thus, intercultural situations arise when an individual perceives another person (or group of people) as being culturally different from him/herself. Every human being is regularly exposed to intercultural situations, with or without direct interactions with others.


Acquisition of intercultural competence (intercultural learning) is a lifelong learning process, which brings best results through conscious, planned and facilitated experiential learning (Kolb, Experiential Learning Cycle). It is important to note that exposure and interaction with people of different cultural affiliations does not imply, let alone guarantee, intercultural learning (Y.Amir, Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations). It is also worth noting that the non-formal education sector has so far the strongest experience in facilitating these educational processes.


Assessment of intercultural competence, just as with other attitude- and skill-based competencies, is a complex task, which cannot be responded by standard quantitative testing procedures. Since intercultural learning is a life-long learning process, intercultural competence can never be fully achieved. Assessment should be qualitative and formative, voluntary, participatory, tailored and learner centred.



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