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10 Myths about Intercultural Competence Development

I have been working for several years to help professionals build intercultural competence. During that time, I have also met people who shared their reservations about intercultural competence training with me and, due to those reservations, they were reluctant to get involved. After having heard those reservations or misconceptions or myths repeatedly, I realize it is important to provide more clarity on the subject and to set the record straight.

Myth #1: Intercultural competence training should only be provided on an ad hoc basis.

Intercultural competence is not innate. Let’s stop pretending it is. In fact, none of us can be expected to be perfect in how we behave and communicate in diverse situations or intercultural interactions. That just isn’t realistic, fair, or logical. It is especially so if we have not yet focused time and effort to develop the relevant knowledge, skills, and attitudes. It would also be true if we have not had previous opportunities to learn how to engage with cultural differences and similarities in positive and constructive ways.

Since everyone can benefit from learning to develop intercultural competence, professional programs should be provided to leaders and employees on a regular basis. Moreover, they should be offered as a standard and normal organizational best practice that builds an inclusive and therefore stronger organizational culture. Intercultural competence *training* (please see the note at the end of this article) should not be resorted to, opportunistically as a remedial measure, when intercultural conflicts have occurred. That approach is self-defeating as it serves to stigmatize – create apprehension and shame – about such training as well as stigmatize the employees who are singled out to attend it. Remember that those employees are part of a system and a systemic (organizational) approach would yield better results. In other words, stop the blame game!

Myth #2: I don’t need intercultural competence if I don’t work in a diverse workplace.

All workplaces and communities are, in fact, diverse even if diversity – a mix of differences – is not properly understood or acknowledged by the leaders. There are many kinds and different degrees of diversity and some kinds are less visible and perceptible than others. Workplaces and communities will vary from one to the other in this regard. Whatever the situation, it is important to develop the capability to navigate intercultural or diversity (differences in age or generation, gender, sexual identity, ability, ethnicity, first language, etc.) interactions appropriately, that is, intercultural competence, especially if we aim to collaborate as equals and achieve optimum contributions from our diverse teams.

Myth #3: It is impossible to adapt to cultural differences because there are too many cultures in our society.

It is our responsibility to acquire culture-specific knowledge that is pertinent to our social and cultural contexts. However, developing intercultural competence is not about trying to learn everything about every culture that is present in our society or school system or workplace. In order to adapt to cultural differences, a well-rounded and balanced approach would be to learn both targeted culture-specific knowledge and culture-general knowledge or knowledge that applies to all cultures. For example, a type of culture-general knowledge is linear and circular communication styles.

Myth #4: I don’t need to develop intercultural competence because I already know I am capable.   

We do not really know how capable we are until we are formally and professionally assessed and discover our cultural blind spots. A major blind spot is the gap between our perceived orientation – how we assess ourselves – to cultural differences and our developmental orientation – how others assess us. For example, we may overestimate our capability which may cause or exacerbate a problem. As a result, we may experience frustration when we lead a diverse team and have difficulty achieving team objectives. This is because we are unaware that we are using strategies that work well with people who come from a similar cultural background as ourselves and share the same values as we do. However, those strategies may not work well with people from other cultural backgrounds and may be the cause of their resistance.

Myth #5: I don’t need to develop intercultural competence if I already have experience working with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Indeed, we can learn a good deal about other cultures by interacting with people from different backgrounds. However, without education about intercultural competence and professional development that begins with a formal assessment, we may not understand the cause of our intercultural challenges. We may also unwittingly misdiagnose a problem and direct resources to the wrong solutions. As a result, we may continue to act inappropriately in intercultural situations and create negative consequences such as increase alienation and interpersonal barriers between ourselves and others. These negative consequences could be costly for our organizations and ourselves.

Myth #6: Intercultural competence is something I can pick up, with time, by working with people who are different from me.

The development of intercultural competence will not happen simply by chance or the passage of time. It needs to be intentionaland involves acting on clear and specific objectives. The amount of time committed to intercultural development is relevant in terms of the amount of intentional effort that is invested. This intentional effort includes self-inquiryself-reflection, and the development of insights about cultural differences and cultural similarities in ourselves and in others.

Myth #7: Traveling and living in another country automatically results in my developing greater intercultural competence.

It is erroneous to assume that experiencing other cultures, for example, as travelers and tourists and enjoying their cultural expressions and productions such as food, music, and art is sufficient to build intercultural competence. Of course, it is necessary and advantageous to appreciate other cultures in this manner. However, we will make better progress in intercultural development if we also learn about the values and beliefs that underpin and give meaning to those cultural productions. Otherwise, we will remain stuck in a superficial cycle of indulgence that will not help to make us more adept communicators and leaders.

Living in another country does not automatically grant us intercultural competence, either, if we interact exclusively with other expatriates from our country of origin instead of building trust-based relationships with local people.

Myth #8: I can develop intercultural competence without a plan.

The development of intercultural competence cannot be successful without a plan. Undeniably, even with the best of plans in place, it is possible to be distracted. It is thus important to be flexible and to adjust the plan according to changing circumstances. Success can also be enhanced by making the plan accountable through a learning and development partnership such as professional coaching.

Myth #9: I can develop intercultural competence through a single learning event.

Developing intercultural competence is a process. Attending a single course may only have a short-term benefit. A consistent commitment over the long term is required to produce positive change – there is no such thing as a quick fix or a one-workshop-wonder. The effective development of intercultural competence is best approached as part of an organizational development or professional development plan. In this context, taking an academic course or a workshop would be more strategic and, as such, would have more relevance, significance, and impact.

Myth #10: I can develop intercultural competence by only learning theoretical knowledge.

The abstract study of diversity and culture is valuable and may endow the scholar or professional with new insights. However, this activity cannot by itself increase intercultural competence. Indeed, a professional assessment may reveal that despite a high level of education and accumulation of knowledge of these subjects, individuals may still struggle with cultural differences. They may, however, grow in intercultural competence if they also participate in activities that help them to develop requisite attitudes such as openness or withholding judgment and skills such as active listening.

I hope I have helped to clear up some of your preexisting thoughts about intercultural competence development through this article. If you would like to discuss how to build intercultural competence effectively, please send me an email at: aschia@sightsonsuccessconsulting.com .

Thank you for reading and I look forward to engaging with you!

Note: I prefer to use the word development, rather than *training* to refer to the work that I do as development refers to a process of learning and growth that is guided and supported.

Angeline S. Chia, Intercultural Development Consultant

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