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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Andreolli-Comstock

What is Intercultural Competence?

This week, I cringed as I watched an interaction between two people escalate from basic frustration to harmful disrespect simply because of a misunderstanding.

I was standing in line at the grocery store. It was dinner time and all of us in line looked hungry and tired. A woman approached the self-checkout counter and began swiping her groceries and placing them in a brown paper bag. The next person in line waited, albeit visibly impatient — he only had two small items to ring up. When the woman checking out got to her vegetables, she didn't understand how to ask the machine to weigh and thereby price her items. Now, as a person who is reluctantly realizing that checking out at any store is now my responsibility, I immediately understood her frustration. Every machine is different. The process changes from store to store. That said, I concluded that she may have also had difficultly reading the on-screen prompts as well. I noticed that each time the prompt popped up to give her step by step instructions, she would quickly click it off before reading it and try again in the same way. By this point, the impatient man with just a few items was giving her stern, frustrated directions from his place in line about how to work the machine. He was loud and disgruntled. Others of us in line grew uncomfortable by his domineering tone. But the woman at the checkout machine never turned around, almost as if she didn’t hear or understand him. The man only became more frustrated by what he perceived as her ignoring him. Eventually, he approached the woman from behind and continued with loud instructions — even going as far as to touch the screen from behind her. The woman reacted negatively to his close, unwelcome presence. The interaction caused the attendant on duty to approach the couple and attempt to assist. Two women near the front of the line also saw the man approach the checkout and moved forward to try to help the woman hurry along. This only frustrated the woman more and insulted the impatient man. Yes, there were obvious language differences. But, perhaps even more frustrating than the language differences for those involved was the inability to understand the vastly different cultural expectations that everyone now involved had of one another. The man didn’t know why the woman wouldn’t just take his advice. The two women from the line didn’t know why the woman didn’t see their attempts to hurry her along as a kind gesture to get her out of an uncomfortable position. The attendant didn’t understand why everyone was on edge having just finished his dinner break. In turn, an otherwise innocuous business transaction became a near fist fight in public space. In that moment, I wondered how this situation might have ended differently if intercultural competence were something more readily understood in our society.

Intercultural competence refers to the ability to effectively communicate, interact, and engage with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. It involves understanding, appreciating, and adapting to different cultural norms, values, perspectives, and communication styles. Intercultural competence is integral to the life of every global citizen.

Intercultural competence matters because:

1. In today's globalized world, we are increasingly connected to people from different cultures through travel, work, and digital platforms. Developing intercultural competence enables individuals to navigate these diverse interactions with respect, sensitivity, and understanding.

2. Intercultural competence promotes effective communication and collaboration across cultural boundaries. It allows individuals to bridge cultural gaps, resolve conflicts, and build strong relationships based on mutual respect and trust.

3. Intercultural competence fosters empathy and cultural sensitivity. It helps individuals recognize and challenge their own cultural biases and assumptions, promoting a broader perspective and appreciation for diversity.

4. Intercultural competence is also essential for success in academic and professional settings. Employers and educational institutions value individuals who can work well in diverse teams, understand the needs of a global partner base, and adapt to different cultural contexts.

Ultimately, intercultural competence contributes to creating inclusive societies, promoting social cohesion, and fostering human understanding. It allows individuals to engage with the world in a more meaningful and respectful way, embracing diversity and building bridges of understanding across cultures. I believe intercultural competence would have helped the interaction I observed end differently.

Questions to consider:

How are you growing your intercultural competencies?

In what ways are you seeking to understand life, work, and community from someone else’s perspective?

What areas of intercultural competency cause you pause? Why?

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