Dr. Deardorff made a very simple request in her email to me about this column—or so I thought: “Send in something related to intercultural competence.” Fair enough. No problem. But there was a problem, a big one:
What the heck is intercultural competence?
If you’re going to write about this thing, then you’d better have a pretty good idea what it is. And I really didn’t. So I began thinking. And that’s where all the trouble started. What metric should I use to come up with a definition? In the end I decided that the best, or at least one of the most practical, ways to describe the concept was in terms of what would distinguish someone who was interculturally competent from someone who wasn’t? And that wasn’t so hard. I settled on this: An interculturally competent individual is a person who can interact easily and comfortably with someone from a very different background than his or hers. I had thought maybe I should use the word “effectively,” but it’s a bit vague and besides: if you’re comfortable during the interaction, it’s bound to be effective.
But my definition only led me to another question: What kind of person is it who can do that, who can interact easily and comfortably with people who are very different from him or her? What are the qualities of such a person? All the usual adjectives came to mind: someone who is open-minded, sensitive, tolerant, nonjudgmental, sympathetic. But these qualities seemed to me to be a subset of something even more basic that would define such a person. So then I started thinking about that. And I ended up here: Individuals who can interact comfortably and easily with people from a very different background are people who are fundamentally at ease and comfortable with who they are.
My thinking here goes like this: People who are comfortable with who they are, who are aware of and accepting of their strengths and especially of their weaknesses—people who have accepted themselves—are the only people who can really accept others. Only if you are comfortable with who you are, can you be truly comfortable with who someone else is, no matter how different they may be from you.
But then someone might point out: I know people who are intolerant, closed-minded, and judgmental—and are quite comfortable being that way, thanks very much.
Nice try, but no cigar. Intolerant, closed-minded, judgmental individuals are annoyed by what they do not tolerate, threatened by what they are closed to, angry by what they judge as bad or wrong. Annoyed, threatened, angry people cannot be comfortable.
Let’s say you’re more or less with me so far, sort of accepting that people who are comfortable with themselves have the best shot at being interculturally competent.
That opens the door to two potentially uncomfortable truths (for us intercultural types, that is); that people with no knowledge whatsoever of the intercultural field and its core concepts can nevertheless be very interculturally competent; and that people with deep experience in and knowledge of the field, unless they also happen to be comfortable with who they are, may not be competent at all. And who among us, if you’re being honest, has not come across numerous examples of both types: people with no particular intercultural expertise who are just naturally good at interacting across cultures, and intercultural experts who aren’t all that comfortable in the presence of real difference?
Which leads me to one last musing: If all the above is even just a little bit true, then where does that leave people like us—trainers, teachers, researchers, academics—the people working to support and advance the cause of intercultural competence? If you agree that being comfortable with yourself is a core component of that competence, and if you accept further that that quality can’t really be taught, then what is our role?
I’m not suggesting we don’t have any real role, I’m just rocking the boat, hoping with this inaugural column in the Intercultural Connector newsletter that we can start a dialogue on what intercultural competence is and where the efforts and dedication of the professionals in the field can best be put to use.
Craig Storti is the director of Communicating Across Cultures and author of several works, including “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” “The Art of Doing Business Across Cultures,” and “Why Travel Matters: A Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel.” With over 30 years of cross-cultural training experience, Craig has advised Fortune 500 companies, led cross-cultural trainings on four continents, and advised numerous government agencies on how to better manage global and culturally diverse work teams. A popular speaker, Craig is represented by The Washington’s Speaker Bureau and The European Speakers’ Bureau, and his writing has been featured in a number of national media including The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. Craig is fluent in French, Arabic, and Nepali, having lived nearly a quarter of his life abroad in predominantly Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures.