What is intercultural competence?

What is intercultural competence, and why is it important?

lntercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad.[1] Intercultural competence is a valuable asset in an increasingly globalised world where we are more likely to interact with people from different cultures and countries who have been shaped by different values, beliefs and experiences.

Intercultural competence is part of a family of concepts including global competence, graduate attributes, employability skills, global citizenship, education for sustainable development and global employability. Core to all these concepts is recognition of globalisation as a force for change in all aspects of the contemporary world, and the importance for graduates to be able to engage and act globally.

[1] Adapted from Leung, K., Ang, S. and Tan, M.L. (2014), 'Intercultural Competence', Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour, 1:4889-519

The elements of intercultural competence include:[2]


  • Cultural self-awareness: the ability to articulate how one’s own culture has shaped one’s identity and world view
  • Culture-specific knowledge: the ability to analyse and explain basic information about other cultures (history, values, politics, economics, communication styles, values, beliefs and practices)
  • Sociolinguistic awareness: basic local language skills, the use of different verbal/non-verbal communication, and adjusting one’s speech to accommodate nationals from other cultures
  • Grasp of global issues and trends: explaining the meanings and implications of globalisation, and relating local issues to global forces


  • Listening, observing, evaluating: using patience and perseverance to identify and minimise ethnocentrism, seek out cultural clues and meaning
  • Analysing, interpreting and relating: seeking out linkages, causality and relationships using comparative techniques of analysis
  • Critical thinking: the ability to view and interpret the world from other cultural points of view, while recognising one’s own


  • Respect: seeking out others’ cultural attributes, valuing cultural diversity, and thinking comparatively and without prejudice about cultural differences
  • Openness: suspending criticism of other cultures, collecting ‘evidence’ of cultural difference, and openness to being proven wrong
  • Curiosity: seeking out intercultural interactions, viewing difference as a learning opportunity, being aware of one’s own ignorance
  • Discovery: being comfortable with ambiguity and viewing it as a positive experience, and willingness to move beyond one’s own comfort zone

[2] Adapted from McKinnon, ‘What is intercultural competence?’, Glasgow Caledonian University, https://www.gcu.ac.uk/media/gcalwebv2/theuniversity/centresprojects/globalperspectives/Definition_of_Intercultural_competence.pdf (accessed 10/06/18).

See also