A Five-Pronged Approach to Intercultural Communication Competence

by Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith
14th October 2014

With increasing diversity in urban cities like Sydney and other parts of Australia (and indeed the world), the ability to communicate with people from a variety of cultures is increasingly relevant. While we may have many reasons to be “competent” in intercultural communication, we may not always recognise what that means or how to achieve it. The purpose of this paper is to provide a description of intercultural communication competence and to identify five factors that contribute to it.

What is intercultural communication competence?

Researchers in communication observe that competence is where communication is effective and appropriate. An effective communication is where you are able to accomplish the goal or purpose of that particular communication. For example, if the purpose of your communication was to request leave, and you were successful in getting your request granted, then your communication has been effective. Appropriate communication adheres to expected and accepted social norms. For example, a student in a classroom might raise his hand and ask a question by saying, “Excuse me madam, may I please have another sheet of paper?” By raising his hand, saying “excuse me” and “please,” and by addressing the teacher as “madam,” the student is following expected and accepted social conventions of respectful/polite behaviour in that situation. That would be considered the appropriate way for a student to make a request of a teacher in the classroom. Within our own culture, we usually know the expected social norms and how to get things done because we are raised in the culture and have had years of practice communicating with others of our culture. But when cultural differences are significant enough, effective and appropriate communication can be challenging. These challenges, however, are not impossible to overcome. While there are many research studies that have identified different ways of developing intercultural communication competence, five variables are discussed here.

  • Empathy


Empathy is usually understood as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position

and understand what they are going through, from an intellectual point of view as well as an emotional point of view. For example, you may be talking to a friend who has just accepted a job overseas and is getting ready to migrate there with his whole family. While you may never have had such an experience, you can empathise by thinking about how you would feel if you had to pack up your belongings, say goodbye to your family and friends, and move to a new place where you don’t know anyone. You may be able to think about how you would feel in that situation, what challenges you may face, etc. An empathetic person tries to see and feel the situation from the other person’s point of view. Research shows that people who are able to empathise are perceived to be competent intercultural communicators. Even if they have not had much prior experience in intercultural communication, empathetic people are still able to come across as effective and appropriate communicators simply because they attempt to see things from the other person’s point of view and try to understand the other person’s experiences. A good way to cultivate empathy is to actively practice putting yourself in someone else’s situation and seeing the situation from his/her point of view. For example, you might meet an international student who is away from her home for the first time. While you may never have travelled overseas or never been in a situation where you look significantly different than everyone around you, you could empathise by thinking about how you would feel if you went overseas to study in a place where people speak a different language and where most people look very different to you. You can think about how you would feel, what you would miss, what you would find helpful, etc. This practice of empathetic role-taking facilitates better understanding and, according to research, better communication. Empathetic perspective-taking on your part is not contingent on the other person doing the same. In other words, even if the other person cannot (and does not) attempt to understand your point of you an empathetic person still attempts to understand the other person’s point of view.

  • Positive attitude toward people from other cultures


While this sounds intuitive, research does demonstrate that having a positive attitude toward people from other cultures is related to intercultural communication competence. Those who have a positive attitude toward people from other cultures have the view that other cultures have something useful to contribute to the world, that you can learn something from other cultures, that your culture is not inherently superior to other cultures, and that people from other cultures are interesting, valuable, and worthy of your time and attention. A positive attitude toward people from other cultures is not goal-oriented. In other words, it is not about trying to get something from those people or trying to change them or ‘civilize’ them in some way. It is about a genuine openness to cultural diversity and the belief that you can learn from people who are different to you. Having a positive attitude toward people from other cultures does not mean that you agree with all cultural practices or that you think all cultural practices are right or moral. It means that you acknowledge differences and acknowledge that “different” does not necessarily mean “wrong” or “inferior.” There could be some practices that you might consider wrong. But a positive attitude toward other cultures is a general disposition of willingness to not only interact with people from other cultures but also to learn from them.

  • Motivated to interact with people from other cultures


Often a positive attitude towards other cultures fuels motivation to interact with people from other cultures. Some people actively look for opportunities to interact with people from other cultures (such as going on study abroad programs, travelling, or volunteering to work with international students or immigrants) while others engage in intercultural communication if the opportunity arises; yet others actively avoid communicating with people from other cultures! Research shows that motivation to interact with people from other cultures is one factor that contributes to competent intercultural communication. While there may be many reasons why someone might be motivated to interact with people from other cultures, motivation based on genuine interest to learn about them and find out more about them is the kind of motivation that is conducive for developing intercultural competence. Motivation to interact with people from other cultures could also lead to more experience in intercultural communication and perhaps more knowledge of intercultural communication based on such experience. Experience is another factor that contributes to intercultural communication competence.

  • Experience/training


As in any other skill, deliberate study and training as well as practice helps one to improve intercultural communication. Those who have a positive attitude towards people of other cultures and are motivated to interact with people of other cultures because of a desire to learn more about them are likely to seek out those experiences and thereby practice their intercultural communication more often. Further, those who are interested in intercultural communication often also seek out training in intercultural skills, and study intercultural communication. These activities contribute toward developing competence in intercultural communication. In terms of experience with intercultural communication, exposure to different cultures and different points of view also help to expand one’s frame of reference and facilitate self-awareness about one’s own culture.

  • Active listening


People who are perceived as good listeners are also perceived as competent intercultural communicators. Active listening involves paying attention, making appropriate eye contact and/or facial expressions, asking relevant questions, and generally indicating to the other person that you are interested in what s/he is saying and care about what is being said. An active listener fully engages in what the other person is saying rather than using the time to mentally formulate a response to what is being said. While making steady eye contact is considered a welcome sign of listening in many cultures, it must be noted that eye contact can be considered rude or inappropriate in some cultural contexts. It is good to observe what others are doing to ascertain the appropriate level of eye contact in a particular culture. Similarly, verbal responses are appropriate in some contexts (such as saying, “wow,” or “right”) while in other cultural contexts silent listening is preferred. Regardless of these differences in how ‘listening’ is executed, research shows that people from a variety of cultural backgrounds agree that a competent communicator is a good listener.

The five factors identified here don’t work independently of one another; they are interrelated, and they work together to contribute to intercultural communication competence. One model, called the Integrated Model of Intercultural Communication Competence (IMCC), shows that there is a direct relationship between empathy and intercultural communication competence, while the other variables interact together to contribute to the end result of intercultural communication competence. If you are interested in reading more on this topic, a list of references of research articles is provided below.


Suggestions for Further Reading:

Arasaratnam, L. A. (2011). Perception and Communication in Intercultural Spaces. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Arasaratnam, L. A., & Doerfel, M. L. (2005). Intercultural communication competence: Identifying key components from multicultural perspectives. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, 137-163.

Spitzberg, B.H. &. Changnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence. In D. Deardoff (Ed.), Intercultural Competence (pp. 2-52). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.