Intercultural competence

Let’s start by saying with P. Nynäs (2001: 34) that “there is no way we can provide a technique for successful communication or a causal model for intercultural communication.”

The concept of intercultural competence (IC) is one of the most discussed aspects of interculturality in education, especially in teacher education. Spitzberg and Changnon (2009) have proposed a review of the various models of intercultural competence ‘available on the market’, which they classify into five categories: 1. Compositional models propose a simple list of attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behaviours; 2. Co-orientational models concentrate on interactions and on the construction of self and other; 3. Developmental models describe how individuals acquire intercultural competences; 4. Adaptational models examine adjustment and adaptation of people involved in intercultural encounters; and 5. Causal path models are interested in how different components of intercultural competences are related.

A few models of Intercultural Competence have gained ‘fame’ in the last decades and are used beyond the boundaries of their original fields. They all represent models that fit into the aforementioned categories of compositional, developmental and adaptational models. The three following models have been very influential worldwide, and deserve to be increasingly evaluated.

The first model was proposed by Milton J. Bennett (1986, 1993) and is named The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). Although it is not officially called a model of intercultural competence, it is often used as such (Hosaya et al., 2014). The model outlines a continuum of increasing cultural awareness, understanding, and adjustment from ethnocentrism (believing that one’s culture is the best) to ethnorelativism (realising that all cultures are ‘good’ and ‘bad’). The model has been used in business, intercultural communication studies but also in education research around the world. The main problems with this model are: one should pay to use it; it is based on ‘levels’ of competence; it is often used in a step-by-step way as if interculturality could be pre-programmed and stabilized – hence the model claims that intercultural competence can be acquired rather than e.g. developed. The model is thus very much individualistic in the sense that it relies too much on the ‘performance’ of one individual and ignores the fact that interculturality is co-constructed, influenced and somewhat determined by the presence of an other, power differentials, specific contexts and intertextuality – the fact that there is always dialogue between appearances, situations and discourses and that these influence one’s behaviours and attitudes. Finally the model insists largely on the ‘power’ of culture in its continuum and relies on the accumulation of knowledge about different cultures, often used synonymously with knowledge about ‘nations’ (McSweeney, 2012).

The next two models are the most popular in Google. The second model shares some characteristics with the previous one. Byram’s (1997) Intercultural Communicative Competence emerged from the field of language education, and has its origins in Hymes’ work on communication. The model is theorized in terms of personal cognitive and motivational aspects in relation to knowledge, skills and attitudes. One should be critical of this model too. For example the component of savoir être (attitudes) can be misleading and too easily lead to self-congratulating. It consists in showing curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own. To me, showing is not enough and very unstable (I can show but not believe in what I am showing). One also needs to question one’s attitudes about self and other and one’s performing of these acts. Another component, savoirs (knowledge), refers to the knowledge of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country. Again the emphasis on ‘countries’ and ‘cultures’ lays down artificially created boundaries that in a global world like ours one may wish to question (Appadurai, 1996). Byram’s model also includes the component of savoir s’engager (critical cultural awareness and/or political education). This relates to the idea of intercultural citizenship and was developed within the framework of the work that Byram did for the Council of Europe. Although this aspect is interesting, one can be critical of the European political bias behind it and the Kantian rationality perspective on morality and the Western activist orientation to human rights (Matsuo, 2012; see also Hoff, 2014 and previous chapter).

The final highly influential model of intercultural competence is that of Darla Deardorff. Based on a review of ‘Western’ models of such competence, Deardorff proposed the Pyramid Model of Intercultural Competence (2006, 2009). Like Bennett’s and Byram’s models the Pyramid is based on knowledge, skills and attitudes and shares many problematic components. Knowledge includes cultural self-awareness, a deep understanding and knowledge of culture, and culture-specific information. Skills are based on listening, observing, interpreting, analyzing, evaluating and relating. And requisite attitudes consist of respect (valuing other cultures, cultural diversity); openness (to intercultural learning and to people from other cultures, withholding judgment) and curiosity and discovery (tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty). Deardorff lists the following desired outcomes: (desired external outcome): Behaving and communicating effectively and appropriately (based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes) to achieve one’s goals to some degree; (desired internal outcome): Informed frame of reference/filter shift: Adaptability (to different communication styles & behaviors; adjustment to new cultural environments); Flexibility (selecting and using appropriate communication styles and behaviors; cognitive flexibility); Ethnorelative view; Empathy. Many of these aspects can too easily remain highly essentialistic and a-critical if they are not deconstructed.

Going back to Spitzberg and Changnon (2009) one notices that in the three models the coorientational and causal path are often lacking, i.e. the emphasis is on the individual who performs but not on the interaction or relationship that they are involved in. For example the desired outcome of ‘behaving and communicating effectively and appropriately’ is potentially biased. In education, who can decide what is effective and appropriate interculturally, especially when these are co-constructed and negotiated? The emphasis is also on attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behaviors in the three models. These elements contain problematic elements whose ‘acquisition’ is very difficult or impossible to evaluate. For example: empathy, flexibility, ‘views’, etc. As we need to rely on discourse and/or action to examine these aspects, one can only note their enactments.

In my work, I have proposed the following critical approach to Intercultural Competence. Having read the previous discussions of the concepts, you will notice how much the following aspects are in line with the critiques I presented:

First of all this competence should move beyond programmatic and ‘recipe-like’ Intercultural Competence. Simple progression (“stages”) in the development and/or acquisition of Intercultural Competence should be rejected.

My perspective proposes that, like any other social phenomena, Intercultural Competence relies on contradictions, instabilities, and discontinuities. In concrete terms this means placing instability at the center of any intercultural activity: instability of identifications, instability of discourses of culture, instability of power relations, instability of feelings towards each other, etc. According to Lifton (1993: 1), even if we are “schooled in the virtues of constancy and stability” we “turn out to be surprisingly resilient” towards the inconsistency and unpredictability of our sociocultural and economic worlds. Awareness of instability can help people to accept that the world, and especially self and other, are neither programmed nor better than others and urge them to revise their power relations.

Another important issue relating to Intercultural Competence is to get used to discomfort, to appreciate entering risky territory and to accept that some degree of ‘pain’ is involved in dealing with intercultural encounters. The current ‘industry of Intercultural Competence’ often wishes to protect individuals from these phenomena by creating ‘interculturally correct’ situations and/or educational content, which avoid and distract them from real discussions of structural inequality, oppression, and e.g. new forms of segregation. We thus need to create situations of encounters that can help us to test our resistance to discomfort and potential failure, and to learn to be reflexive about what we learn.

This approach to Intercultural Competence takes a critical stance towards the flawed concept of culture. As a consequence the now widely recognized need for intersectional analysis is taken seriously into account in work on Intercultural Competence (Collins, 2009). As such socio-economic and politico-historical categories are given as much emphasis as the usual problematic frameworks of culture, ethnicity or race. Defined as examining the interconnected nature of social and ‘biological’ categorizations/identity markers such as language, race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion etc. (Collins, 2009) intersectionality is interested in how these elements, when combined together, contribute or not to injustice, inequalities, discrimination and disadvantage. It is by becoming aware of these elements that we can try to work against them. According to Hoskins and Sallah (2011: 114) work on intercultural competence has often ignored such aspects to concentrate solely on the ‘easy’ and often ‘a-political’ aspect of cultural difference. Intersectionality could help us to discuss the wider structural forces of e.g. “capitalism, racism, colonialism, and sexism” in intercultural contexts (ibid.), to examine the impact of power differentials from a more multifaceted perspective, and to ‘individualize’ analyses of intercultural encounters rather than generalizing them based only on culture/ethnic identity. Finally this could allow intercultural learners to get engaged in more political perspectives by intersecting ‘fights’ that matter to them (e.g. the rights of women) and those related to less significant aspects to them (e.g. race, language).

I have noted earlier that most Intercultural Competence models tend to be overly individualistic and thus lack dialogical perspectives (Dervin, 2011, see above). One aspect of the proposed perspective consists in taking this element into account. Intercultural Competence is co-constructed by individuals in specific contexts, which means that dialogues need to be central to any approach to Intercultural Competence. For Shi-xu (2001: 290), misunderstanding, non-understanding, communication breakdown, etc. “(are) a joint, coordinated, common consequential effect. No individual person, group, nation, culture, region and such like can alone be responsible for anything or achieve maximally possible success.” Putting an end to individualistic perspectives can allow us to examine the interdependence between I and others when interculturality takes place. The dialogues between different selves also matter in intercultural encounters. Too many models have ‘blamed’ one of the participants for being not competent enough, while her competence depends on the presence of another (physical or virtual individual). For example one meets someone from abroad and that person bears a striking resemblance with an acquaintance or a friend or shares the same features. This ‘intertextuality’ can have an influence on how interculturality will be constructed between these individuals, how they will treat each other and position themselves. Collectivising Intercultural Competence should be a priority in order to treat people fairly and to allow them to share responsibilities for what occurs in interculturality.

Let me summarize the main aspects of the proposed conception of Intercultural Competence in this tool:

  • Intercultural Competence is not static but it changes depending on contexts, interlocutors, moods, etc. Sometimes we are good at it, sometimes we are not. Intercultural Competence is of the responsibility of all those who interact with each other.
  • Consequence: There are no possible stages in intercultural preparedness.
  • Intercultural Competence should be performed not as a way of ‘masking’ problems but as a way of opening up important ‘honest’, sometimes painful, discussions.
  • Intercultural Competence is not about allowing cultures to interact but about seeing how we people with our multiple identities meet other people with their complex identities, and making sure that these meetings can reflect and enhance justice, equality/equity, and inclusion.
  • Failure to be ‘interculturally competent’ is part of sociality. If one can learn from failure to alter the ways we treat and interact with each other, then failure becomes a real asset.