Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

10.1: Intercultural Communication Competence

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    People who have developed good communication skills are often described as having communication competence. Communicating effectively, along with writing and critical thinking, is often considered one of the key skills of gaining a college education.To have communication competence means that “we have knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts” (Cooley & Roach, 1984).

    The National Communication Association (NCA) has developed guidelines for what it means to be a competent communicator (1999). They include:

    1. State ideas clearly.
    2. Communicate ethically.
    3. Recognize when it is appropriate to communicate.
    4. Identify their communication goals.
    5. Select the most appropriate and effective medium for communicating.
    6. Demonstrate credibility.
    7. Identify and manage misunderstandings.
    8. Manage conflict.
    9. Be open-minded about another’s point of view.
    10. Listen attentively.

    Intercultural communication competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various cultural contexts. Researcher Owen Hargie (2011) proposed that there were four levels of intercultural communication competence based on competent and incompetent communication as well as conscious or unconscious communication. Unconscious incompetence is the “be yourself” approach. This person may not have a strong knowledge of cultural differences and does not see any need to accommodate differences in communication styles or culture. They may not even be aware they are communicating in an incompetent manner. Once people learn more about culture and communication, they may become conscious incompetent. This is where they have the vocabulary to identify the concepts, and know what they should be doing, but realize they are not communicating as well as they could. Many of us have experienced the feeling that something isn’t quite right, yet we can’t quite figure out what went wrong. As communication skills increase, and the focus is on cultural concepts and communication styles, you become a conscious competent communicator. You know that you are communicating well in the moment, and you can add this memory to your growing bank of successful intercultural interactions. Reaching this level is important, but not the pinnacle of competent communication. Unconscious competence is the level to achieve. Unconscious competence means that you can communicate successfully without straining to be competent. At this point all the knowledge and previous experiences have been put into practice, and you rarely have to intently focus on your intercultural interactions because it has become second nature. You have developed the skills needed to be competent.

    Cultivating Intercultural Communication Competence

    While building any form of competence requires effort, building intercultural communication competence often requires us to take more risks. Some of these risks require us to leave our comfort zones and adapt to new and uncertain situations. What it means to be competent will vary depending on your physical location, your role (personal, professional, etc.), and your life stage, among other things. Sometimes we will know or be able to figure out what is expected of us in a given situation, but sometimes we may need to act in unexpected ways to meet the needs of a situation. Competence enables us to better cope with the unexpected, adapt to the nonroutine, and connect to uncommon frameworks. How can intercultural communication competence be built and achieved? This is a key question we will address in this section. I have always told my students that intercultural communication competence is less about a list of rules and more about a box of tools. Three ways to cultivate intercultural communication competence are to foster attitudes that motivate us, discover knowledge that informs us, and develop skills that enable us (Bennett, 2009).


    To foster attitudes that motivate us, we must develop a sense of wonder about culture. This sense of wonder can lead to feeling overwhelmed, humbled, or awed (Opdal, 2001). This sense of wonder may correlate to a high tolerance for uncertainty, which can help us turn potentially frustrating experiences we have into teachable moments. Initially, a person’s motivation for communicating with people from other cultures must be considered. Motivation refers to the root of a person’s desire to foster intercultural relationships. (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Put simply, if a person isn’t motivated to communicate with people from different cultures, then the components of intercultural communication competence discussed next don’t really matter. If a person has a healthy curiosity that drives him or her toward intercultural encounters in order to learn more about self and others, then there is a foundation from which to build additional competence-relevant attitudes and skills. This intrinsic motivation makes intercultural communication a voluntary, rewarding, and lifelong learning process. While intrinsic motivation captures an idealistic view of intercultural communication as rewarding in its own right, many contexts create extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation for intercultural communication is driven by the desire of an outside reward like money, power, or recognition. While both types of motivation can contribute to intercultural communication competence, tolerance for uncertainty may further enhance or impede a person’s motivation to communicate across cultures.

    Tolerance for uncertainty refers to an individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and intercultural encounters often bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with someone of a different gender, race, or nationality, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say. Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or otherwise communicate in a less competent manner. Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a more successful outcome (Pusch, 2009). Individuals who are intrinsically motivated toward intercultural communication may have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, in that their curiosity leads them to engage with others who are different because they find the self- and other-knowledge gained rewarding.

    Members of dominant groups are often less motivated, intrinsically and extrinsically, toward intercultural communication than members of nondominant groups, because they don’t see the incentives for doing so. Having more power in communication encounters can create an unbalanced situation where the individual from the nondominant group is expected to exhibit competence, or the ability to adapt to the communication behaviors and attitudes of the other. Even in situations where extrinsic rewards like securing an overseas business investment are at stake, it is likely that the foreign investor is much more accustomed to adapting to United States business customs and communication than vice versa. This expectation that others will adapt to our communication can be unconscious, but later intercultural communication competence skills we will learn will help bring it to awareness.

    The unbalanced situation I just described is a daily reality for many individuals with nondominant identities. Their motivation toward intercultural communication may be driven by survival in terms of functioning effectively in dominant contexts. Recall the phenomenon known as code-switching discussed earlier, in which individuals from nondominant groups adapt their communication to fit in with the dominant group. In such instances, African Americans may “talk white” by conforming to what is called “standard English,” women in corporate environments may adapt masculine communication patterns, people who are gay or lesbian may self-censor and avoid discussing their same-gender partners with coworkers, and people with nonvisible disabilities may not disclose them in order to avoid judgment. These situations highlight the relational aspect of intercultural communication competence, meaning that the motivation of all parties should be considered.


    Motivation alone cannot create intercultural communication competence. Discovering knowledge that informs us is another step that can build on our motivation and is an important part of building intercultural communication competence. Knowledge includes self- and other-awareness, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Building knowledge of our own cultures, identities, and communication patterns takes more than passive experience (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Developing cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. The most effective way to develop other-awareness is by direct and thoughtful encounters with other cultures. However, people may not readily have these opportunities for a variety of reasons. Despite the overall diversity in the United States, many people still only interact with people who are similar to them. Even in a racially diverse educational setting, for example, people often group off with people of their own race. While a heterosexual person may have a gay or lesbian friend or relative, they likely spend most of their time with other heterosexuals. Able-bodied people, unless they interact with people with disabilities as part of their job or have a person with a disability in their family, likely spend most of their time interacting with able-bodied people. Living in a rural area may limit one's ability to interact with a range of cultures, and most people do not travel internationally regularly. Because of this, we may have to make a determined effort to interact with people from other cultures or rely on educational sources like college classes, books, or documentaries. Learning another language is also a good way to learn about a culture, because you can then read the news or watch movies in the native language, which can offer insights that are lost in translation. It is important to note though that we must evaluate the credibility of the source of our knowledge, whether it is a book, person, or other source. Also, knowledge of another language does not automatically equate to intercultural communication competence.

    Developing knowledge through self- and other-awareness is an ongoing process that will continue to adapt and grow as we encounter new experiences. Mindfulness and cognitive complexity will help as we continue to build our intercultural communication competence (Pusch, 2009). Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that comes with a high level of intercultural communication competence. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build intercultural communication competence. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks. One tool to increase mindfulness involves learning more about our cognitive style, or how we learn. Our cognitive style consists of our preferred patterns for “gathering information, constructing meaning, and organizing and applying knowledge” (Bennett, 2009). As we explore cognitive styles, we discover that there are differences in how people attend to and perceive the world, explain events, and use rules of logic (Nisbett, 2003). Some cultures have a cognitive style that focuses more on tasks, analytic and objective thinking, details and precision, inner direction, and independence, while others focus on relationships and people over tasks and things, concrete and metaphorical thinking, and a group consciousness and harmony. This awareness can lead to cognitive flexibility, which refers to the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. In summary, to be better intercultural communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.


    Developing skills that enable us is another part of intercultural communication competence. Some of the skills important to intercultural communication competence are the ability to empathize, accumulate cultural information, listen, resolve conflict, and manage anxiety (Bennett, 2009). Again, you are already developing a foundation for these skills by reading this book, but you can expand those skills to intercultural settings with the motivation and knowledge already described. Contact with culturally different others alone does not increase intercultural skills; there must be more deliberate measures taken to fully capitalize on those encounters. While research now shows that intercultural contact does decrease prejudices, this is not enough to become interculturally competent. The ability to empathize and manage anxiety enhances prejudice reduction, and these two skills have been shown to enhance the overall impact of intercultural contact even more than acquiring cultural knowledge. There is intercultural training available for people who are interested. If you can’t access training, you may choose to research intercultural training on your own, as there are many books, articles, and manuals written on the subject.

    Reflective practices can also help us process through rewards and challenges associated with developing intercultural communication competence. As we open ourselves to new experiences, we are likely to have both positive and negative reactions. It can be very useful to take note of negative or defensive reactions you have. This can help you identify certain triggers that may create barriers to effective intercultural interaction. Noting positive experiences can also help you identify triggers for learning that you could seek out or recreate to enhance the positive (Bednarz, 2010). A more complex method of reflection is called intersectional reflexivity. Intersectional reflexivity is a reflective practice by which we acknowledge intersecting identities, both privileged and disadvantaged, and implicate ourselves in social hierarchies and inequalities (Jones Jr., 2010). This method brings in the concepts of dominant and nondominant groups and the privileges/disadvantages dialectic we discussed earlier in chapter 2.

    While formal intercultural experiences like studying abroad or volunteering for the Special Olympics or a shelter for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth can result in learning, informal experiences are also important. We may be less likely to include informal experiences in our reflection if we don’t see them as legitimate. Reflection should also include “critical incidents” or what I call “a-ha! moments.” Think of reflection as a tool for metacompetence that can be useful in bringing the formal and informal together (Bednarz, 2010).

    “Getting Competent”

    Thinking under the Influence

    Communication and culture scholar Brenda Allen coined the phrase “thinking under the influence” (TUI) to highlight a reflective process that can help us hone our intercultural communication competence (Allen, 2011). As we discussed earlier, being mindful is an important part of building competence. Once we can become aware of our thought processes and behaviors, we can more effectively monitor and intervene in them. She asks us to monitor our thoughts and feelings about other people, both similar to and different from us. As we monitor, we should try to identify instances when we are guilty of TUI, such as uncritically accepting the dominant belief systems, relying on stereotypes, or prejudging someone based on their identities. She recounts seeing a picture on the front of the newspaper with three men who appeared Latino. She found herself wondering what they had done, and then found out from the caption that they were the relatives of people who died in a car crash. She identified that as a TUI moment and asked herself if she would have had the same thought if they had been black, white, Asian, or female. When we feel “surprised” by someone different, this often points to a preexisting negative assumption that we can unpack and learn from. Allen also found herself surprised when a panelist at a conference who used a wheelchair and was hearing impaired made witty comments. Upon reflection, she realized that she had an assumption that people with disabilities would have a gloomy outlook on life. While these examples focus on out-groups, she also notes that it’s important for people, especially in nondominant groups, to monitor their thoughts about their own group, as they may have internalized negative attitudes about their group from the dominant culture. As a black woman, she notes that she has been critical of black people who “do not speak mainstream English” based on stereotypes she internalized about race, language, and intelligence. It is not automatically a bad thing to TUI. Even Brenda Allen, an accomplished and admirable scholar of culture and communication, catches herself doing it. When we notice that we TUI, it’s important to reflect on that moment and try to adjust our thinking processes. This is an ongoing process, but it is an easy-to-remember way to cultivate your intercultural communication competence. Keep a record of instances where you catch yourself “thinking under the influence” and answer the following questions:

    1. What triggers you to TUI?
    2. Where did these influences on your thought come from?
    3. What concepts from this chapter can you apply to change your thought processes?

    Intercultural learning is a lifelong process. The content you have covered in this text is complex, challenging, and at times, confronting. As you are now aware, the idea of becoming culturally competent represents an over-simplified understanding of intercultural learning. This text is a starting point in developing your critical lens through which you can examine, reflect, and extract deeper learning from your intercultural experiences. Maintaining a critical perspective that is informed by an awareness of your cultural self takes practice. We encourage you to keep working on the development of your critical lens, expect to make mistakes and reflect on your experiences. You will be able to apply these skills not only to your upcoming intercultural experience, but also throughout your personal and professional working life. Good luck and safe journey.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Intercultural Learning: Critical Preparation for International Student Travel, by, James Cook University, Provided by UTS ePress. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    This page titled 10.1: Intercultural Communication Competence is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Grothe.