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1.5: Intercultural Communication Competence

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Define intercultural communication competence.
    2. Explain how motivation, self- and other-knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty relate to intercultural communication competence.
    3. Summarize the three ways to cultivate intercultural communication competence that are discussed.
    4. Apply the concept of “thinking under the influence” as a reflective skill for building intercultural communication competence.

    Throughout this book we have been putting various tools in our communication toolbox to improve our communication competence. Many of these tools can be translated into intercultural contexts. 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. In this section, we will learn some of the skills needed to be an interculturally competent communicator. Before we do, it is important to understand the United States has a blending of cultural groups. We use metaphors to understand the cultural mix of the United States. Common metaphors we use are the melting pot, a set of tributaries, a tapestry, and a garden salad. [i]


    The Melting Pot Metaphor- "is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture. It is particularly used to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States; the melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s."

    a fondue pot
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The American Melting Pot. Source.

    The Tributaries Metaphor

    "A currently popular metaphor for describing the mix of cultures in the United States is that of tributaries or tributary streams. America, according to this image, is like a huge cultural watershed, providing numerous paths in which the many tributary cultures can flow. The tributaries maintain their unique identities as they surge toward their common destination."

    The Tapestry Metaphor

    A tapestry is a decorative cloth made up of many strands of thread. The threads are woven together into an artistic design that may be pleasing to some but not to others. Each thread is akin to a person, and groups of similar threads are analogous to a culture. Of course, the types of threads differ in many ways; their thickness, smoothness, color, texture, and strength may vary.

    The Garden Salad Metaphor

    Like a garden salad made up of many distinct ingredients that are being tossed continuously, some see the United States as made up of a complex array of distinct cultures that are blended into a unique, and one hopes tasteful, mixture.

    These metaphors help us understand what happens as individuals and their cultures assimilate into the national culture. Before this assimilation occurs, individuals will most likely experience culture shock.[iii]

    Culture Shock

    Culture shock is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

    Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg provided an early explanation of the term at a presentation to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 3, 1954.

    Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.[iv]

    Stages of Culture Shock[v]

    1. The Honeymoon Stage
    The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive and individuals become infatuated with the culture and all of its differences from the person’s original culture; including language, people, food , social practices, etc. Individuals may find they just want to stay in the culture “forever.”

    2. The Frustration Stage
    At this stage, individuals feel tired of not being able to understanding the verbal and nonverbal communication and miscommunication can happen frequently.

    3. The Adjustment Stage
    Frustrations begin to decrease as individuals become more familiar with the culture (beliefs, values, norms, social practices). There may even be beginning feelings of slight assimilation into the culture.

    4. The Acceptance Stage
    In this final stage, individual understand the new culture a little better and are feeling more comfortable in the communication interactions. To feel more at ease in the new culture, individuals may make an effort to begin the adaptation process.


    Acculturation is the process by which immigrant people adjust and adapt their way of life to the host culture. Once in the U.S., they realize that they have to make some adjustments in order to experience success in their daily interactions with members of the mainstream society.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): 4-Fold Acculturation Model.

    Assimilation is the process by which people from different cultures are acculturated and ultimately absorbed into the mainstream culture. In much of the U.S. history of immigration throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries, assimilation was more or less forced toward the deeply British-influenced mainstream culture systems.

    Cultural integration is a form of cultural exchange in which one group assumes the beliefs, practices and rituals of another group without sacrificing the characteristics of its own culture. While cultural syncretism carries a negative connotation, cultural integration is generally looked upon as positive because nothing is lost. Seen from this light, cultural integration is a healthy intermingling of the beliefs and rituals of two unique cultures.[vi]

    Separation occurs when individuals reject the dominant or host culture in favor of preserving their culture of origin. Separation is often facilitated by immigration to ethnic enclaves.

    Many adult immigrants hold dear their homeland cultures and adapt as little as possible to mainstream U.S. cultural norms, which commonly leads to marginalization. Marginalization is the tendency for adult immigrants to be rendered powerless in comparison to native-born adults because they live as half citizens not fully capable of realizing the individual opportunities often found available to average native-born adults. Their U.S. born children find themselves living in a culturally transitioning family structure. Their parents are more like permanent tourists here while they become fully Americanized (for better or for worse), because public schools are tremendous socialization agencies which effectively acculturate most children into the mainstream. These children often serve as cultural liaisons to their parents and the mainstream culture. Regardless of which culture.[vii]

    During this acculturation process we are often times face dilemmas.

    Ethical Dilemmas[viii]

    An issue many people face when interacting and communicating with another culture is whether they should change their behaviors to fit the host culture’s belief, values, norms and social practices. The question arises on whether the people of the host culture should adjunct their behaviors or is it the responsibility of the visitor?

    “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This old saying places the responsibility on the visitor. Respecting differences in verbal and nonverbal communication means the visitor must take the responsibility to research about the host culture and follow the host culture. Do you think people should engage in behaviors they find morally or ethically wrong? Is it possible people could lose their own sense of self? Could making these adaptation possibly offend the host culture?

    1. Another ethical issue confronting the visitor is whether it is acceptable to judge the host culture’s behaviors due to a vast difference in beliefs, values, norms and social practices. Are there values that go beyond cultural differences?

    Components of Intercultural Communication Competence

    Competent communication is interaction that is perceived as effective in fulfilling certain rewarding objectives in a way that is also appropriate to the context in which the interaction occurs.

    Intercultural competence is contextual. An impression or judgment that a person is intercultural competent is made with respect to both a specific relational context and a particular situational context. Competence is not independent of the relationships and situations within which communication occurs.

    · Knowledge refers to the cognitive information you need to have about the people, the context, and the norms of appropriateness that operate in a specific culture.

    · Motivations include the overall set of emotional associations that people have as they anticipate and actually communicate interculturally.

    · Feelings refer to the emotional or effective state that you experience when communicating with someone from a different culture.

    · Intentions are what guide your choices in a particular intercultural interaction. Your intentions are the goals, plans, objectives, and desires that focus and direct your behavior.

    · Actions refer to the actual performance of those behaviors that are regarded as appropriate and effective.

    · Respect is shown through both verbal and nonverbal symbols.

    BASIC dimensions of intercultural competence.

    · Orientation to Knowledge - The terms people use to explain themselves and the world around them.

    · Empathy - The capacity to behave as though you understand the world as others do.

    · Interaction Management - Skill in regulating conversations.

    · Task Role Behavior - Behaviors that involve the initiation of ideas related to group problem-solving activities.

    · Relational Role Behavior - Behaviors associated with interpersonal harmony and mediation.

    · Tolerance for Ambiguity Interaction Posture - The ability to react to new and ambiguous situations with little visible discomfort.

    · Display of Respect - The ability to show respect and positive regard for another person.

    · Interaction Posture - The ability to respond to others in descriptive.

    Intercultural communication competence (ICC) is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various cultural contexts. There are numerous components of ICC. Some key components include motivation, self- and other knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty.

    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 and can be intrinsic or extrinsic (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Put simply, if a person isn’t motivated to communicate with people from different cultures, then the components of ICC 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. Motivation can also be extrinsic, meaning that the desire for intercultural communication is driven by an outside reward like money, power, or recognition. While both types of motivation can contribute to ICC, context may further enhance or impede a person’s motivation to communicate across cultures.

    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 ICC skills we will learn will help bring it to awareness.

    The unbalanced situation 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. This is a form of code-switching 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.

    While intrinsic motivation captures an idealistic view of intercultural communication as rewarding in its own right, many contexts create extrinsic motivation. In either case, there is a risk that an individual’s motivation can still lead to incompetent communication. For example, it would be exploitative for an extrinsically motivated person to pursue intercultural communication solely for an external reward and then abandon the intercultural relationship once the reward is attained. These situations highlight the relational aspect of ICC, meaning that the motivation of all parties should be considered. Motivation alone cannot create ICC.

    Knowledge supplements motivation and is an important part of building ICC. 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). 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. This may be uncomfortable, because we may realize that people think of our identities differently than we thought.. They perceived US Americans to be shallow because they were friendly and exciting while they were in Sweden but didn’t remain friends once they left. The most effective way to develop other-knowledge 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. Unless you interact with people with disabilities as part of your job or have a person with a disability in your friend or family group, you likely spend most of your time interacting with able-bodied people. Living in a rural area may limit your 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 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 ICC.

    Developing self- and other-knowledge 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 ICC (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 ICC. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build ICC. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibilityrefers 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.

    Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the moment of intercultural encounters is also important. 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.

    Cultivating Intercultural Communication Competence

    How can ICC be built and achieved? This is a key question we will address in this section. Two main ways to build ICC are through experiential learning and reflective practices (Bednarz, 2010). We must first realize that competence isn’t any one thing. Part of being competent means that you can assess new situations and adapt your existing knowledge to the new contexts. 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. I have always told my students that ICC is less about a list of rules and more about a box of tools.

    Three ways to cultivate ICC 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.

    Discovering knowledge that informs us is another step that can build on our motivation. One tool 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, organize the world, 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.

    Developing ICC is a complex learning process. At the basic level of learning, we accumulate knowledge and assimilate it into our existing frameworks. But accumulated knowledge doesn’t necessarily help us in situations where we have to apply that knowledge. Transformative learning takes place at the highest levels and occurs when we encounter situations that challenge our accumulated knowledge and our ability to accommodate that knowledge to manage a real-world situation. The cognitive dissonance that results in these situations is often uncomfortable and can lead to a hesitance to repeat such an engagement. One tip for cultivating ICC that can help manage these challenges is to find a community of like-minded people who are also motivated to develop ICC. In my graduate program, I lived in the international dormitory in order to experience the cultural diversity that I had enjoyed so much studying abroad a few years earlier. I was surrounded by international students and US American students who were more or less interested in cultural diversity. This ended up being a tremendous learning experience, and I worked on research about identity and communication between international and American students.

    Developing skills that enable us is another part of ICC. Some of the skills important to ICC 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 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 ICC. 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.

    While formal intercultural experiences like studying abroad or volunteering for the Special Olympics or a shelter for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) 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).

    Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 12.26.28 PM.png

    This is an ongoing process, but it is an easy-to-remember way to cultivate your ICC. 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?

    Key Takeaways

    · Getting integrated: Intercultural communication competence (ICC) is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various cultural contexts. ICC also has the potential to benefit you in academic, professional, personal, and civic contexts.

    · A person with appropriate intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to engage in intercultural communication can develop self- and other-knowledge that will contribute to their ability to be mindful of their own communication and tolerate uncertain situations.

    · We can cultivate ICC by fostering attitudes that motivate us, discovering knowledge that informs us, and developing skills that enable us.


    1. Identify an intercultural encounter in which you did not communicate as competently as you would have liked. What concept(s) from the chapter would have helped you in this situation and how?

    2. Which of the following components of ICC—motivation, mindfulness, cognitive flexibility, and tolerance for uncertainty—do you think you are most competent at, and which one needs the most work? Identify how you became so competent at the first one and some ways that you can improve the second one.

    3. Choose one of the three ways discussed to cultivate ICC and make a list of five steps you can take to enhance this part of your competence.

    [i] Stokes


    [iii] Stokes-Rice, 2019


    [v] Stokes-Rice, 2019


    [vii] COC Sociology 101 OER

    [viii] Stokes-Rice, 2019

    1.5: Intercultural Communication Competence is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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