Globalisation started when men left their homelands in search of economic gains in 3000 BC. Today, globalisation is ubiquitous. Seasonal foods are now available offseason. Newly launched fashion in Europe is readily available in stores the next day in Asia. Companies can access talent and clients across the world just by the click of the mouse.
Economic development and political exchange require the global mobility of people. This mobility gave rise to diplomats, expatriates and economic migrants. With an increase in cross-border mobility, research1 has shown that individuals who have spent as little as three months abroad have seen an increase in their Intercultural Competence. The most significant improvement in Intercultural Competence is the individual’s reflection on their cultural identity compared to their host culture, which subsequently increases self-awareness.
Globalisation brought about massive shifts in our way of life. As such, it has become a necessity to engage with people from other cultures. To effectively engage, collaborate and relate with people from different cultures, we need intercultural skills, one of which is Intercultural Competence. Intercultural competence was once viewed as an essential skill only for international relations. However, for organisations to expand beyond their locality, most everyone needs intercultural competence to thrive, from the leaders to employees.
With the information that is easily accessible through our mobile devices, is it still necessary to travel and live abroad to improve our intercultural competence? What does it mean to have an increased Intercultural Competence, and how does it help in engaging, collaborating and relating to others?
To answer these questions, we will delve deeper into understanding the Intercultural Competence framework and how globalisation plays a part in shaping this competence within the individual.
Globalisation: Past vs Present
Globalisation2 is the interaction and integration between people, organisations, businesses and governments brought by trade, investments, and cultural exchange. Globalisation has rapidly increased in the past two decades. This can be seen by the ubiquitous brick and mortar brands of McDonald’s and Starbucks available in every city block and suburb, the e-commerce brands of Amazon and Alibaba as bookmarks on our browsers, as well as the devices in our pockets of Apple, Samsung or Huawei.
Since humanity started leaving their homelands in search of economic gains, the world has experienced globalisation. Historians3 believe that the first long-distance trade occurred around 3000BC between Mesopotamia and Indus Valley in Pakistan. They traded luxury goods such as textile, spices and metals. Not long after, civilisations with abundant commodities established trading routes that gave them riches to expand their cities.
Fast forward centuries later, globalisation had seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. Brands that were once available within a country are now established across the world. Supplies for the production of goods that were once locally sourced are now globally sourced at competitive prices. For example, fast fashion companies may have sourced their cotton in Kazakhstan, dyes from India, assembled in Cambodia, before distributing to regional warehouses worldwide. This allows fast fashion brands to keep their prices low.
With the (almost) free flow of information on the internet, some may say that travel is no longer necessary to learn and experience other cultures. We have access to movies, music, tv shows, and various content via cloud and streaming services for a minimal fee or free.
This begs the question… Can we develop Intercultural Competence in the comfort of our homes and still collaborate and work effectively with people from other parts of the world?
How does Intercultural Competence Help?
Academics and researchers have proposed and attempted to define Intercultural Competence. Generally, Intercultural Competence consists of the individual’s knowledge, behaviours and attitudes that enable them to effectively communicate, interact and relate with people from other cultures to accomplish their goals.
People with Intercultural Competence can navigate cultural complexities by
- attaining cultural knowledge as well as reflecting upon one’s own culture
- having the right attitude in engaging and interacting with others to achieve the best outcome for everyone
- recognising and considering cultural nuances and group dynamics in their interactions
- adjusting their speech and behaviours to suit the other cultures’ expectations
One common myth of people with Intercultural Competence is that they will forgo their own cultural values, norms and beliefs to adopt another. On the contrary, research4 has shown that when interacting with people from another culture, one becomes more aware of their own cultural values, norms and beliefs. With the increased awareness, individuals will decide the level of adjustment and compromise that is most comfortable for them.
If you wish to expand beyond your borders, having Intercultural Competence will be advantageous in accessing new markets and tapping into the global talent pool. Venturing into new markets without having cultural knowledge, understanding cultural nuances, and having the right attitude or behaviour adjustment can be risky to your business. For example, Starbucks ventured into Vietnam, the coffee capital of Southeast Asia but struggled to gain traction with the Vietnamese, unlike in other Southeast Asian nations.
📹 by CNBC5
While Starbucks’ struggle is a combination of many factors, having Intercultural Competence early on may help the company prepare for and reduce its risk in expanding to new markets. As companies search for greater growth through foreign markets, will our highly interconnected world and abundance of accessible knowledge be sufficient to improve Intercultural Competence?
Can Globalisation Improve Intercultural Competence?
There are certain aspects of the development of Intercultural Competence that can be aided by globalisation, though not entirely. Intercultural Competencies consist of three essential elements, which are Attitudes, Knowledge and Skills.
Attitude is a combination of emotions and beliefs towards an object, person, event or issue. Before the intercultural encounter, individuals can develop the right attitudes. Attitudes such as respect, openness, and curiosity can help one be effective without prior knowledge or adopting the other’s cultural behaviours.
Though generally, psychologists6 have long known that attitudes are difficult to change, which also implies that the development of Intercultural Competence may not be suitable for everyone.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Viktor E. Frankl
Cultural knowledge is wide-ranging and can encompass customs, history, politics, economic, language and many more. With access to an abundance of knowledge on the internet, one can easily find information about another culture. Expatriate groups, bloggers, media companies, governments, academics and many more have published online and in books. They willingly share anecdotes, observations and research of various global cultures. Here are a couple of fantastic resources to start with:
With the abundance of easily accessible knowledge, you can gain relevant intercultural knowledge and with limited experiences. However, one needs to bear in mind that cultural experiences are personal and relative. The experiences between a Taiwanese and an Australian business person can significantly differ when negotiating with a Chinese company. Knowledge obtained through study should be kept as a guide and not treated as the Bible. The development of Intercultural Competence is still through experience.
Skills are the individual’s ability to practically apply knowledge in various contexts to achieve their desired outcome. For Intercultural Competence, the skills refer to the flexibility of an individual in adapting verbal and non-verbal communication to be understood and engage with the other culture. Other skills related to Intercultural Competence is empathy, the ability to take another’s perspective and decipher unspoken rules of other's culture.
While one can read books and watch videos, these skills can only be improved with practice and the accumulation of experiences. Globalisation has made cities into a cultural melting pot. Cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, London, Sydney, New York and many others contain pockets of the world’s cultures. If you live in a multicultural city, seeking out multicultural experiences and ensuring a diverse network will help you gain the practice and experience required. However, suppose you’re living in a homogenous society. In that case, the opportunities to gain intercultural experiences and opportunities to practice behaviours will be limited.
Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is more intellectual play. Immanuel Kant
Does Globalisation Improve Intercultural Competence?
Nearly every corner of the earth is touched by globalisation. It plays a vital role in the expansion of businesses and the development of Intercultural Competence within individuals. However, we must bear in mind that Intercultural Competence is not a status or a certificate to be obtained. Instead, it’s a lifelong process of learning and personal development.
When one has developed Intercultural Competence for a culture, it does not mean you’ll be successful in another. With every new culture, you’ll need to relearn different ways of communicating, acquiring new knowledge, and adapting your behaviours. Pay attention to the how of acquiring knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Doing so can significantly develop one’s Intercultural Competence to succeed in our globalised world.
- Behrnd, V., & Porzelt, S. (2012). Intercultural competence and training outcomes of students with experiences abroad. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(2), 213–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.04.005
- What is globalisation? (n.d.). BBC Bitesize. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zxpn2p3/revision/1
- Society, N. G. (2018, February 6). Key Components of Civilization. National Geographic Society. http://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/key-components-civilization/
- López-Rocha, S. (2016). Intercultural communicative competence: Creating awareness and promoting skills in the language classroom. In C. Goria, O. Speicher, & S. Stollhans (Eds.), Innovative language teaching and learning at university: Enhancing participation and collaboration (pp. 105–111). Research-publishing.net. https://doi.org/10.14705/rpnet.2016.000411
- CNBC. (2020, January 1). Why Starbucks Struggles In Vietnam’s $1B Coffee Market. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llwyY4BDbfc
- Shulman, B. (2013, November 28). Why are attitudes so hard to change? Psychology In Action. https://www.psychologyinaction.org/psychology-in-action-1/2013/11/28/why-are-attitudes-so-hard-to-change
Note: The original post was published on Culture Spark Global on the 19th of July 2020. This article was updated and republished here.