Your journey to cultural competence

Whether in our professional roles, through the communities we live in or our personal circumstances most of us now experience situations where we need to relate to and communicate with people who are ‘not like us’.  We realise that our ways of doing things are not the same and that our values and beliefs are not necessarily shared by others in our community or workplace.  Whether working across cultures or living in a multicultural environment we need a new skill set and a change in mindset, or in other words, we need to develop our cultural competence.

Develop your own personal toolbox

Developing cultural competence does not require a sudden drastic change but rather a journey, a gradual evolution. An image you might find useful when setting out on this journey is that of your own personal cultural toolbox; as you continue your journey you acquire new tools.

Your starter-kit

It starts with what we could call the basic set of tools which belong into every tool box, a starter-kit, things which we have acquired and added over the years without really noticing. This might be our communication style, the way our parents have encouraged us to be “polite”, the way we relate to other people and what it means to spend “time” with someone. The way we were introduced to the workplace and the skills we learned here will be another part of this kit.

The right attitudes

Some other tools which should be in your toolbox are the right attitudes, such as openness and tolerance, respect for difference and self-awareness. Awareness of your own cultural narrative, the stories people tell around you and which we have come to accept as “the truth”. What are your own expectations? What do you take for granted? What really upsets you when it comes to other people’s behaviours?

Build your tool box

As you set out on your journey to cultural competence, just like a journeyman of old, you acquire additional skills and tools which you learn along the way. Even a short stay in another country or contact with people from other cultures will add to your toolbox. Good listening and observation skills are key. How do your international colleagues prefer to communicate, do they ask you to deliver your report “by tomorrow if at all possible”, pointing out that they know “this is a lot to ask”, or do they simply tell you that they “need it by tomorrow”? How could you modify your own communication style in order to work as well as possible with people from different backgrounds? Once you have practised this, you have another skill to go into the toolbox.

You might be dealing with people to whom “small talk” is really important. Do you dismiss this as “idle talk” and refuse to talk anything but “big talk”, or do you become aware of the important social messages contained in this sort of conversation and practise your own? As part of his “Word of Mouth” series, Michael Rosen recently discussed this in a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 . He primarily explored the role of small talk in the UK but also touched upon attitudes to small talk in other cultures. Further examples of intercultural tools could be practising a relationship-focused rather than a task-focused way of working with colleagues (or the other way around). How important is it to you to really get to know the person you are doing business with? How do you do this? Something else to add to your box. Maybe you need to add patience if you are from a culture where “time is money”.

Essential luggage

The beauty of the toolbox metaphor is that it implies that you can gradually add to it so that you have the appropriate tool for a variety of situations. The skills, tools and attitudes in the box should not feel fake and artificial so that you are reluctant to use them but are tools which you have worked with over time and which therefore feel comfortable to you. Some tools you will find you can work with more naturally and easily while others may require you to practise more consciously or you may even need intercultural training to learn how to use them.  Your toolbox will then become an essential item of luggage on your journey to cultural competence.

Why not test your cultural competence with our intercultural quiz.

Heike Image


After a career in translation and the IT industry in the UK and in Germany, Heike has worked as an intercultural trainer for the past 15 years. Now based in the UK, she delivers training and coaching for major corporations across a wide range of industries, from pharmaceutical to consumer goods, and at all levels, from graduates through to CEOs.

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