Have you ever been assigned a partner for a group project who thinks from a perspective which is the opposite of your own? What about trying to befriend someone who was very fluent in a language you weren’t? Did this make the process of getting to know them and pushing your cultural biases aside difficult?
Within our personal, academic, and professional lives, we meet or communicate with people who have a different cultural footprint than us. The foundation of this identity footprint is composed of their ethnicity, family, level of education, work experience, age, etc. These identity layers, combined, influence the person’s thoughts, attitudes and actions towards interacting with others (e.g. navigating familial, platonic, and companion relationships) as well as their environments (e.g. school, work).
Diversity is defined as cultural differences in values, beliefs, and behaviours learned and shared by groups of interacting people. Research has shown that students who embrace diversity and seek out groups with students who come from different cultural backgrounds experience new points of view, different and creative ways of thinking.
While the age old saying of “we are all the same” has merit in terms of equality, it is also misleading. Everyone has interests, perspectives, and obstacles that vary. No single person is on the same journey as their peer(s) or loved ones. These differences not only construct our identities, but nurture and reinforce them.
When considering different cultures, there are some objective elements that can be observed and experience when we first step into a new cultural context. Such factors can include, but are not limited to:
But there are also some more subjective aspects, suck as deep values and beliefs– all of which are complex and can be hard to understand (Bradley West, 2019).
By now, you’re probably wondering how you can navigate relationships with peers who come from diverse cultural backgrounds?
We all have our own biases about other individuals’ distinctive qualities – it’s inevitable. These biases tend to influence the way in which we interact with others, whether we are consciously aware of them or not. The key then, is to become self-aware of your blind spots (aka the biases we have toward our peers) to avoid falling into wrong assumptions or prejudices. You can develop or cultivate intercultural competence to help make uncovering your blind-spots easier.
Intercultural competence is the ability to recognize, acknowledge, respect, and incorporate an understanding of the world-views that impact our relationships. This competence requires us to expand our worldly knowledge, so that we can respond appropriately within various cultural contexts. This can even lead you to developing a multi-cultural identity!
Here is an example of such an identity, provided by Gardenswartz & Rowe (2003):
In the outer (red) circle, we have the Organizational Dimensions, such as Membership to Union, Location of Work, or Level of Seniority.
In the secondary (yellow) circle, we have the External Dimensions, such as Marital Status, Range of Income, or Level of Education.
In the interior (green) circle, we have the Internal Dimensions, such as Ethnicity, Physical Ability, or Age.
Each of these dimensions plays an integral role in your cultural identity and your intercultural competence. In this Ted Talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie illustrates the dangers of buying into a single, one-dimensional perspective.
Practicing inclusion amongst peers requires:
being explicit about your expectations
reflecting on your own biases and assumptions
relationships that are open to navigating ambiguity and misunderstanding
Within an inclusive space, yourself and peers should be able to freely express and participate in teaching, learning, as well as social contexts.
In our growing community, it’s important for us to be able to effectively communicate, share, and feel connected to everyone around us. In order to thrive in a diverse workplace, we need to understand each other and try to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. This is what it means for be intercultural competent.
As you develop your intercultural competence, you may move through different stages (Bennett, 2007), as follows:
Difficulty/avoids understanding cultural differences.
Understands cultural differences through stereotypes and “us versus them”.
Accepts cultural differences, but minimizes their importance.
Has accepted own cultural identity as different from others, and accepts other identities different from their own.
The ability to look through other people's eyes and change behavior to be able to better communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds.
Shifting your cultural perspective becomes natural and fluid and becomes part of your own identity.
Look the diagram and table and try to assess your own intercultural competence.
Where do you fall on the continuum? Try to think about it from different areas of your life. Do you find yourself moving depending on different cultures, or groups? How do you feel when you’re at home versus at school? How do you feel when you’re traveling abroad? In a new job? When starting school? Being able to reflect on your own cultural identity and the identity of those around you including co-workers and classmates is the starting point in developing intercultural competence!
Bennett, M. J. (2007). Intercultural competence for global leadership. Retrieved from http://www.idrinstitute.org/allegati/IDRI_t_Pubblicazioni/4/FILE_Documento.pdf
The Academic Success Centre provides a number of different in-classroom workshops and online courses that are dedicated to diversity training. Just like technical, communication and interpersonal skills, intercultural competence is a highly sought after skill in the job market. By developing students’ intercultural competence, it is our goal to provide you with the tools to work and thrive in the diverse local community and global environment! You can find more information visiting this page.
You can also check out our new Intercultural Competence & Diversity guide that offers a starting point in an understanding of our cultural identities and building on the skills to bridge cross-cultural differences. This guide includes a selection of books and e-books, and some featured videos from LinkedIn Learning. These resources may also help enhance intercultural communication, a key ingredient in an expanding world.
Gardenswartz & Rowe, Diverse Teams at Work (2nd Edition, SHRM, 2003). *Internal Dimensions and External Dimensions are adapted from Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener, Workforce America! (Business One Irwin, 1991)
Bennett, M. J. (2007). Intercultural competence for global leadership. https://www.idrinstitute.org/