5 Actions You Can Take To Gain Intercultural Competence
International travel is slowly becoming a norm for our culture. More and more travelers are deciding to pack their bags and partake in an experience abroad, either for educational purposes, a career change, adventure, or a mixture of the three. These experiences are short-term or long-term, and can help you prepare for the “next step” in your academic or professional life.
I should know; I’ve done it! A lot. There are many names you can call this experience: a gap year, semester abroad, study abroad, travel adventure, international service-learning project – the list goes on. One thing they have in common, is that they all offer you the opportunity to develop personal and professional skills.
Skill development is a critical focus of your abroad journey, and one of the most significant skills to know about is intercultural competence. What exactly is it, though?
Intercultural competence is being able to effectively communicate and appropriately behave in host countries. It is re-positioning your own, individual attitudes within the larger context of the country you are visiting, which as a result, provides you with a wider perspective of the world.
To me, it is a cultural self-awareness that helps you to become a more in-tune global citizen.
You can make sure you are developing this skill with the five actions I’ve listed below. They are handy tips I’ve used to develop intercultural competence during my own international adventures, and they can guide you with yours as well:
1) Learn from the locals
The locals are full of knowledge! Approach them (in a symbolic way) as your teachers. Learn from everyone in every way possible. This is a good rule of thumb for how you approach people in general, because everyone has their own unique perspective to offer. Especially while traveling abroad though, talk with the locals and learn from their stories, histories, and ideas to get a better understanding of your new culture.
2) Be grateful
This one can definitely extend beyond intercultural competence, but it also applies to how you connect with your host culture. Thank everyone, for everything, as often as possible. Thank your teachers, your advisers, your host mom for doing your laundry, workers whose street food carts you frequent (who knows, they may also start giving you a discount because they like you!), your roommate for enduring your heavy metal enthusiasm, anyone and everyone you encounter – find something positive that you can take away from meeting or knowing them.
The same thing applies for your experiences, and some of them may be easier to be grateful for than others. Are you stuck for five hours at a “bus station” in some remote village (aka no wifi)? Be grateful for the extra time it gives you to process what’s going on around you: the plant-life, the people, the concrete slab you’ve never seen before that’s overgrown with invasive jungle ivy…Learn something from it, I dare you! Doing so will bring you closer to your experience, and help you gain more from it.
3) Immerse yourself…fully
Yes, this means try the crickets, the grubworms, and the sometimes questionable dishes your host families (if you are staying with host families, which I highly recommend doing!) may serve you. It also means you try things outside your “normal activity” comfort zone. This will make you a more flexible and adaptable learner, both of which will contribute to your future as a successful professional.
These activities could include: visiting more low-traffic local museums (The Museum of Ancient Flutes may not sound super interesting to you at first glance, but it may be important to your host culture); trying a culturally-specific activity such as dancing, arts and crafts lessons, or participating in locally-run community engagement projects; taking your own walking/jogging/biking tour of your neighborhood (being mindful of your surroundings, always); or by taking language classes, which brings us to #4…
4) Speak the language (to the best of your ability)
Depending on how long you’re going abroad, or how much free time you will have, this will come in varying degrees of possibility. In general though, learning the local language will give you a richer way of engaging with your host community while traveling, working, or studying abroad. Many places offer a 1-1 version of tutoring, where you provide locals with English lessons and in exchange they help you with their native tongue.
5) Have challenging conversations
There are a lot of cultural differences that exist in the world. This is a good thing, but can also be a sometimes frustrating or challenging reality to encounter (especially if you’re in the midst of so much change already). Try not to shy away from chatting with people that offer an alternate viewpoint – these interactions could in fact be very instructional.
Remember to always be respectful and empathetic during such conversations, but don’t be afraid to disagree! Who knows, by the end of the talk maybe you’ll have altered your own perspective a bit. Be sure to give yourself space to digest these encounters, and plenty of time to reflect on how they could potentially help shape your growing worldview.
Looking back, some of the more difficult conversations I’ve had have also been the ones that helped me build interpersonal abilities of collaboration, teamwork, and communication. It’s a constant work in progress, but very worth the practice.
Further Reading: 6 Ways To Deepen Your Travel Experiences
GVI is a multi-award winning Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international service learning programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.
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