According to Dr. Darla K. Deardorff, "Intercultural competence is the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behavior and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions."
When you are interacting with people in your host country, you must keep in mind that they have developed their identities in a culture that may be very different from your own. These differences might be reflected in surface activities and behaviors - your classmates in Spain may eat dinner much later than you're used to or your French host mother may insist on keeping bathroom doors shut even if they're unoccupied - or they might be deeper differences that are harder to notice. For example, your host sister in Senegal may be quieter than you expected. Does that mean she's just an introvert? Or does her behavior reflect some deeper cultural difference between you and her?
As you develop your intercultural competence, you'll be able to recognize these differences and then alter the way that you react when you notice them! At first, you might find that eating dinner at ten o'clock each night is terribly annoying and cumbersome. But as you begin to adapt to your host country's culture and way of life, you'll find that your perspective may change. Hopefully, you'll come to appreciate the various reasons that your host culture has adopted this practice.
Intercultural competence skills are important in our everyday lives. As our world gets smaller, and people from various different cultures live closer and closer together, the ability to navigate cultural differences in professional settings is a highly sought after trait and can definitely help your resume stand out. On a personal level, the development of these skills will help you forge deeper and more meaningful connections with the people you encounter in your host country.
So, now that you know what intercultural competence is, how do you develop these skills while you're abroad?
The first step to developing your intercultural competence is to have an awareness of what you're trying to accomplish while you're abroad! No matter where you are studying this semester, we hope that you take the time to set goals for yourself because your time abroad will be over sooner than you can imagine. What do you hope to accomplish while you are abroad? Are you interested in an internship, honing language skills, traveling, engaging in a club or a sport, learning about your family heritage, understanding the business environment of your host country, or finding a group of like-minded friends in your host country? Set your goals early so that you can give yourself enough time to realistically achieve them over the course of the semester.
As you work to achieve these goals, you may find that certain cultural barriers or traits come up that impact your ability to reach them. Let's say you went to Chile to perfect your Spanish, only to discover that Chileans all use a very particular type of slang! Rather than just giving up on your goal, try to think about why slang may be so popular among Chileanos. What might their use of slang say about their relationship to their history and place in Latin America?
By considering the cultural and historical reasons behind the behaviors and practices that you encounter in your host country, you will develop the skills to think more deeply about why host country nationals behave the way they do. Hopefully, you'll also gain insight into your own identity and behaviors.
Whether you are taking all of your classes in your host country language or simply navigating your study abroad locale in a brand new language, you may also find yourself feeling some language fatigue. Pushing through that feeling, even though it may require a bit more mental energy, is an important part of breaking down the language barrier, and one you won’t have the opportunity to do back in the United States. You may feel inclined to seek out other English-speaking students that understand these same linguistic challenges and, while it is important to have a support network, we encourage you to continue to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Learning to navigate your semester in a foreign language will open up a whole new world of possibilities and allow for more language fluency gains over the course of your study abroad.