What Is Intercultural Competence? Part 3

In the last post we looked at the “monocultural” side of the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC). Today we look at the intercultural side.

Once again here’s the IDC:

In the monocultural orientations we see difference mostly as a threat; in the intercultural orientations, difference becomes a source of richness. Curiosity and thirst for learning take over, and make the intercultural experience something we are more likely to enjoy. Milton Bennett, whose ideas lie at the heard of the IDC, writes:

The contrast in the ways of experiencing difference is illustrated in the reports of two study-abroad students who had just returned from a homestay in France. One student stated, “My homestay mother was always yelling at me in French, which I didn’t understand well. I felt like I was always doing something wrong. It was a bad situation, and I was happy when I got changed to a different home where the mother spoke some English.” The second student reported a similar situation but a different reaction: “My homestay mother would burst into my room in the morning, throw open the window, and yell things in French I didn’t understand. It was just wonderful — so French!”[1]

The first intercultural stage is Acceptance. In this stage we respect other mindsets and try to learn more about them, and begin to integrate them into our own ways of thinking.

As we move from Acceptance into the next stage, Adaptation, the focus shifts more to behavior. In Acceptance we might appreciate another way of thinking, but not know how to turn this thinking into action. In Adaptation we move more toward action.

Also, in Adaptation the additive nature of the intercultural mindset really kicks in. We see difference as a source of more ways to do things, more ways to solve problems, than we had when our mindset was monocultural. Now we have more tools in our toolbox, none of which threaten whatever values we hold most dear.

What does all this ultimately mean for us? The value I see in the IDC is threefold. First, by framing intercultural competence as developmental, we see that, realistically, human beings must go through certain stages in our quest for understanding. Reading a travel guide won’t catapult us into Adaptation.

Second, the model makes it clear that this kind of growth doesn’t just happen. Each of us has to be an active, seeking agent. We have to experience the discomforts and put in the hard work in order for progress to happen.

And third, by focusing on the additive nature of intercultural competence, we have a way out of zero-sum ways of thinking about culture. The more cultures I am fluent in, the more tools I have for solving problems; I don’t become, for instance, “less German” if I’m able to see things from a French perspective (or Zambian or Russian or Peruvian or…).

Bonus good news: we can measure intercultural competence with a tool called the Intercultural Development Inventory, or IDI. More on that in a future post.


[1]Milton Bennett, 1993, Towards Ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. Education for the Intercultural Experience, edited by M. Paige. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, pp. 21-71. Citation from p. 47.

[2] Bennett, 1993, p. 53.

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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2 Responses to What Is Intercultural Competence? Part 3

  1. susan klee says:

    Is it ever a good idea, or worth the effort, or acceptable, or . . . to work towards a two-way street to adaptation? For example, if the foreigner (American?) had said in a calm moment to his French host mother: “When you speak to me loudly, I don’t know what I am supposed to do.” then await her reply — and hope she will get the hint. In the other case: “Am I sleeping too late? It’s probably jet lag.”

  2. Jason D. Patent says:

    Susan, great question! I think it is *always* a good idea *and* worth the effort (etc.) to ask the question: “Who adapts to whom?” This is a key question to ask in any intercultural interaction, and the “answers” will depend tremendously on context. I think by and large in study abroad the lion’s share of the expectation will be on the student to do most of the adapting, though ultimately it’s up to the educational organization and its educational mission to have that conversation and set expectations. Of course it’s beneficial to prepare host families as well for intercultural adaptation, but usually the focus of this sort of arrangement is on the student’s learning about, and adapting to, the host culture.

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