Culture,  Thriving

Benefits of Cultural Competences

Dear Sam,

We have been talking about the benefits of studying abroad (or just spending time abroad in general) and how you can make that work for you, professionally. In addition, we have been diving into acquiring cultural competences and how these can improve your experience abroad. Before we get into how you can, personally, work towards developing your cultural competences, I would like to link these two ideas together and consider the benefit of cultural competences in your professional life.

Cultural competences may just be the thing to make you stand out. Photo credit: Samuel ZellerUntil now, I have worked on highlighting culture competences within the realm of self-evaluation and the personal growth benefits, which I find fundamental to a successful abroad experience. However, culture competences can also improve your professional competences and make you a more appealing candidate in different job situations. In fact, my final paper for my sociology degree was the presentation of a program offered to multinational and/or international companies that would provide intercultural training for its employees.

This offer responds to a demand that is continuing to grow as the world becomes continuously more globalized. You can read about these benefits all over the web, however, here I would like to highlight five main reasons why I think that cultural competences can improve your professional offer:


1. Cultural competences help you recognize your own, personal bias: I know I have talked about this in previous articles, but it is essential for you to understand how your own, personal cultural experience has impacted your interpretation of the world around you before you can understand the differences that exist in other cultures. This is especially important when you consider how you carry out certain aspects of your work and personal life. When you understand that the ‘reasons’ you have for doing things a certain way are ally tied to your cultural upbringing, you become aware that not everyone has these same reasons. How does this help you in your professional life? For starters, it can help you understand your personal biases when things don’t go as you expect them to.

For example, if you are expecting to start work on time and early with your Spanish and Italian colleagues, you might be surprised when things start late. If you are open to the fact that no one is ‘wrong’ with how they interpret the situation, you allow yourself to start the meeting off on the right foot by thinking that it is a cultural difference and not intentionally disrespectful (trust me—its not).


2. Cultural competences help you to not be offended: Interconnected with the last point, if you do not assume that there is one ‘right way’ to do something, you avoid the risk of being offended when someone does it ‘wrong’ in your eyes. Take the previous example, if you do not expect a Spanish person to act in a way that is not natural to them (which is almost impossible, unless they are already very integrated into the culture where you are working), you are able to resist the desire to interpret these, potentially neutral, actions as negative. This also goes for things like writing emails or reacting in certain situations.

For example, in an email exchange with Turkish colleagues, my boss was offended by their lack of courtesy. As she passed the emails to me (because she didn’t want to ‘deal with it’ anymore), I realised that it was not that they were being rude but that culturally that was how they were trying to be polite in the situation. By being open to the idea that this was the situation, we were able to respond politely to their questions and comments without being worried that they were upset with us.


3. Cultural competences help you to not be offending: In the same way that understanding your own cultural biases to how things should be can orientate your perspective so you are not offended, it can also help you not offend others. When you are aware that the impact that your cultural instincts might be having on how you communicate, you are more likely to think twice about how you write an email or approach a certain conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to communicate perfectly with everyone all the time, but it will help the way you interact with others to be more universally ‘friendly.’

For example, if I know that at my 9am meeting with a variety of different nationalities, I might make the first 20 minutes a Networking and coffee time and not plan the most important thing during the first 30 minutes. In this way, I am making sure that everyone is present when we need to talk about something important while not making anyone feel bad that they are late, two things that are conducive to a productive day.


4. Cultural competences help you to put yourself in the shoes of others: All of these previous aspects help you put yourself into other people’s positions. You don’t automatically assume you know what is going on, but work to make sure that your interpretation connects with the perspective of others as well. This can be understood as empathy, but is also related to the ability to create conducive workplaces—it all relates to the idea that if I feel like someone is not even trying to understand my point of view, it is harder for me to do good work. Thus, it’s important for me to ensure others know I am trying to understand their point of view, too.

For example, taking time away from the grind of the work day ‘just’ to make sure that the goals of a certain task are clearly comprehended by all members of a team can save later frustration. While it may seem like a waste of time, the upfront investment may make all the difference long-term.


Photo by Joel Aguilar on Unsplash5. Cultural competences help you to make connections with people that would otherwise be difficult: At the end of the day, when you work on your cultural competences, you are improving your ability to connect to and work with people. When you are able to understand that how you do things is not the only way (and, perhaps, not even the best way), you are more open to how others complete the same tasks. It also means that you are aware of your communication skills and know that sometimes it is hard work to understand and be understood by colleagues. If you are able to create relationships with a variety of people you are not only creating stronger networks, you are adding value to your professional career.

For example, if you know that you’re working with people that highly value the time they spend eating together as a way to know each other (and not to work), you can reach out and connect to them in specific ways that you might not even be aware of if you don’t look for them. In Spanish culture, food is very important in a way that is not as present in American life and, by going out for a three hour lunch, you might actually accomplish more in the growth of the relationship than during a five hour meeting.


The addition that a culturally competent worker makes to an international organization is huge in the sense that businesses these days cannot afford to hire culturally incompetent people. At the risk of offending or misinterpreting world-class workers, a boss must think about these competences when hiring. Therefore, don’t be afraid to strut your stuff and share your personal stories during the interview—your biggest embarrassment or success story while abroad might just become your ticket for showing how well you understand that not everyone is the same; making you a prime candidate in a culturally-diverse organization.



  • Chris P Bacon

    Surely this technique encourages bringing to the fore centuries old and often highly ignorant stereotypes? For example:
    – Let’s delay the important bit of the meeting (as Spanish people are lazy and always late…)
    – Let’s have a working lunch at the pub (as those new Irish employees are surely going to enjoy that…)
    – Or similar allowances that assume things such as…. "Americans are loud", "British people are too polite", "French people are arrogant", "Germans are always on time".

    By assuming in your example that Spanish and Italian co-workers are likely to be late – are you not discriminating against certain nationalities due to your own assumptions about their ‘typical behaviour’? This is at best xenophobic and at worse racist – for example the same assumptions that tell you Spanish people are lazy and will be late, might by extension tell you that African people aren’t used to the modern world, that Chinese people can’t cope with using forks, or that Jewish people are obsessed with business and earning money.

    I can understand the need to not be specifically rigid in your own ideas to allow others to flourish in your environment. However surely basing your strategy on achieving this on centuries old stereotypes is both unfair and could lead to far worse situations than a Spaniard missing the first 10 minutes of your meeting?

    So the question is – how does one become culturally competent, without falling into the black hole of endless stereotypes based on nothing more than rumour and a couple of anecdotes?

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