An Introduction to Cultural Competence

Dear Esme,

Some of my best friends are from different parts of the world. Does communication between people change depending on where you are from? 

Some of my best friends are from different parts of the world. Does communication between people change depending on where you are from? 

You probably know that the idea of cultural competence (multicultural/intercultural, etc.) is one of my absolute favorite subjects. In fact, I wrote my dissertation—my final paper/thesis—about multicultural competence in international/global companies and my master’s thesis on similar competences in schools. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I want to share my knowledge with you as I believe that it can truly make your experience abroad more comfortable*.

Note: I have a friend who is convinced that I should consider myself an expert on the subject, and while I am not the most expert you will find, I have done a lot of research into the subject, have a lot of personal experience, and have written about it before. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know and I would be happy to explain my thought process or share resources.

As a sociologist, I find it important to break down the terminology so that my reader can truly understand my perspective. I also believe that the interpretation of words (and sociolinguistics) greatly impact how we interpret something. So, after many hours of research and writing, this is how I interpret the most important factors of cultural competences. Take it with a grain of salt as there are many people with similar or distinct opinions all over the world—and we all may be right or wrong.


The first thing that is important to understand is a competence. For me, competences refer to the skills, abilities, and knowledge that a person has and is able to implement in a variety of situations. To be able to properly use these competences it is important for us to be aware not only of the situations around us, but also of our ability to make the most out of them. This means, even though I might be brilliant at something, if I cannot find a way to apply it practically in my life or in a specific situation, it doesn’t do me much good.

Example: If I am fluent in Spanish, I could consider myself competent in this language; however, if I am so socially awkward that I cannot manage to communicate in Spanish, I am lacking communication competences.

Multicultural/Intercultural Competences

To understand the idea of competences when connected with culture, it is important to comprehend my definition of culture. Personally, I would consider culture to be “the symbolic forms that serve as a way to feel and express meaning within a specific community.” This includes everything from the way a community speaks their language to how they celebrate traditions to how they greet outsiders. When we add the prefix multi-, we can understand that multicultural is when various cultures are brought together.

Note: In Spanish, they differentiate between multicultural and intercultural saying that multicultural is just many cultures in one space whereas intercultural implies an interaction between the cultures. In English this distinction does not seem to be as strong.

Multicultural/Intercultural competences are the ability to adapt and be aware of a situation around you when you are not in “your own culture.” That is to say, you find yourself in a situation where people may feel or express meaning in a different way (i.e. in the country where you are studying or living abroad). This can make communication infinitely more difficult as you expect people to communicate in a similar way to you but, in fact, their communication styles may be completely different.

Example: When greeting Spanish people, women give men and other women two kisses, one on each cheek (read this article to find out more). However, this could make someone who is used to shaking hands incredibly uncomfortable. If you can perceive—become aware of—and act accordingly in various cultural situations, your multicultural competence is higher than someone who cannot.

Lunch with Spanish friends tends to start late and go on for ages... My interpretation of these customs impact my acceptance of them. 

Lunch with Spanish friends tends to start late and go on for ages... My interpretation of these customs impact my acceptance of them. 

It Starts with you

The most difficult part of acquiring multi/intercultural competences is realizing that ‘they’ are not the ‘problem,’ and in fact you may be the ‘problem.’ We are so accustomed to doing things how we perceive them to be normal that sometimes we forget that our ‘normal’ may not be normal for everyone. The first step to becoming more competent is by doing a self-evaluation of what you do, how you act, and why you feel as you feel. Only then can you begin to understand that other people could interpret the same stimulation differently.

If you are interested in starting to identify your own multicultural competences, I would recommend doing a test such as the one found on pages 7 and 8 of this link. The purpose of this evaluation is to identify what elements you should be thinking about when considering another culture, and how your own predisposition to certain situations and responses can hinder your ability to integrate with other communities. Something as ‘silly’ as not realizing that you have stereotypes about others may be impeding your ability to thrive in your new country.

What do you think? Are you culturally competent? Do you want to know more? Let us know!


*This post has been written with the intention of being an introduction to the subject, but don’t be surprised if you see more about cultural competences in the future! **Update** Read more: Part II and the Professional Benefits of Cultural Competences