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Developing Intercultural Competency

by Dr. Craig Ott, professor of mission and intercultural studies, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill. The following is an excerpt from chapter 2 of his book Teaching and Learning across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice, published by Baker Academic, 2021.

Open Bible on a map

Culture is like the water we swim in or the air we breathe. We take it for granted; we barely know it exists. Much like the fish that doesn’t realize that it is wet until it jumps out of the aquarium, we only become aware of our own culture when we enter the world of others and are exposed to other cultures. We naturally assume that our world is “normal” and others are exotic or distorted. In our day and age of cultural pluralism and globalization, we are constantly confronted with other cultures, languages, ethnicities, and ways of life, and we have increasingly become aware of human diversity in all its beauty and with all its challenges. The cross-cultural teacher enters into another aquarium, as it were, and must learn to swim in it.

The cross-cultural teacher must not only be ready to adapt teaching style and pedagogy to the learners of the host culture but will need to develop more general skills of intercultural competency. Any international sojourner who for the first time enters a new culture experiences what Joseph Shaules (2015) calls an “Oz moment.” In the Hollywood film The Wizard of Oz , a tornado transports Dorothy from dreary Kansas to the colorful land of Oz, and she declares to her dog, “Toto, I’ve the feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.” When entering a strange culture, one may experience a host of responses, from fascination to fear. But to survive and thrive in Oz, one must go beyond marveling and musing to develop intercultural competency.

Swimmer diving under water in a pool

Navigating life in our native home culture comes naturally, intuitively, and for the most part unconsciously. Appropriate responses to countless daily situations come like a reflex. We take our culture for granted as the fish takes water for granted and knows instinctively how to swim. But in many ways, learning to navigate life in another culture means resisting our intuitions and retraining our natural reflexes of how we respond to everyday situations. Indeed, we may feel like the fish that doesn’t know how to walk on dry ground! In the words of Shaules, “it’s the intuitive mind—the autopilot of everyday life—that bears the brunt of intercultural adjustment” (2015, 69). Or, in a computer analogy, it involves adopting a new software for our minds. Because we enter the culture as adults, and not as children born and raised in the culture, that challenging process is disorientating and has a steep learning curve.

Intercultural competency has been defined as “a set of abilities, knowledge, attitudes and skills, that allow one to appropriately and effectively manage relations with persons of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds” (Portera 2014, 159). It is key to effective teaching and to a sense of personal well-being while living with and relating to persons of another culture. This is especially the case when the teacher lives in a foreign cultural context for a long time.

In its simplest expression, intercultural competence development is about the capacity of individuals to respectfully engage and communicate with another so that they have the benefit of another person’s cultural perspectives. Such capacity results in the ability to communicate and form relationships more effectively with persons who are different from us, and to see, interpret, understand, appreciate, and utilize what we have learned in new ways. (AHSE 2012, 43)

Resources are available for developing intercultural competency for teachers and international education administrators (e.g., Cushner and Mahon 2009; Paige and Goode 2009). If a cross-cultural teacher does not come to feel at home in the host culture, does not develop satisfying relationships with the hosts, or does not develop an appreciation for the culture, he can become discouraged, ineffective, and resentful.

Steven T. Simpson describes three phases of acculturation that Western teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) experience in China: “baggage brought,” “hand dealt,” and “fertile soil.”

First, “Baggage Brought” refers to the prior “experience and expectations” of the Westerner; second, “Hand Dealt” refers to the awakening stage in which EFL teachers start to understand “the reality and constraints of the local context” in China; and third, “Fertile Soil” refers to the “emerging, personal, and professional issues” in which the Western teacher begins to negotiate decisions in a more culturally sensitive and professionally productive way. (Simpson 2008, 385, citing Wong 2000)

Developing intercultural competency and moving through these phases of acculturation requires adjustment in a variety of areas. Agostino Portera (2014, 160) discusses three areas—knowledge, attitudes, and skills—that are necessary for developing intercultural competency.

  • Knowledge includes factors such as cultural awareness, self-awareness, and aspects of intercultural communication.

  • Attitude includes flexibility, ability to listen, interpersonal intelligence, patience, acceptance, managing uncertainty, and the like.

  • Skills include language and communication skills, observational and analytical ability, and interpersonal skills such as relationship building and conflict management.

We examine now more closely cultural self-awareness, knowledge, attitude, and experience as key dimensions of developing intercultural competency.


Experts agree that the first step in developing intercultural competency is to become more aware of one’s own cultural identity, experience, values, prejudices, and attitudes. What is the “baggage” that we bring with us to a new cultural context? “Cultural self-awareness is a person’s conscious ability to critically view and understand the objective and subjective cultures to which the individual belongs” (Madden 2015, 177).

One can improve intercultural competence by exploring one’s own cultural identity, monitoring one’s own attitudes, and identifying the related emotions (Weigl 2009). We can discover as much about ourselves as we do of others when we enter a new culture. Such self-understanding can help us maintain a sense of identity in the midst of cultural disorientation. It also helps us better identify why we are responding as we do to change and unfamiliarity, and how to process that experience in constructive ways. Journaling, sharing experiences with other sojourners, and soliciting honest feedback from persons from the host culture are ways to gain greater self-awareness and process the cross-cultural experience.

Sidebar 2.2 lists some of the excellent resources on that subject for further study.

Resources for Developing Intercultural Competence


General knowledge of a people—their history, traditions, customs, values, religion, and so on—not only illuminates the context of the teaching-learning experience but is also important to one’s personal navigation of daily life in the new culture. Especially important are understandings of communication norms, social skills, and appropriate conflict resolution strategies. Gestures we use subconsciously, such as the degree of eye contact or bodily distance between conversation partners that we find natural, may be uncomfortable or offensive to others. Sometimes neither party can readily identify what it is that makes the relationship feel uncomfortable. Such basic rules of respectful communication need to be learned. The host may be patient with the sojourner’s lack of social skill for a time, but the longer the sojourner lives in the country, the less patience and understanding he will receive from the hosts. Even more befuddling than basic communication challenges are the cultural differences in values, perceptions of time and causality, role expectations, status differentiation, and a long list of other factors that are not easily observed or identified. The more intentional one is about identifying and understanding such differences, the more likely one will be able to adapt behavior, minimize conflict, reduce personal frustration, and have a satisfying sojourn experience.

International sojourners today are often concerned about personal security, be it due to fear of crime, prejudice, health hazards, or other dangers. In many locations, gaining local knowledge of how to maintain personal security will be a high priority. Such knowledge improves one’s safety and sense of well-being; it also can reduce or eliminate anxiety and suspicion, allowing the sojourner to relax and enjoy the positive aspects of the culture.

However, knowledge alone will not be adequate to insure the development of intercultural competency. David Livermore, director of the Cultural Intelligence Center, goes so far as to claim that “a mounting body of research suggests it would actually be better to not teach cultural differences at all if that’s the only thing you’re going to do. Dozens of studies find that cultural knowledge leads to stereotyping and perpetuating bias rather than building cultural intelligence” (2018). He argues that curiosity, humility, intersectionality, and skills are critical to developing intercultural competency and avoiding stereotyping. In other words, approaching people of another culture as a humble and inquisitive learner is more important than acquiring general knowledge that might create prejudice and block learning.


Having the attitude of a humble learner is also essential to effective cross-cultural learning and living. In fact, studies have demonstrated that humility is a predictor of intercultural competence (Paine, Jankowski, and Sandage 2016). Respect (valuing other cultures and individuals), openness (withholding judgment), and curiosity and discovery (tolerating ambiguity) have also been identified as essential attitudes that characterize intercultural competency (AHSE 2012, 29–34). One must be open to new ideas and lifestyles that are not necessarily bad, just different. Resisting ethnocentrism does not entail surrendering my own culture or values, but does mean that I must be slow to judge and quick to learn. I attempt to appreciate cultural differences through the eyes of the culturally other. Questions that should be often asked and that are nearly always welcomed include:

  • “I am new to your country and want to know more about you. Can you help me understand why . . . ?”

  • “As a newcomer to your land, I realize that I may be ignorant of the appropriate behavior when. . . . Can you tell me what the appropriate response might be?”

  • “I’m still learning how to respect and adopt local ways of getting things done. Can you give me advice on the best way to . . . ?”

The answers may not always make sense, and you may not always follow your hosts’ guidance, but they can provide insight and help avoid unnecessary frustration or conflict.

man diving underwater


There is no substitute for direct experience. To learn to swim, one must enter the water, and to learn to live and effectively interact in a new culture, one must venture out of the comfort of the familiar. Participating in social events and building new friendships with local people are indispensable. If culture defines the rules of society’s game, to develop intercultural competence, one must not only learn the rules but actually play the game. Only then does one acquire a real feel for the game and learn winning strategies (Carroll 2015, 28). In totally foreign circumstances, it can be crippling to know one may be misunderstood and may behave inappropriately. The temptation can be great to socialize exclusively with other expatriates. However, such fears and behavior only rob the sojourner of the very kind of practical learning experiences that are essential to developing relational skills and unveiling new insights into the host culture. Receiving and extending hospitality, spending time in public social spaces (such as markets, restaurants, parks, museums, or festivals), and seeking out other shared experiences with local people will not only provide opportunity to develop communication skills; they can also lead to deeper, more satisfying relationships.

Dr. Craig Ott

Dr. Craig Ott


AHSE. 2012. “Understanding Intercultural Competence and Its Development.” ASHE Higher Education Report 38 (2): 23–43.

Carroll, Jude. 2015. Tools for Teaching in an Educationally Mobile World. New York: Routledge.

Cushner, Kenneth, and Jennifer Mahon. 2009. “Intercultural Competence in Teacher Education.” In The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, edited by Darla K. Deardorf, 304–320. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Livermore, David. 2018. “Why You Need to Stop Teaching Cultural Differences.” https://davidlivermore .com /2018/12/13/why -you-need-to-stop-teaching-cultural-differences.

Madden, Elizabeth Stallman. 2015. “Cultural Self-Awareness” In Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, edited by Janet M. Bennett, 177–178. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Paige, R. Michael, and Matthew L. Goode. 2009. “Intercultural Competence in International Education Administration.” In The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, edited by Darla K. Deardorf, 333–349. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE

Paine, David R., Peter J. Jankowski, and Steven J. Sandage. 2016. “Humility as a Predictor of Intercultural Competence.” Family Journal 24 (1): 15–22.

Portera, Agostino. 2014. “Intercultural Competence in education, counselling and pychotherapy.” Intercultural Education 25 (2): 157–174.

Shaules, Joseph. 2015. The Intercultural Mind: Connecting Culture, Cognition, and Global Living. Boston: Intercultural Press.

Simpson, Steven T. 2008. “Western EFL Teachers and East-West Classroom-Culture Conflicts.” RELC Journal 39 (3): 381–384.

Weigl, Robert C. 2009. “Intercultural Competence through Self-Study: A Strategy for Adult Learners” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 33 (4): 346–360.

Craig Ott (PhD) is professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., where he also directs the PhD program in intercultural studies. He has authored and edited numerous books related to Christian mission. Prior to coming to Trinity, he was a missionary in Germany and has since taught or consulted in over forty countries.

Baker Academic is a division of Baker Publishing Group,

Dr. Craig Ott, Teaching and Learning across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021. Used by permission.

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