12.1.1 What does intercultural competence mean, why do we need it and were does it apply to our business?

It is difficult to define intercultural competence in a few words. First of all it means to act in an adequate way in situations when dealing with representatives with different cultural background – employees, business partners, clients. This competence is based on an attitude, to accept that people are different. It means to be open to the idea that my way of thinking and acting is not the only possible way. And that different thinking and actions can lead to the same or even better results. It means to respect other ways of thinking and acting. Intercultural competence requires a personal attitude that my way of thinking and acting is not better or worse than that of my foreign colleague, business partner or client - it is simply DIFFERENT. It’s the idea that I will be able to deal with those differences as a challenge and an opportunity where we both can learn and take profit from it. It never means communicate and act from a position of superiority such as: I know best and I’ll show you how to proceed. It also means to know about socially based standards, habits, communication styles in other countries or cultures – like dress codes and nutrition habits, distance and proximity, greeting rituals, etc.

Please have a look on one or both scenarios that focus on intercultural conflicts in the workplace. One is on time and the other one on dress codes. It will take you about 10 minutes to watch both. And we are sure that you will enjoy and get a feeling of how difficult it can be to take a position. What causes the conflict? Who is “right” in the conflict? Can there be anybody “right” and how can we imagine a good solution?1 You might also wish to watch the scenarios with a colleague and discuss them afterwards. It may lead to a quite long and lively discussion

Please have a look at the Videos "Time" and "Apprearance".




We have learnt and acquired our values, habits, communication styles, and ways of acting and thinking which makes learning a “culture” a lifelong socialisation process. Our culture depends on our social environment. A German housekeeper can have more in common with a Greek housekeeper than both have with their German or Greek bosses. Intercultural competence isn’t necessarily talking about other people in other countries with different ethnic or religious background. We have to deal with cultural differences when meeting people of our own nationality which have a different socialisation (cultural!) background. People in the North of the country are often different from those of the South etc.

Therefore, intercultural competence is a key social competencies which we need on a daily basis inside and outside our company, when in contact with colleagues, partners and clients and also with neighbours, and “ordinary” people who have a different cultural background. It is a key competence for success.

Intercultural competence is essential for management, marketing and sales but can’t be limited to these groups for the reasons mentioned above.

1 EIW – the European Intercultural Workplace (2007), Results of a Leonardo da Vinci project. The example scenarios presenting the conflict at the workplace have been taken from the DVD: Europe at work.