We Can All Benefit From Intercultural Competence

During the week of August 10th, Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, held a different type of digital event, a “Kindness Challenge.” Based on the premise that empathy is a skill, each day of the week Zaki shared a research-based exercise to help us work out this skill like we would strengthen a muscle.

Empathy and other so-called “soft skills” — such as active listening, curiosity, and flexibility — are essential 21st-century skills. They are part of what is referred to as intercultural or global competence: a multidimensional lifelong skillset (which also includes knowledge, values, and attitudes) that enable us to improve how we make sense, communicate, work and collaborate across differences.

A woman, Rosie the Riveter, shows off her bicep and says "We Can Do It!"
Improving our intercultural competence is just like working out to strengthen a muscle – it takes effort, but we can do it!

Intercultural Competence During COVID-19 Crisis

As we go through a global pandemic and are faced with ongoing social injustices, many of us have been experiencing challenges in our everyday life. There are many ways in which we could benefit from intercultural competence during this time:

  • We need flexibility to cope with rapid changes and to quickly adapt to new realities.
  • We need critical thinking to digest the large amount of information we receive and establish an informed opinion.
  • We need to boost collaboration in order to find solutions to shared challenges and safeguard our collective well-being.

Exercises such as the one proposed by Zaki through his “empathy gym” allow us to practice these skills and put them into practice in our daily interactions.

Intercultural Competence For Improved Teaching & Learning

New challenges posed by the imperative of remote learning show how teachers and learners can benefit from these skills to make the most of online education.

As Dr. Sarah Jones shared in a June webinar, not only do teachers need to rapidly learn to operate new platforms, they also need to take on new roles (as guides and facilitators, rather than lecturers) and embrace new pedagogies that prioritize people and processes instead of content.

Learners also need to adapt to these new settings and develop new skills in order to do so. Intercultural competence skills can help  them become lifelong learners, problem-solvers, and informed citizens. These skills are especially key in active and interactive learning environments which, according to Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, is what works best in the classroom – online or offline.

Intercultural Competence For Enhanced Workplaces

Intercultural competence is also highly coveted in today’s workplaces – not only for people working with global organizations, but also those who work with others from different cultural backgrounds. As an article published in Forbes magazine points out,  these skills are key to help us evolve workplaces beyond our personal biases.

Leaders can not only benefit from intercultural competence, but they need it now more than ever. In a recent paper by Alina Polonskaia and Andrés T. Tapia, 21st-century skills are some of the key traits of leaders who survive and thrive amidst constant change.

How to Start Developing Intercultural Competence

The first step we can take towards further developing our intercultural competence is to work on our self-awareness. That is, an intentional self-examination to understand our own identities, cultural background, values, and perspectives. An important part of doing that is recognizing our own implicit biases, knowing that our judgments and behaviors stem from the frameworks in which we were brought up and socialized, and actively seeking to overcome them by questioning our own positions.

These are not easy tasks, but in order to thrive in this highly-complex, interconnected and fast-changing world, intercultural competence skills are no longer optional. We should all look inward and further exercise our intercultural competence muscles – everyone can benefit from it!


Connect, explore, and become even more worldly at Carpe Global, where you can learn about great resources and opportunities like those shared above! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social media @carpeglobal.

Ana Carolina Cassiano
Head of Education Development at | + posts

Ana Carolina Cassiano is the Head of Education Development at AFS Intercultural Programs. She leads international projects that support AFS education initiatives, exchange programs, and advocacy efforts to empower people from all backgrounds with essential global skills aimed at building intercultural competence. Connect with her on LinkedIn and/or Twitter.

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