‘Intercultural competence is a very important part of psychological literacy’
What motivated you to write a book about intercultural competence?
Just like a lot of people, I’m a bit of an idealist and I want to make a difference. Promoting understanding between people of different cultures is my area of interest and I think it is, and always has been, important for societies. Whether we know it or not, a lot of conflicts across societies have to do with clashes of culture. Whether it be differences in nationality, race, sex, religion, politics, socioeconomic status, or some other group difference – any cultural difference can result in friction between individuals and groups leading to everything from simple misunderstandings to extreme and large scale acts of violence.
A lot of psychologists study intergroup conflict which is certainly useful in understanding such friction. I think intercultural competence (IC) is a more practical but sorely neglected means of trying to positively address cultural difference. If we teach IC more widely, we can help to foster the development of graduates who are better prepared to engage positively with those who are different from themselves. This is the aim of the book – it is designed as a guide for college and university students in any discipline and in any country to explain, and importantly, help them to develop, IC.
Probably some readers won’t know what IC is exactly. Can you explain it?
That’s tricky because there are more than 160 definitions of just the word ‘culture’, never mind IC, and the term itself is contested. There is a chapter in the book dedicated to explaining culture and another to IC so it’s impossible to answer in just a few words. In the book we encourage students to analyse different terms and definitions rather than giving a definitive definition.
But one that we like is from a fellow psychologist, Professor Martyn Barrett, from the University of Surrey. He defines it as a collection of ‘values, attitudes, knowledge, understandings, skills and behaviours which are needed for understanding and respecting people who are perceived to be culturally different from oneself; interacting and communicating effectively and appropriately with such people; and establishing positive and constructive relationships with such people’ (2013, p.52).
There are over 300 components that researchers suggest define IC. We think the most important are self-awareness, respecting and valuing diversity, openness, curiosity, empathy, adaptability, critical thinking and humility. While developing such values, attitudes and skills might come as a matter of course for some people because of personality traits and/or life experiences, for many they must be learned over time and with practice. In the book we suggest ways that IC can be developed – and that’s not just through study abroad which many people tend to think.
Yes, as you said, people do tend to think such topics are only relevant to study abroad. How does the book address this?
Study abroad can be a good way to experience cultural differences and potentially develop IC. But study abroad programmes are not created equal and do not all cultivate IC in students as well as they could. Also, study abroad tends to be for well-heeled students – so maybe 3 per cent of all students - but what about everyone else?
We tend to emphasise on-campus activities. Domestic diversity is typically overlooked as a means to learn about and experience cultural difference. So, while we do recommend offices of study abroad and internationalisation in terms of providing avenues for students to develop IC, we also discuss offices of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) which can be equally valuable. While there are certainly differences in their remits, IC comes down to understanding and relating to people from different cultures, whether they are from different countries or simply different cultural groups within countries.
Because of the practical nature of the book, we not only advise students on where they might go to find help with developing IC, we encourage them to become activists in a way. Although few UK universities have IC related initiatives, in many countries there is nothing on offer. So we suggest that students take a variety of actions to get things going: start an IC society or culture club; ask their division or university to initiate an IC certificate program; ask their division head if IC can be embedded in the curriculum or included as an optional or required module (of course we think it should be required for all students!).
Since you are writing for psychologists here, can you address the relevance of IC for our discipline?
Psychologists have so much to offer in terms of defining IC, and the book brings in a lot of background research from social psychology particularly. While a few psychologists seem interested in IC specifically, there don’t seem to be many, so I think we need more psychologists who are interested in contributing to this important area.
Psychologists also have so much to offer in terms of teaching IC. While it can and should be taught in any discipline, it is easy to fit into psychology because it is so relevant to understanding human behaviour and relationships. Why is it not part of every psychology curriculum? I do think it is one of the most important topics of our time and it is just not well recognised within or outside of the discipline.
IC is a very important part of psychological literacy – which is highly touted, at least in the UK, as being part of what the study of psychology offers students as a non-vocational degree course. If it is so important, it needs to be more integrated into our teaching.
You make the book sound as it is more about creating a more peaceful world, but the title also mentions employability. Could you explain the emphasis on employability?
I wanted to write this book to promote understanding between people from different cultures. It’s what I studied during my PhD and what I most enjoy teaching as a lecturer. But it made sense to address IC in employability terms for quite a few reasons.
While some students are idealistic like me, others are more practically oriented and are worried about finding a job. Fair enough! Making the world a better place and employability can and should be more joined up and this book does that.
With the rise of the global marketplace and domestic diversity, employers are increasingly looking for graduates who can work effectively across cultures. This book helps students to develop skills that are valuable to employers. We also have a lot of problems with prejudice and discrimination across societies leading to workplace inequalities. For instance, statistics clearly demonstrate that horizontal and vertical segregation are still problems for women and people from BME backgrounds. Part of IC, in our interpretation, is learning about why these inequalities exist and how to address them. Applying knowledge about inequalities can not only help students succeed at work but support them in reducing inequalities and transforming the workforce. This serves a humanistic goal and is a benefit to employers in terms of productivity and profits.
Finally, IC is highly relevant to employability related modules and courses so, by including it as a primary aspect of this book, we are hoping to appeal to career educators.
IC sounds challenging, maybe even for academics. What is your personal experience with developing IC?
I routinely ask students, ‘can you ever be completely interculturally competent?’ Although you can improve aspects of IC such as your ability to apply critical thinking skills, suspend judgement, be open to cultural difference, be flexible and empathetic, there will always be occasions where you could be confronted with a cultural difference that you are unfamiliar with and you will struggle.
I’ve been studying IC for years but I still have more learn. That’s humility and that is part of IC. I think this is an important point for academics to keep in mind. Just because you have a PhD and teach students every day, doesn’t mean you are interculturally competent. Undoubtedly, there are some academics that have higher levels of IC and some that have lower levels – it’s a spectrum really. I include examples in the book from students displaying IC as a reality check for all of us. Educators are only human, make mistakes, and have more to learn and sometimes the best teachers can be students. I learned a lot from my students and from writing this book and I hope it will be useful not just for students, but for academics who are interested in learning more about their own IC and how to apply it in higher and further education.
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