Several colours of smoke swirling together as a metaphore for interculturality.

By Ilaneet Goren, MSW RSW

Ilaneet is a social worker, adult educator and project manager specializing in equity, inclusion and human rights. She is the Director of Workplace Learning and Development at Harmony Movement.

In my last post I shared takeaways from the book Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky published by Harvard Business Review Press (2013). Centering the discussion on our work in DEI, I use the term intercultural competence to describe the same idea: the ability to comfortably, authentically and effectively communicate and collaborate with people who have lived cultural realities different than your own. Intercultural competence, or intercultural skillfulness – a term I prefer (I use them interchangeably here) – is about shifting and adapting our behaviour to meet the other person ‘half-way’; somewhere we can understand each other and work better together. It’s not about abandoning our own cultural values and needs, nor is it about holding onto them rigidly while overemphasizing the cultural difference of “the other.”

What’s key here is awareness and the willingness to shift your behaviour in such a way that feels true to your core values while respecting your needs and boundaries. Self-awareness, flexibility and openness are key ingredients of cultural skillfulness.

In this post I highlight additional takeaways from Molinsky’s book that can help DEI practitioners address some of the misconceptions about intercultural competence that may arise in their work.

It’s about culture, but to a point

I often hear people talk about cultures as though they are categories or boxes with clear edges. There is no room for nuance or complexity in this type of thinking – you are pushed into a box as a prerequisite for inclusion. For example, when people ask me what my culture is, I feel they expect one or maybe a few neatly defined categories like “Russian” or “Jewish.” Of course, rarely can our lives’ journeys be summed up in a 3-second soundbite.

One of the key takeaways from Molinsky’s book is the reminder that culture is highly malleable: “You are not a prisoner of culture,” he writes, “you are actually a creative, empowered user of culture.”

At the core of intercultural competence is understanding the role culture plays in human interactions. However, that understanding needs to be balanced: underestimating and minimizing the influence of culture can be just as hindering to inclusion as being overly preoccupied with cultural differences to the point of othering and objectifying people.

Intercultural competence requires not only acknowledging the cultural expressions and needs of others but also understanding your own cultural influences and how they’ve shaped your worldview (including biases) and behaviour. The “inter” in intercultural competence means interaction, an exchange that requires you to stretch your mindset and comfort zone.

Myths and realities of intercultural competence

Molinsky addresses several misconceptions that I’ve paraphrased to fit our context of intercultural work, with full credit to his original work.

1.       People from the same country share the same culture. If you know where the person is from you can identify their culture.People living in the same country or region can have markedly different cultural experiences, influenced by such social dimensions as race, gender, disability and sexual orientation as well as economic conditions and access to education and resources.
2.       The key to intercultural competence is learning about how another culture is different from yours.The key to intercultural competence is learning how to shift and adapt your behaviour in order to bridge cultural and other identity-based differences.
3.       Our cultural views and behaviour patterns are fixed and hard to change, especially as adults.Our cultural views and behaviour patterns are more flexible and subject to change than we realize. Our brain is malleable, and it continues to form new neuropathways enabling us to learn and grow throughout our lives.
4.       Culture is a vague and abstract concept that is difficult to define or assess.Culture has been the subject of an extensive body of research by social scientists, which has led to the development of diagnostical tools, such as Molinksy’s six-dimensional approach to diagnosing the cultural code (2013: p.48).
5.       When interacting across cultural differences it’s best to suppress your “true” nature in order to be effective and fit in.Authentic interaction is key to intercultural competence. You are likely to be more effective if you engage authentically and acknowledge your own cultural values and needs, including the biases and assumptions about other cultures you may have absorbed through your upbringing.

Adapted from Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky (2013, p. 174)

What myths and misconceptions have you encountered in your work? What realities strongly resonate for you? Share your reflections on Twitter @HarmonyatWorkCA or on our LinkedIn page – we’d love to hear from you!

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