5.2 What is an Interculturally Competent Person Like?

Effectiveness is a term often used with the competence concept. For instance, Canadian psychologist Daniel Kealey, who has extensively studied and tested expatriates (people sent by their organizations to work abroad on a temporary basis), talks about "overseas effectiveness". In his work during the 1990s, he defined intercultural effectiveness as an ability to live and work effectively in a overseas assignment in an intercultural environment (Vasko, Kjisik & Salo-Lee 1998). According to Kealey (1990), effectiveness consists of at least of three central areas: professional expertise, interaction and adaptation.

In his later studies Kealey has specified the concept of effectiveness. In addition to personal attributes, effectiveness is greatly influenced by organizational and environmental issues.

Kealey´s insights are reflected in various recent competence profiles. One of them is the "Profile of the Interculturally Effective Person" (IEP) produced by an international group of researchers for the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, Center for Intercultural Learning (2000).

According to the IEP definition, an interculturally effective person has three main attributes (2000:4):

  • an ability to communicate with people in a way that earns their respect and trust, thereby encouraging a cooperative and productive workplace that is conducive to the achievements of professional or assignment goals;
  • the capacity to adapt his/her professional skills (both technical and managerial) to fit local conditions and constraints; and
  • the capacity to adjust personally so that s/he is content and generally at ease in the host culture.

Unlike earlier models and skills classifications, IEP also includes behavioural indicators. The skills and personal attributes listed are operationalized, i.e., the profile covers also descriptions about what these skills and attributes could mean in practice. What do people in fact do, or say, or leave unsaid so that they can be considered effective?

The profile includes nine essential skills or qualities of interculturally effective persons:

  • adaptation skills
  • attitude of modesty and respect
  • understanding of the concept of culture
  • knowledge of the host country and culture
  • relationship-building
  • self-knowledge
  • intercultural communication
  • organizational skills
  • personal and professional commitment.

In the European context, for instance, Kühlmann and Stahl have studied critical success factors in intercultural management in the context of German expatriates abroad (Stahl, 2001). According to them, managers working overseas need more than just the average of the following intercultural skills and competences:

  • tolerance of ambiguity
  • behavioural flexibility
  • goal orientation
  • sociability and interest in other people
  • empathy
  • nonjudgemental persepective
  • metacommunication skills.

In the globalizing society intercultural competence is not needed only overseas, "there". Mobility, voluntary and non-voluntary, creates needs to adapt to a new culture, to manage everyday life, to find jobs and to integrate successfully in the local society, "here". Therefore members of both the host culture and the guests need intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence of immigrants has been increasingly studied. Young Yun Kim has combined in her research insights both from psychology and communication sciences. Kim sees intercultural adaptation as a continuous cyclic learning process. Competence develops during an intercultural transformation process. Her model of host communication competence includes factors which influence this process:

  • environmental factors (e.g., host receptivity, host conformity pressure)
  • predisposition (preparedness for change, ethnic proximity)
  • communication (e.g. ethnic interpersonal and media communication, or host interpersonal and media communication).

Competence, as a result of a transformation process, means psychological health, functional fitness and a new intercultural identity. Competence, including knowledge of host culture language brings "social currency" which empowers the immigrants and makes active participation in civic society possible.

© Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006


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