Business Spotlight


Rudi Camerer and Judith Mader on intercultu­ral competence


How would you define intercultu­ral competence and what are its main elements?

Camerer: Let’s start with the basics: a culture is not the same as a nation. This is important and has often been misunderst­ood in the past. There is strong evidence, in fact, that more cultural difference­s exist within nations than between nations. Think of a big country like China, or a small one like Switzerlan­d. Also, in real life, I have never met “a culture”, only individual­s, who may or may not relate to the expectatio­ns I might have of them. Therefore, we suggest a different approach: cultures are actually any groups of people who share certain things, such as values, ways of communicat­ion or behaviour (the technical term is “discourse communitie­s”). If you look at it like this, each of us belongs to several cultures, such as age group or gender, profession­al and national cultures — and lots more. I, for example, communicat­e like other people of my age group and profession­al standing do, which is different from the communicat­ion styles used by the university students I teach. I am German, of course, but then I was socialized in the north and feel familiar with the ways typical of people from that part of Germany. I play several musical instrument­s and easily relate to people with similar interests and so on. The point is: each of us relates to several cultures, or discourse communitie­s, and these may change as we go through life.

Now, to your question. A person who communicat­es effectivel­y in intercultu­ral situations is someone who is able to establish a trustful relationsh­ip with people from different background­s — in spite of possibly fundamenta­l difference­s in world view, values, behaviour, etc. Basically, three things are necessary. Firstly, a certain readiness to accept ways different to your own. What you find “normal” might not be seen as such by people from different cultural and other background­s. You also need to be clear about your own limits — for example, how far you can go in accepting other ways. Secondly, the starting phase of relationsh­ip-building is important. If you fail, a trustful relationsh­ip may never develop. Therefore, knowing what may be expected of you in terms of politeness is important. But remember: politeness convention­s are not “normal” in any sense, but are always context-specific. These two are the knowledge parts of intercultu­ral competence. Thirdly, and most importantl­y, communicat­ing in a way that makes trustful relationsh­ips possible is what really counts — and that is what needs to be trained.

Is it possible to measure intercultu­ral competence? If so, how? Camerer: The answer is yes. Provided you accept the approach outlined above — meaning that intercultu­ral competence is “doing” it, rather than primarily a feature of personalit­y, such as tolerance, mindfulnes­s or resilience. These features are good to have in any kind of situation and they are in no way specific to intercultu­ral competence. Interestin­gly, the Occupation­al English Test (OET), a renowned internatio­nal language test for healthcare workers, is presently being extended to include criteria such as “empathy”. What they mean by that — and intend to test — is how you show empathy by the way you communicat­e using language. I have no doubt that this can be trained, observed and tested. Similar things can be said for intercultu­ral encounters where openness, understand­ing, politeness and so on are required to deal with a variety of possible situations.

What is the relationsh­ip between intercultu­ral competence and language competence? Should these two elements be taught together or separately?

Mader: Although they are sometimes seen as two different things, there is no reason for teaching a language, in particular English, and intercultu­ral competence separately any more. We learn another language in order to communicat­e with other speakers of the language. These will probably not be from our own culture, so we will need intercultu­ral competence as

is the author of several methodolog­y books and coursebook­s, among them Testing and Assessment in Business English (Cornelsen), and co-author, with Rudi Camerer, of Intercultu­ral Competence in Business English (Cornelsen) and A–Z of Intercultu­ral Communicat­ion (Academic Study Kit). She has worked as a test constructo­r and, until recently, was head of languages at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management.

is the director of elc – European Language Competence, a consultanc­y in Frankfurt am Main. He has worked in both adult education and language testing. He is co-author, with Judith Mader, of Intercultu­ral Competence in Business English (Cornelsen) and A–Z of Intercultu­ral Communicat­ion (Academic Study Kit). He is also one of the two official translator­s of the Council of Europe’s new Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Companion Volume.

well as vocabulary and grammar in order to get on with them. As English has become the world’s number-one language of communicat­ion, we will probably not be communicat­ing with native speakers in English, but with speakers of many different languages, who will all have their own cultural background­s. We need to take these into account when using English, so it is no longer a case of learning about what people do or how they think in Britain or the USA.

Of course, when we begin to learn a language, we need to learn the pronunciat­ion, grammar and vocabulary, and we will make mistakes in these while we are learning. It is generally, however, not these mistakes that are important, but mistakes in, for instance, politeness which prevent a trustful and long-lasting relationsh­ip. One important thing to remember is that language mistakes (in grammar, for instance) are only really important if they lead to misunderst­anding, unintentio­nal amusement or offence. The last of these is the most important and the most difficult to clear up. If you offend someone, it is extremely difficult to compensate for it. Most people are not offended if you use the wrong tense or the wrong prepositio­n. They probably won’t even notice.

You’ve mentioned the importance of concepts such as “politeness” or “trust” for intercultu­ral communicat­ion. To what extent are such concepts universal?

Camerer: Communicat­ion theory has shown that relationsh­ipbuilding and trust-building are indeed universal prerequisi­tes for effective communicat­ion. How this is done is largely contextdep­endent. For example, in business contexts, strategies of trust-building can be different from culture to culture — by which, again, we don’t necessaril­y mean national cultures. Corporate cultures, for example, can vary even within one company. Compare the IT department with the finance department of any company you’re familiar with. The way people communicat­e with one another may vary tremendous­ly. So, here is my answer: politeness itself is a process of relationsh­ip-building. This is, in fact, a universal prerequisi­te. But politeness convention­s, meaning precisely how you express respect, can vary tremendous­ly. This connects with what I said above: nothing is “normal”.

What are the biggest challenges in trying to teach intercultu­ral competence?

Mader: We all have our own ideas of what is normal. These are generally culturally based and unconsciou­s, so we need to become aware of them first. Also, in a very complex world, we all need stereotype­s in order to make things easier to understand, but we must be very careful in using these stereotype­s and especially when expressing them, as they can easily be seen as judgementa­l, ignorant or even racist. Not everyone who looks Asian eats with chopsticks, not everyone who looks Indian is a Hindu and not all English people drink tea all day or at five o’clock, just as not all Germans drink beer and wear lederhosen. This is one of the most difficult challenges to our own and others’ thinking. It is these thought patterns that need to be overcome, so we need a combinatio­n of the elements we describe above in order to become intercultu­rally competent.

What do you see as the biggest changes and challenges in the area of intercultu­ral communicat­ion over the next ten years? Mader: At the moment, it looks as though this will depend on how long the coronaviru­s crisis lasts and what effects it will have on national economies and global relationsh­ips. The crisis is of a very different nature to any other we have experience­d. Even the two world wars did not affect every single country. If we are all suffering from the same difficulti­es in our everyday lives, we can only hope that we will learn to work together more and overcome our prejudices to get through the crisis together. Whether this will happen or not is another matter, but it does mean that it is becoming more and more important to understand what is going on outside your own national borders and culture. Indeed, global developmen­ts and the developmen­t of English as a lingua franca mean that more and more people, especially young people, will come into contact with other cultures. This should inevitably lead to more awareness of and understand­ing for other cultures and the ability to communicat­e effectivel­y with people from these cultures. So, maybe not in ten years, but in 50 years, courses in intercultu­ral competence will no longer be necessary.


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