A Skill to Learn in 2021: Intercultural Competency
Employers and admissions committees are starting to screen for these qualities in candidates — here’s how you can develop them yourself.
I had an unfortunate “Emily in Paris” moment recently when I stopped to pick up dessert at a French bakery in Midtown, New York.
Clearly, my French-speaking skills from high school were way past their prime — when I made an attempt to order eclairs in different flavors, I was stopped mid-sentence by the blonde cashier behind the pastry display who told me, with a crisp smile, that she “couldn’t hear what I was saying”.
In translation, “please speak English”.
In retrospect, I probably should have known that my struggling accent and horrendous grammar would not have impressed a native speaker who holds pride in the beauty of well-spoken French.
Emily in Paris may have run a satirical campaign on the stereotypical American girl working in a foreign country, but truthfully, “Emily” could have been any of us in a different form — an Asian student attending boarding school in New England and being baffled by what Nantucket is, or even a born-and-bred Londoner going on an exchange trip to India and being shocked by the existence of arranged marriages.
Over the past four years, I’ve interviewed prospective students for my alma mater, Trinity College, as well as applicants from a range of seniority levels for my company with variations of the question, “What does diversity mean to you?” in the following ways:
- Tell me about a time when you took the initiative to meet someone different from yourself.
- What is your most significant experience in a foreign setting or with a foreign culture?
- What projects have you worked on with team members in another global location?
- How have you handled conflicts with a teammate with different beliefs or ideals?
The questions above serve as a baseline for us to think about how we have pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones to seek new relationships or extended our biases to limit the ones we could explore.
With around 28.4 million foreign-born persons in the U.S. labor force and more than 1 million international students in the country, there is a strong likelihood that our core or peripheral networks are filled with at least one person of a different national heritage — this does not include citizens whose parents originated from another location.
Essentially, there are more than enough opportunities for us to be open-minded to the idea of meeting peers from another background and learning about what makes them who they are.
Hiring teams and admissions officers are ultimately looking for additions to the culture of their organizations and student bodies, and the candidates who answer those questions most memorably are the ones who have experienced real connections to people or places that changed their perspectives.
“Intercultural sensitivity is about appreciating the deeper impact of cultural difference on how we interact with other people and the effect this has on one’s own perceptions of other people.
Intercultural competence is a measure of one’s effectiveness in such interactions with other people.” — SHRM
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, the travel industry was the second-fastest growing industry in the world, right behind healthcare — for a good reason.
Global connectedness is inextricably linked to business growth, and there has been an increasing push for diversified curriculums in classrooms from a young age and a trend towards promoting internationalism in the workplace.
For those of us who have traveled outside our borders, we can start by honing in on both positive and negative details from our past experiences with people and particular situations during our trips. After all, there is much more to gain from your perspectives once you appreciate how they relate to your place in the world.
Here are a few questions you can think about:
- What did you learn about yourself after traveling to this location?
- Were there are significant moments during which you felt uncomfortable? If so, why?
- Did you make attempts to speak to any of the local residents? If so, what did you learn from them?
- How do you view your own culture in relation to the one you just experienced after your trip?
“Travel does not automatically make you a better person,” — Travis Levius, National Geographic
This term draws inspiration from European works of art and literature (eg. Charlotte Brontë) that glamorized the images of women who typically descended from non-Western cultures and drew attention towards their physical or temperamental attributes in ways that were detrimental to their being.
Instead of focusing on the differences between yourself and individuals from other cultures, intercultural competency relates to pointing out similarities.
If you’ve ever visited a developing area of a country such as Indonesia or Thailand and taken a “slum tour” or visited an animal conservatory, it is important to remember that you are viewing the sights through the lens of a tourist, which should prompt you to examine the environment you are experiencing in connection to its history.
“I think we can develop empathetic feelings and sort of crack open our sense of self to include other people’s experiences in it. We can only deepen our own understanding of who we are in an unequal world and how that makes us feel and how that motivates us to shift our life in some way or another.” — Anu Taranath
Both examples of the experiences listed above are eye-opening as first-time encounters, but perhaps, we can view them more introspectively by asking ourselves:
- How does my participation in this activity affect the employees of the industry?
- Is there a framework for regulation around the industry?
- Do the practices of this industry appear to be ethical by my standards? If yes/no, how does this compare to the industry/ethical standards in my own country?
- How am I being treated by the local residents of the places I am visiting — does this have any historical relevance to how they were governed?
- Are the people around me being treated differently than how I am being approached? If so, why?
Dive into the history of where you are, strike up a conversation with your tour guide, or research the small things that excite you. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can absorb in the present by reflecting on the past.
To share a personal story, as an example — food is a passion that brings me closer to the world. I remember learning about how the Peruvian fried rice that I had been ordering from a local Hartford restaurant during my college years was tied to the roots of Chinese immigration in the early 19th century from a Spanish class that I had taken during one semester. I’d never had any previous ties to the continent, but realizing that elements of my culture were embedded in the history of Peruvian cuisine made me infatuated with wanting to visit South America ever since.
Regardless of where you grew up or how old you are, challenging yourself to think differently will be uncomfortable. To take the first step in overcoming this hurdle is a true display of your aptitude to learn and adapt, and adaptability is power if you plan on advancing in the long term.
What about the current state of affairs of travel in 2020/2021? Or if you haven’t had significant chances to go abroad?
It is easy to attribute one’s lack of exposure to different types of people on their own communities — they’re either from small towns with homogenous populations, or places where everyone grew up mingling in the same social circles from a young age, amongst other reasons.
I’m countering this by presenting a solution — find ways to acquaint yourself with other cultures domestically by doing research on student mentorship programs, linguistic meetups, fun/skill-based courses, or professional groups, all of which can be done in-person or virtually with minimal financial resources needed for a majority of these options.
As much as I’ve always advocated for reading profusely, turning pages will only provide you with so much theoretical knowledge. To put a spin on the phrase “practice makes perfect”, let’s just say that “exposure becomes enrichment”.
Ask questions in moments when you are confused, don’t be discouraged when you say or do something awkward, listen to what others have to say, and train yourself to be vulnerable enough to do all of the above.
Why make such an effort when you’re likely to be working or socializing within the same network for the forseeable future?
Because they are more relevant than ever — even the smartest companies such as Facebook know that global relationships are crucial to competitiveness and appealing to a larger demographic.
These qualities could make the difference between a strong or weak recommendation from a school that is seeking to build a more diverse incoming class, or the consideration between a yes and a no for a promotion/job that requires excellent relational skills with foreign teams or colleagues.
Steering away from the academic/professional viewpoint, you don’t want to be the only person in the room who blanks on a cultural reference or blurts out a statement that you thought was innocuous, but turned out to be offensive to someone else.
It’s a faux-pas that can easily be avoided. Just refer to Emily if you need to know what not to do — and remind me to brush up on my French while you’re at it.