Intercultural Awareness – Interculturality

2.1. Intercultural awareness

Intercultural awareness can be considered as the foundation of communication. It involves two qualities: one is the awareness of one’s own culture; the other is the awareness of another culture.

It implies the ability to become aware not only of our cultural values, beliefs and perceptions, but also those of other cultures. Cultural awareness becomes essential when people of different cultures communicate. As people see, interpret and evaluate things in different ways, what is considered appropriate in one culture is probably inappropriate in another, and therefore misunderstandings arise. Communicating with others is difficult; it demands sensitivity and creativity.

In spite of many similarities, people have differences in the way they do things. It requires to understand and reconcile these differences to function effectively in a group.

2.2. Cultural Shock, Margalit Cohen-Emerique

The interaction with a person or object from a different culture, set in a specific space and time, which provokes negative or positive cognitive and affective reactions, a sensation of loss of reference points, a negative representation of oneself and feeling of lack of approval that can give rise to uneasiness and anger.

The source of a cultural shock, according to Cohen-Emerique, is the Sensitive Zones.  Sensitive zones are cultural domains particularly important in one’s cultural (i.e. national, ethnic, age, gender, professional etc..) reference frame.

Sensitive zones are:

  • Rules of social organisation: gender roles, the role of community, family etc.
  • Embodiedness: role of physical contact, hygiene, smells, climate, experience of body
  • Conceptions and uses of space: instrumentalization vs harmony in the use of the environment
  • Conceptions and uses of time: linear vs non-linear, monochromic vs polychromic, future / past / present orientation
  • Way of life, working style
  • Thinking, learning style, conceptions of the world: scientific approach VS transcendental approach
  • Interaction codes and patterns: direct vs indirect communication; context rich vs context poor communication; formal vs informal communication
  • Intergroup relations, different demographic and religious composition of the societies
  • Emotions are indicators that “something is happening”, they reveal a strong reaction to a conflict, to some tension, to the difference between an expected and a received scenario.

Mostly negative reactions can be variations of:

–                Fear, terror

–                Pity, sorry

–                Anger, frustration, revolt

–                Disgust

–                Pain

–                Miscomprehension, confusion, embarrassment, puzzled, surprised


Examples of positive reactions:

–                Joy, beauty

–                Admiration, amazement

–                Empathy

–                Happiness


Beyond emotional and cognitive reactions, behavioural response also occur, such as:

–                Avoidance, running away, retreat

–                Aggression, violence

–                Nausea, headache, “bad feeling”

Method of critical incidents consists of using the experiences of culture shock to shed light on our reference frame and identify sensitive zones.

Cohen-Emerique proposes a 3 steps approach:

  1. Decentration
  2. Getting to know the reference frame of the others
  3. Negotiation

    1. Decentration

  • Taking a “step back” towards more cultural neutrality
  • Understanding how our own values, norms, expectations, practices, in short our own cultural reference frame influences the interaction and plays a role in the culture shock experiences
  • prevent the consequences of non treated culture shock experiences

How to get there?

  • Method of critical incidents: using the experiences of culture shock to shed light on our reference frame and identify sensitive zones

Resources / tools / capacities / attitudes that help:

  • Analysis grid for critical incidents
  • Capacity of self-reflection, self-awareness, management of emotions

2. Understanding the reference frame of the other

  • Exploring the values, norms of the other to better understand their values
  • Making the most elaborated hypothesis possible instead of simplifications
  • Going beyond stereotypes and generalisations
  • Understand the rationality of the other
  • Make an effort to integrate the context (the migration path, the cultural plurality of the protagonists)

Resources: tools / attitudes

  • Tools of cultural anthropology: interview, observation, reading research, resource persons (mediators, bi-cultural)
  • Analysis grid for the adaptation process
  • Knowledge in cultural anthropology / psychology
  • Capacity to integrate observations with knowledge

 3. Negotiation:

  • The professional needs to go beyond the mere observation of cultural differences
  • reaching a solution which takes into account the best possible the identities of both interaction partners

Resources: tools / competences

  • Know your own borders, limits of tolerance
  • Resisting the need for closure, staying in the process
  • Alternating personal / professional identities to look for possible contact points

2.3. Intercultural Sensitivity, Milton J. Bennett

DEVELOPMENTAL MODEL OF INTERCULTURAL SENSITIVITY elaborated by Dr. Milton Bennett indicates reactions that people have to cultural differences. These reactions belonging to six stages and range from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism:

  • DENIAL: This stage is often created based on the belief that a person’s culture is the only real culture. People in this stage often fail to see cultural differences and tend to isolate themselves from other groups.
  • DEFENSE: during this stage, learners often feel as though their own culture is the only good culture. It often consists of negative stereotyping and “us” vs. “them”.
  • MINIMIZATION: the person begins to find commonalities between own culture and people of other cultures. People in this stage begin to recognize that all people are peoplewhether they have different traditions and cultures or not. However, in this stage deep cultural differences are masked, including privileged position of dominant culture, under the false assumption of equal opportunities
  • ACCEPTANCE: during this stage, learners are able to recognize and appreciate cultural differences through both behaviours and values. This stage promotes the belief that one’s own culture is just one of the many cultures that exists in the world. Acceptance does not mean agreement – cultural differences in this stage ca still be judged negatively
  • ADAPTATION: People begin to be more competent in how to communicate with people of other cultures. A major aspect of this stage is that the learner will be able to see the world through another’s “eyes.” Because of this perspective, learners can change their behaviour in order to communicate more effectively.
  • INTEGRATION: during integration the person is able to have other cultural experience move in and out of their own worldview. People that reach integration are often cultural mediators. They are able to help others understand different cultures and promote unity between these two cultures

2.4. Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad.


The components of intercultural competence are knowledge, skills and attitudes, complemented by the values one holds because of one’s belonging to a number of social groups. These values are part of one’s social identities.

Intercultural attitudes: curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own This means a willingness to relativize one’s own values, beliefs and behaviours, not to assume that they are the only possible and naturally correct ones, and to be able to see how they might look from an outsider’s perspective who has a different set of values, beliefs and behaviours. This can be called the ability to ‘decentre’.

Skills such as observation, listening, evaluating are necessary to identify and minimize ethnocentrism, as well as to seek out cultural clues and meaning. Analysing, interpreting, and relating are needed in order to compare and seek out linkages. Critical thinking is also crucial – viewing and interpreting the world from other cultures’ point of view and identifying one’s own.

In regard to knowledge necessary for intercultural competence, for example the following are needed: cultural self-awareness (meaning the ways in which one’s culture has influenced identity and worldview), culture-specific deep cultural knowledge, including understanding other world views, and sociolinguistic awareness.

Further reading: