Intercultural Awareness

See also: Building Cultural Competence

Intercultural awareness is, quite simply, having an understanding of both your own and other cultures, and particularly the similarities and differences between them.

These similarities and differences may be in terms of values, beliefs, or behaviour. They may be large or small, and they matter very much when you are meeting or interacting with people who are from another cultural background.

Understanding that people from different cultures have different values is the foundation to good intercultural relationships.

The Importance of Intercultural Awareness

In a multicultural world, most of us need at least some intercultural awareness every day. For those who live or work away from our native countries, or who live or work closely with those from another country, it is absolutely vital.

But even just for a two-week holiday abroad, intercultural awareness is a vital quality that can prevent you from causing offence.

Research from the British Council suggests that employers value intercultural skills, including foreign languages, but in particular intercultural awareness, understanding of different viewpoints, and demonstrating respect for others.

There are four groups of people who are most likely to need intercultural awareness:

  1. Expatriates
  2. People who work globally
  3. People who work in multicultural teams
  4. Tourists

1. Expatriates

Expatriates, or expats, are people who live and work away from their native country.

Usually employed by multi-nationals rather than local companies, expats may be on quite long postings, perhaps two to three years. They are often quite senior in their organisation and are expected to be able to apply skills learned elsewhere to the new location.

Lack of intercultural awareness, and in particular of the way things are done round here, can often damage or derail expat assignments.

2. People Who Work Globally

Even those based in their native country may, in a global economy, need to work with people from other countries and cultures. A little intercultural awareness may prevent them giving or taking offence unnecessarily.

3. People Who Work in Multicultural Teams

There are very few of us who do not have at least some contact with colleagues or acquaintances who are non-native. Some industries and organisations have large numbers of migrant workers, for example, healthcare and social care where nurses are highly sought-after and often recruited from abroad.

Intercultural awareness helps to ease colleague–colleague and colleague–manager interactions and prevent misunderstandings.

4. Tourists

You may feel that two weeks’ holiday does not justify finding out a bit more about the culture of the place you are visiting. But as a visitor, you are, like it or not, seen as a representative of your country. And it is perfectly possible to give offence inadvertently.

Case study: Getting it badly wrong

In June 2015, British tourist Eleanor Hawkins was arrested in Malaysia. Her crime? Along with several others, to strip naked on top of a mountain which locals viewed as sacred. This might have been overlooked had there not been an earthquake a few days later, which locals put down to the mountain spirit being angry with the group of tourists.

In the UK, stripping off is not a big deal. It might offend a few people if you did it in a town centre, but it’s more likely to raise a laugh. In Malaysia, it’s quite another thing. Eleanor Hawkins’ trip was cut short and she returned home sadder and wiser.

Degrees of Intercultural Awareness: A Spectrum

We can define four levels of intercultural awareness, which can broadly be considered as a spectrum.

These are:

1 My way is the only way

People either do not know, or do not care, that there is any other way of doing things.

You can see this in small children, who are often stunned when they hear people talking another language because it has never occurred to them before that anyone might not be the same as them.

2 My way is the best way

At this level, people are aware that other people do things differently, or have different beliefs, but they don’t think that’s appropriate.

Their way is not the only way, but it is unmistakeably the best. We could call this world view the ‘colonial’ approach: we will show you how to do it our way because it is the best thing for you.


There are several ways, my way and others

People have a clear understanding that there are other world views, and that different people behave and believe differently.

They make no judgement about the relative merits of these views as a whole, but recognise that different cultures and views may have different merits. They are willing to bring together the good from several different aspects in a synergistic way.


Our way

This final stage brings people together to create a new, shared culture, which has new meaning for everyone.

Developing Intercultural Awareness

What can you do to develop intercultural awareness? Here are some ideas:

  • Admit that you don’t know.
    Acknowledging your ignorance is the first step towards learning about other cultures.

  • Develop an awareness of your own views, assumptions and beliefs, and how they are shaped by your culture.
    Ask yourself questions like: what do I see as ‘national’ characteristics in this country? Which ‘national’ characteristic do I like and dislike in myself?

  • Take an interest.
    Read about other countries and cultures, and start to consider the differences between your own culture and what you have read.

  • Don’t make judgements.
    Instead, start by collecting information. Ask neutral questions and clarify meaning before assuming that you know what’s going on. See our pages on Questioning and Clarifying for more.

  • Once you have collected information, start to check your assumptions.
    Ask colleagues or friends who know more about the culture than you, and systematically review your assumptions to make sure that they are correct.

  • Develop empathy.
    Think about how it feels to be in the other person’s position. See our page on Empathy for more.

  • Look for what you can gain, not what you could lose.
    If you can take the best from both your own and someone else’s views and experiences, you could get a far greater whole that will benefit both of you. But this requires you to take the approach that you don’t necessarily know best, and even that you don’t necessarily know at all.

The Importance of Celebrating Diversity

In the final analysis, intercultural awareness leads ideally to a point of celebrating diversity.

That is, recognising that everyone, of whatever background, skills or experience, brings something unique to the table. If you, collectively, can harness that and bring everyone’s skills together, the group can be better than the sum of its parts.