Cultural Competence

Learning Objectives

Discuss strategies for developing cultural competence and cultural intelligence.

It is important to remember that the ability to communicate effectively with multicultural audiences or audiences from other cultures is a skill like any other: it can be learned, practiced, and improved. The capacity to communicate across and within cultural difference is known as cultural competence, cross-cultural competence, or intercultural competence. 

Cultural competence is defined differently in a variety of fields:

  • In education: “What is cultural competence? Put most simply, it is the ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than your own.”[1]
  • In healthcare: “The ongoing capacity of healthcare systems, organizations, and professionals to provide for diverse patient populations high-quality care that is safe, patient and family centered, evidence based, and equitable.”[2]
  • In child care: “Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.”[3]
  • For library and information science professionals: “Cultural competence, a term used in the literature to describe the ability of professionals to understanding the needs of diverse populations, is a highly developed ability to understand and respect cultural differences and to address issues of disparity among diverse populations competently.”[4]
  • In international education: “Intercultural competence is the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions.”[5]

All these definitions share a focus on being able to exchange ideas or information effectively within a multicultural and diverse environment. The implications of these definitions for public speaking may be self-evident: if one’s purpose is to get across a message (and receive feedback about that message), then cultural competence is a prerequisite, or necessary condition, for communicating this message effectively.

Although the word “competence” might make it sound like cultural competence is something one can achieve and possess, it’s actually an ongoing process. Cultural competence is a bit like physical fitness: it requires practice and exercise throughout one’s education, career, and lifetime.

Darla Deardorff’s 2004 model of intercultural competence shows how this knowledge and experience is a cyclical process.[6] An attitude of openness and respect leads to deeper cultural knowledge, which leads to greater empathy and flexibility, which leads to more appropriate behavior in an intercultural context, which leads to discovery and curiosity, which leads to greater cultural awareness and self-awareness, which leads to greater adaptability . . . and so on.


  • Respect (valuing other cultures)
  • Openness (withholding judgment)
  • Curiosity & discovery (tolerating ambiguity)
arrow right Knowledge & Comprehension:

  • Cultural self-awareness
  • Deep cultural knowledge
  • Sociolinguistic awareness (awareness of the connection between language and society)
    • Skills: To listen, observe, evaluate; To analyze, interpret, relate
arrow up Arrow down
External Outcome:

  • Effective and appropriate communication & behavior in an intercultural situation
arrow left Internal Outcome:

  • Informed Frame of Reference Shift:
    • Adaptability
    • Flexibility
    • Empathy

TO watch: Daniel Socha

In this video, Master’s student Daniel Socha talks about cultivating an “introspective approach” to culture, which calls us to “continually question our assumptions.”

You can view the transcript for “How refugees can teach us cultural competency | Daniel Socha | TEDxKentState” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Around eight minutes into his talk, Socha uses his own experience to make a point about letting go of what he calls “learned cultural expertise”—the idea that one can learn generalizable insights about a complex and diverse culture by “studying up” in books or on the internet. By pointing out his own erroneous assumptions about dogs in Morocco, he both explains and enacts the attitude of humility he’s encouraging in his speech.

One of the latest buzz-words in the business world is “cultural intelligence,” which was initially introduced to the scholarly community in 2003 by P. Christopher Earley and Soon Ang.[7] In the past decade, a wealth of research has been conducted examining the importance of cultural intelligence during interpersonal interactions with people from other cultures. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is defined as an “individual’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”[8]

Four Factors of Cultural Intelligence

In their original study on the topic, Earley and Ang argued that cultural intelligence is based on four distinct factors: cognitive, motivational, metacognitive, and behavioral dimensions.

Cognitive Cultural Inteliigence

Woman reading a travel guide about Switzerland

Cognitive CQ refers to the things you learn about other cultures, often from books, conversations, movies, TV, or the Internet.

First, cognitive cultural intelligence (CQ) involves knowing about different cultures (intercultural knowledge). Many types of knowledge about a culture can be relevant during an intercultural interaction: rules and norms, economic and legal systems, cultural values and beliefs, the importance of art within a society, etc. . . .  All these different areas of knowledge involve facts that can help you understand people from different cultures. For example, in most of the United States, when you are talking to someone, eye contact is very important. You may have even been told by someone to “look at me when I’m talking to you” if you’ve ever gotten in trouble. However, this norm isn’t consistent across different cultures at all. Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American cultures often view direct contact when talking to someone superior as a sign of disrespect. Knowing how eye contact functions across cultures can help you know more about how to interact with people from various cultures. Probably one of the best books you can read to know more about how to communicate in another culture is Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway’s book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries[9]

Motivational Cultural Intelligence

Second, we have motivational cultural intelligence (CQ), or the degree to which an individual desires to engage in intercultural interactions and can easily adapt to different cultural environments. Motivation is the key to effective intercultural interactions. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you are not motivated to have successful intercultural interactions, you will not have them.

Metacognitive Cultural Intelligence

Third, metacognitive CQ involves being consciously aware of your intercultural interactions in a manner that helps you have more effective interpersonal experiences with people from differing cultures (intercultural understanding). All the knowledge about cultural differences in the world will not be beneficial if you cannot use that information to understand and adapt your behavior during an interpersonal interaction with someone from a differing culture. As such, we must always be learning about cultures but also be ready to adjust our knowledge about people and their cultures through our interactions with them.

Behavioral Cultural Intelligence

Lastly, behavioral CQ is the next step following metacognitive CQ, which is behaving in a manner that is consistent with what you know about other cultures.[10] We should never expect others to adjust to us culturally. Instead, culturally intelligent people realize that it’s best to adapt our behaviors (verbally and nonverbally) to bridge the gap between people culturally. When we go out of our way to be CQ, we will encourage others to do so as well.

As you can see, becoming a truly CQ person involves a lot of work. As such, it’s important to spend time and build your CQ if you are going to be an effective communicator in today’s world.

Engaging Culturally Mindful Interactions

Admittedly, being culturally competent takes a lot of work and a lot of practice. Even if you’re not completely culturally competent, you can engage with people from other cultures in a mindful way. Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson have developed a model of mindfulness with three components: attention, intention, and attitude.[11]

First, when it comes to engaging with people from other cultures, we need to be fully in the moment and not think about previous interactions with people from a culture or possible future interactions with people from a culture. Instead, it’s essential to focus on the person you are interacting with. You also need to be aware of your stereotypes and prejudices that you may have of people from a different culture. Don’t try to find evidence to support or negate these stereotypes or prejudices. If you focus on evidence-finding, you’re just trying to satisfy your thoughts and feelings and are not mindfully engaging with this other person. Also, if you find that your mind is shifting, recognize the shift and allow yourself to re-center on your interaction with the other person.

Second, go into an intercultural interaction knowing your intention. If your goal is to learn more about that person’s culture, that’s a great intention. However, that may not be the only intention we have when interacting with someone from another culture. For example, you may be interacting with someone from another culture because you’re trying to sell them a product you represent. If your main intention is sales, then be aware of your intention and don’t try to deceive yourself into thinking it’s something more altruistic.

Lastly, go into all intercultural interactions with the right attitude. Remember, the goal of being mindful is to be open, kind, and curious. Although we often discuss mindfulness in terms of how we can be open, kind, and curious with ourselves, it’s also important to extend that same framework when we are interacting with people from other cultures. So much of mindful relationships is embodying the right attitude during our interactions with others.

Overall, the goal of mindful intercultural interactions is to be present in the moment in a nonjudgmental way. When you face judgments, recognize them, and ask yourself where they have come from. Interrogate those judgments. At the same time, don’t judge yourself for having those ideas. If we have stereotypes about another a specific culture, it’s important to recognize those stereotypes, call them out, understand where they came from in the first place, and examine them for factualness.

Three men playing soccer in Kiribati.

Playing soccer in Kiribati

For example, imagine you’re talking to someone from the Republic of Kiribati. Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of the Republic of Kiribati, but it’s a real country in Oceania. But let’s say all you know about the people from the Republic of Kiribati is that they like European-style football. During your interaction, you say, “So, what’s your favorite football team?” In this moment, you’ve taken the one stereotype you had and used it to help engage in an interaction. However, if the person comes back and says, “I really don’t care. Sports just aren’t my thing.” How do you respond? First, recognize that you attempted to use a stereotype that you had and call it out for what it was. That doesn’t make you a bad person, but we must learn from these encounters and broaden our world views. Second, call out the stereotype in your mind. Before that moment, you may not have even realized that you had a stereotype of people from the Republic of Kiribati. Labeling our stereotypes of other people is important because it helps us recognize them faster the more we engage in this type of mindful behavior. Third, figure out where that stereotype came from. Maybe you had been in New Zealand and saw a match on the television and saw the Kiribati national football team. In that one moment, you learned a tiny bit about an entire country and pocketed it away for future use. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out where our stereotypes evolved from, but sometimes these stereotypes are so ingrained in us through our own culture that it’s hard to really figure out their origin. Lastly, it’s time to realize that your stereotype may not be that factual. At the same time, you may have found the one resident of the Republic of Kiribati who doesn’t like football. We can often make these determinations by talking to the other person.

At the same time, it’s important also to be mindfully open to the other person’s stereotypes of people within your own culture. For example, someone from the Republic of Kiribati may have a stereotype that Americans know nothing about football (other than American football). If you’re a fan of what we in the U.S. call soccer, then you correct that stereotype or at least provide that person a more nuanced understanding of your own culture. Sure, American football still is the king of sports in the U.S., but media trends for watching football (soccer) are growing, and more and more Americans are becoming fans.

  1. Moule, Jean. Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators. United States, Cengage Learning, 2012. 5.
  2. National Quality Forum. Endorsing a Framework and Preferred Practices for Measuring and Reporting Culturally Competent Care Quality. Washington DC: National Quality Forum; 2008. 2008
  3. Isaacs, Mareasa R., and Marva P. Benjamin. Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care. em of Care, Volume I, Georgetown University Child Development Center, 1989
  4. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy , Vol. 79, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 175–204
  5. Deardorff, Darla K. "Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization." Journal of Studies in International Education 10.3 (2006): 241–266.
  6. Deardorff, Darla K. "Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization." Journal of Studies in International Education 10.3 (2006): 241–266.
  7. Earley, P. Christopher and Ang, Soon. Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures. United Kingdom, Stanford University Press, 2003.
  8. Dyne, Linn Van, and Ang, Soon. Handbook of Cultural Intelligence: Theory, Measurement, and Applications. Ukraine, Taylor & Francis, 2015, p. xv.
  9. Morrison, Terri and Conaway, Wayne A. Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries. United States, Adams Media, 2006.
  10. Ang, Soon and Van Dyne, Linn. "Conceptualization of cultural intelligence." Handbook of Cultural Intelligence 1 (2015).
  11. Shapiro, Shauna L., and Linda E. Carlson. "The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions." American Psychological Association, 2009.