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What is Intercultural Communication Competence?


Struggling to find a definition of ‘intercultural communication competence’?

Well, you are not alone.

A recent email from one of our clients, asking us to clarify the meaning of ‘intercultural communication competence’, shows that the intercultural training field comes with its fair share of potentially baffling terminology!

The person in question had come across the term while reviewing some in-house recruitment literature. They were at a loss to understand what it meant.

The author of the original document, who was no longer with the company, had included it as a desirable competence for an international role but had failed to define what it meant or how it should be measured.

The question was an interesting one and we thought we’d share our response on the meaning of intercultural communication competence.

A case study in intercultural communication competence

Let’s start by understanding intercultural communication competence in some sort of context with the following case study which is based on a real-life incident.


shanghai city outline



Maryanne is from the USA.

She is a business process leader for a global telecommunications company.

She is new to her role and has recently arrived in Shanghai to meet one of the Chinese managers and explore their business setup.



maryanne icon


She struggles to understand the rationale behind team reporting lines in the Chinese office and spends lots of time asking detailed questions to establish the underlying reasoning.

The Chinese manager smiles and answers the questions, but Maryanne perceives his responses to be evasive.

She decides to park the issue and connect with the more senior China country manager for an explanation on her return to the USA.



angry boss


However, once home, she is confronted by her angry boss who explains that her visit did not go down well.

They had a call from the China country manager to inform them that the Chinese manager had considered her conduct to be rude, insulting and brash.

Despite Maryanne feeling that she had behaved correctly, the incident has created considerable upset in China.



So, what happened here? And what does this have to do with intercultural communication competence?

Well, Maryanne comes from a culture that adopts a much more direct communication style, especially in the professional setting. In the USA, saying things ‘as they are’, albeit diplomatically, is seen as being upfront, transparent and economical with time, therefore becoming the preferred approach to communication.

With limited experience of working with the Chinese, Maryanne wasn’t aware that the Chinese communication style can be quite different, especially in the professional context.

Chinese culture tends to place great value on harmony, hierarchy and ‘face’. These are expressed through their adoption of a more indirect communication style, where people tend to be careful about protecting others’ feelings and making sure that confrontation is minimised.

Unfortunately for Maryanne, she had little global experience and lacked an appreciation of communication differences around the world. This meant she did not have the competence (the ability to do something successfully or efficiently) to communicate across cultures.

The complaint about Maryanne essentially came down to her not positioning her questioning in a more culturally appropriate way. Her rather direct approach came across badly in the Chinese context as a full-on challenge. However, for the Chinese, they can’t just come out and say this so they tend to give diplomatic answers. These were then misunderstood by Maryanne as being evasive because to her ears they were not answering the questions she was asking.

It’s a simple case study but a good example of why competence in intercultural communication is important; not only for the business world but also in areas like politics, healthcare, public services and many other areas of life.

In this TEDxNelson talk Helena Merschdorf gives a simple overview of communication differences across cultures.

One of our very own real-life client case studies we shared on this blog also features in her presentation!



What does intercultural communication competence mean?

So, in the story above of Maryanne, she didn’t quite have the experience, know-how or support to navigate her first encounter with Chinese business culture.

With time and practice, this will change until she is more than competent in adapting her approach to the situation, context and culture.

Intercultural communication competence means Maryanne will next time be able to ask questions in a more subtle way, to manipulate outcomes more discreetly and walk the tightrope between being effective and polite.

Professionals who are competent in communicating across cultures tend to share the following key qualities:

  • They appreciate that every individual is shaped by their own unique blend of cultures (national, regional, professional, familial, etc.) and that other factors such as geographies, histories and economic experiences all influence communication styles.
  • They understand the connection between value systems, culture and communication preferences and how these manifest in different contexts/channels of communication.
  • They acknowledge the impact of bias on the way we communicate with others and the role of power differences in framing communication goals.
  • They have an understanding of generic models to adapt to various communication styles of people from other cultures.
  • They adapt their own style as necessary to get the best out of their interaction.

A short definition of intercultural communication competence

So, what did we say to the client who started this whole question in the first place?!

This was our simple definition: intercultural communication competence is about having the awareness, skills and strategies to communicate with people from different cultures effectively

..and they liked it!

Need support in finding intercultural communication competence training?

With an understanding of the influence of cultural frameworks and their impact on behaviours across the workplace – someone with intercultural communication competence is more likely to inspire trust from their international peers, avoid offence and miscommunications and get better outcomes from their work objectives.

If you, your company or organization need training support in intercultural communication competence, this is what we do!

Get support here and learn more about our tailored help

A free intercultural communication eLearning course

If you are new to the topic of intercultural communication and would like to get some basics, then check out our free eLearning course on YouTube.



It’s a detailed introduction and covers essentials including Culture, Self Awareness, Values, Approaches to Time, Approaches to Communication, Approaches to Teamwork and Dealing with Conflict.

If you are only interested in the section on communication, check the Time Stamps in the information section under the video.

Main blog image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko who kindly shares his work on Unsplash.


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