My first job after I graduated college was as a field representative for a major nonprofit organization. I coordinated volunteer activities, fund-raising events and heart health education programs. The territory I was assigned included Wooster and Millersburg, Ohio, and surrounding rural areas (mainly Amish and Mennonite communities). I studied the learning modules thoroughly, scheduled meetings with volunteers and community leaders and was assured of good results.
What surprises I faced! The first surprise was driving in the territory. I was often slowed down by families in horses and buggies on the road. The second surprise was the communication between the Amish and non-Amish – simple “hellos,” with little to no small talk. When collaboration or communication was needed, representatives (elders, authority) were chosen to speak to as an “advisors’ board,” and take decisions back to respective communities.
At first, I thought I could work directly with the elders, and let them handle the Amish or Mennonites. However, when I talked about my organization’s programs, I was asked right away, “What materials, initiatives or trainers do you have for the Amish?” So, I had to learn how to work with this unique community after all. My manager gave me advice: observe, have lunch with the elders, listen, clarify and only deliver what you can.
Though it was a steep learning curve with many mistakes, apologies, smiles and helpings of turkey casserole with scratch-made dumplings, it was worth the skills I gained. I learned that God’s creation was bigger than I could ever have imagined. That was my first experience in working towards Intercultural Competence. Though a small victory, it made me joyful nonetheless.
Intercultural Competence is “the capacity to communicate, relate, and work across cultural boundaries. It involves developing capacity in three areas: knowledge, skills and attitudes” (Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers BICM, USCCB, 2014, p9):
More than one perspective on things.
Different interpretations of the same cultural reality.
Dynamics of intercultural communication.
More than one’s first language.
Skills entail the ability to:
Adapt communication and behavior.
Openness to others and other cultures.
Wanting to learn and engage other cultures.
Understanding intercultural interaction as a way of life, not a problem to be solved.
Note: the concepts of ‘cultural competence’ and ‘intercultural competence’ are used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. Cultural competency is the ability to operate within one’s own culture and intercultural competency is the ability to operate in your own and across cultures.
How do you begin to develop intercultural competency? I recommend that you start by:
Learning about your own culture – knowing about your own culture, values and beliefs helps you appreciate and recognize similarities, and differences, in your culture versus another.
Learning about other cultures – learning about other cultures (values, beliefs, literature, music, customs, foods, language, authority) increases respect and understanding, helps address misconceptions and increases confidence in interactions with others.
Inviting individuals from different cultures to an informal gathering to learn about one another, build relationships and become more comfortable interacting with others.
Also, try to be open and flexible, practice humility and be committed to others and yourself. Developing intercultural competency takes time and patience, yet it is worth it. You’re learning new skills and building relationships with cultures different from your own while maintaining and being appreciative of what is special in your own culture.