Learning objectives for this chapter:

  • a working definition for intercultural communication and competence
  • different approaches to this concept
  • the dangers and pitfalls of intercultural communication
  • some basic approaches to intercultural communication and gaining intercultural competence
  • how an organisation or institution can gain intercultural competence
  • how the relations between dominant/host societies and minorities can develop
  • intercultural competence and the integration of migrants and refugees into the labour market of the host country










Intercultural competence is a way of ensuring that the methods used to reach a pre-determined set of goals are effective and operate within good practice guidelines. The goals set will be influenced by the social and political climate operating in each country and the traditional atti-tudes towards receiving migrants. Here, the debate between integration, assimilation or segregation is of interest. Normally when speaking of intercultural competence one refers to the intercultural competence of individuals. But this notion is not sufficient, if we talk about advice and guidance for the labour market integration of refugees and migrants. Here intercultural competence can be observed and is required on three levels:

  • the level of encounters between individuals from different cultures;
  • the level of encounters of institutions working with refugees and migrants with individuals or ethnic/national groups of migrants and refugees;
  • the level of encounters of ethnic/national groups of migrants with the dominant society.

These three levels will be discussed separately in the following chapters. But before doing so in order to arrive at an understanding of intercultural competence, we need to have a working definition of culture.



There is a plethora of scientific answers to the definition of culture. Since our focus is on practice, it will be useful to have an overview of what cultural differences are made of and what the problems and obstacles might be when dealing with migrants and refugees from very different cultural backgrounds. A very attractive example of how to illustrate the problem of cultural differences has been designed by Gibson in his model of the "cultural iceberg". It looks like this:


The idea of this model is quite clear: It shows that culture can be initially defined by those characteristics seen "above the water", with the more subtle aspects lying "under the water". For practitioners working in a cross-cultural environment, it is this subtle area that is most problematic, and which this training package wants to draw attention to.



(1) Individual intercultural competence

Despite the fact that intercultural competence of individuals has always been emphasised as a necessary skill for dealing with migrant's problems, there is no common agreement over the components parts inherit in it. Scheitza has assembled various "ingredients" of intercultural competence from various sources. These are categorised under the personal attributes of attitude, knowledge, communication, self-confidence and social relationships. These components of individual intercultural competence are not only attributed to the migrant living in a host society, they are also needed for those dealing with migrants and refugees in their everyday life. These skills have to be learned by both sides.

If you are interested in the details of Scheitza’s finding, refer to this link Components of Intercultural Competence


For our purposes we can state that individual intercultural competence is the result of the development of interpersonal skills that arise from the following:

  • the motivation to communicate effectively with someone from a different culture;
  • being prepared to learn the skills needed for effective communication;
  • the ability to put this knowledge into use.(See chapter 3.4)

(2) Intercultural competence of institutions

In addition to the intercultural competence of individuals we also talk of the intercultural competence of institutions. Intercultural competence of institutions refers to the capacity of the institutions concerned to adapt their structure and performance (rules & regulations governing the interaction between employees and members of the target group, mono-cultural or multi-cultural composition of the institution's workforce, etc.) to the demands of intercultural encounters. (See Chapter 3.5).

(3) Intercultural competence of cultural groups

And finally we demand the intercultural competence in the interaction of the dominant culture via the different cultural minorities within the host society and vice versa. Within the globalisation process highly industrialised countries participate in an exchange of labour between the EU-countries and they are the target of migration influx from less developed countries. These migration processes need political guidance, but even more the willingness and the capacity of the different groups to respect the "cultural rights" of all cultural groups concerned (dominant culture and minorities). (See Chapter 3.6).



3.4.1 Principles

One basic precondition for individual intercultural competence is the need to allow one's attitudes to be challenged by recognising that the other has the freedom and the right to be different, whatever one's own opinion is.

Both partners in the exchange are experts of their respective cultures and should treat each other with mutual respect.

The practitioner is responsible for the process. S/He has to enable the different experiences and viewpoints to be identified properly and related to the problem they are talking about.

Being non-judgemental. In communicating with a migrant, the practitioner has to be aware of the fact that they are making an interpretation of what is being communicated to them and that they will never have the full picture.

3.4.2 Intercultural communication

To identify the positive attributes applicable to individual intercultural communication and the extent to which a developed intercultural competence can help a practitioner, we have to look at the opposite of intercultural communication, mono-cultural communication.

Mono-cultural communication is based on common behaviour, language and values. This means that the day to day interaction between members of the same culture are based on roughly common definitions. These similarities allow the members of the same cultural back-ground to be able to predict the behaviour of others and assume a common perception of reality (Bannett 1998). Mono-cultural communication therefore is based on similarities.

An interesting example for a mono-cultural view of migration one can find in the French political model

Intercultural communication does not allow for assumptions of similarity to be made that easily. If we define cultures by their difference of language, behaviour, and values, these differences have to be recognised. Intercultural communication therefore, is based on differences.

A participant in the German AHOI long distance course gives you an example from her work with migrants from different countries to illustrate that intercultural communication is based on differences

The issue of stereotypes and generalisations has to be tackled within this context. It is often a matter of expediency to work with generalisations and stereotypes, especially when working with migrants and refugees from not just one, but many different cultures. More important factors are, whether the stereotypes are based on respect for the other culture (positive stereotypes) or by disrespect (negative stereotypes). While the former can open the door to communication, the latter will inevitably impose sanctions and barriers to effective intercultural exchanges.

How stereotypes and generalisations can influence the daily life of migrants is shown in this link

A related aspect is the assimilationist approach to intercultural communication. This is commonly connected to the notion that everyone is an individual and can only be dealt with as such. It normally implies that the individual should change to enable mono-cultural communication and that the host society should avoid the dangers, pitfalls and the hard work required by intercultural communication. Or, as LaRay Barna puts it:

"Another reason many people are lured into thinking that 'people are people' is that it reduces the discomfort of dealing with difference, of not knowing. The thought that everyone is the same, deep down, is comforting. If someone acts or looks 'strange' (different from them), it is then possible to evaluate this as wrong and treat everyone ethnocentrically." (Barna in Bennett 1998)

What then are the attributes needed to establishing effective and meaningful intercultural communication?

  • Firstly, there is language. It does not only serve as a tool for communication but also as a "system of representation" for perception and thinking (Bennett 1998).
  • In this link a social worker from Iraq (participant of the German AHOI course) gives an example how helpful it can be for an adviser to speak the mothertongue of his or her client

  • Secondly, there is non-verbal behaviour or communication. In some cultures the non-verbal way to express things is much more common and much more important than in many European cultures. Non-verbal communication can be something, as Hall defined, "in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the (...) explicit transmitted part of the message" (Hall 1998). Therefore, the understanding of the "hidden" messages of non-verbal behaviour in some cultures can be absolutely essential in dealing effectively with members from these backgrounds.

  • Thirdly, is communication-style. There may be quite a difference between the way a European might describe a problem, than someone from an African background. Some cultures may go straight to the point whilst others may circle round the topic. The difference between a linear and a more contextual way of expressing things can cause anger, impatience and misunderstanding. This can be avoided or at least limited by some basic knowledge of different communication-styles.

    If you're interested in an example, you should have a look at this link (C3/L6)

  • Fourthly, are values and assumptions. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck have developed five dimensions of cultural assumptions: people's relationship to the environment, to each other, to activity, to time, and to the basic nature of human beings (Kluckhohn/Strodtbeck 1973), operating either individualistically or collectively. Knowing that someone operates as an individual with an apprehension towards authoritarianism or operates as a member of a group, with an inherent subservience towards a superior, provides insight into how someone may adapt to a workplace or job in a different culture.

    In this link a participant of the German AHOI course talks about the traditional values of a Turkish family and how they influence the job-seeking of the daughter

There are four underlying assumptions that ensure the success of individual intercultural communication:

  1. The smaller the similarities between two cultures, the more problematic intercultural communication is.
  2. Intercultural interaction offers the possibility of social change arising from new ideas and insights that will not always be immediately apparent.
  3. Only if you operate as partners from different cultures action on an equal basis will be ensured.
  4. These plans for action will be more successful if a high degree of cultural awareness, i.e. of intercultural competence is available.



We define:

Intercultural competence is

the overall capability of an individual to manage key challenging features of intercultural communication: namely, cultural differences and unfamiliarity, inter-group dynamics, and the tensions and conflicts that can accompany this process.

To answer the question how to gain intercultural competence, we have to differentiate between the intercultural competence of migrants and refugees and the intercultural competence of any practitioner working with that target group.

(1) Migrants and refugees

Gaining intercultural competence is for most migrants and refugees, generally an informal process. It emerges through the challenges of daily life and is a necessary precondition for a successful integration in the host society. The introduction of formal ways and means to improve intercultural communication can help migrants and refugees to improve their skills to deal with their problems.

Very often, some of the individual intercultural competence is gained by attending a language-course. Many language books are designed to give information on cultural and especially behavioural aspects of day-to-day-life in the host country. In the Netherlands for example, migrants and refugees are normally subject to an integration programme which includes also courses on Dutch culture and society. Because of the special emphasis on integration this programme is quite outstanding within the European context. It is one of the few centrally organised attempts to develop intercultural awareness in a European country.

For migrants and refugees also, intercultural competence is indispensable for integration into the labour-market. They often get initial information on their host-culture through contacts with compatriots living in the country. Compatriots offer an informal system of advice and counsel and often direct migrants and refugees to institutions that can help. This method of attaining intercultural competence can be positive in that it is based on trust and is often more relevant to the migrant newly arrived. A negative aspect is that the advise given by fellow compatriots might be biased and they might not be in possession of all the relevant and up-to-date information regarding migrants and refugees.

Many organisations specialising in the field of migration and refugees have developed translated information materials to counteract this kind of misinformation.

The British Refugee Council regularly translates information on refugee rights and entitlements into dozens of different languages. For examples of this they can be contacted by email on info@refugeecouncil.demon.co.uk or on their website

Migrants and refugees acquiring intercultural competence through their own organisations can face difficulties when the political activities of the organisation overshadow the benefits to be gained from their advice.

(2) Advisors, counsellors

For the practitioner working with migrants and refugees to gain intercultural competence is a question of professionalism and quality of the work (s)he is doing.

In the description of intercultural competence, one can separate aspects of knowledge about the cultural background of the client from aspects of development of the bicultural situation.

To know something about the country the client comes from can often be helpful in the contact with migrants and refugees. Sometimes that information can be used like a kind of "door-opener" in the conversation, sometimes it's just necessary to understand a special problem somebody faces (e.g. if (s)he in her/his home-country has worked in a profession, that does not exist in the host country).

Of course it's not possible for a single person to have detailed information about each and every country of the world, but many organisations that deal with special groups of migrants gain a lot of specific knowledge about the cultural background of their clientele.

Refer to this link , if you want to know how an employee of the German job-service (and participant of the AHOI course), who has multiple contacts with migrants in his daily work, manages the cultural differences between himself and his clients.

But only relying on knowledge can also be a trap. It is useful to know about the role of women in a Muslim country, but this knowledge might not be relevant, if the woman sitting in front of you is trying to follow a different career for herself. That leads us to the next aspect of intercultural competence, which has to do with the development of the bicultural situation.

The overarching goal of anyone in contact with anybody else should be the interest on that special individual, in his or her specific situation, that means, not to stay in a stage of explaining people by stereotypes, but being able to analyse and abandon prejudices that influence the contact.

In the area of intercultural education Nieke (1995) mentions ten fundamental aspects for a successful development of cultural competence:

  • detection of the own ethnocentrism
  • dealing with things that appear strange
  • laying the bases for tolerance
  • accepting the ethnic differences
  • talking about racism
  • stressing things in common
  • encouraging solidarity
  • training of reasonable conflict-solving-techniques - dealing with cultural conflicts and cultural relativism
  • getting aware of the possibility to learn from each other and to enrich the life through the cultural contact
  • getting rid of frontiers by understanding the global responsibility of everybody

It should be clear from the above list, that gaining intercultural competence is not a one-way-process, but an interactive development, that requires both the ability to stress the common aspects of human life and the will to solve conflicts that emerge from the differences between people of different cultural background.

Intercultural competence for practitioners working with migrants and refugees can be promoted by a number of training courses available.

If you are interested in some of the training offers make use of this link

In addition to these measures to develop the personal competence of individuals also alternatives for the organisation of work are more and more taken into consideration (like forming bi- or multi-cultural teams).




In order to give migrants and refugees a chance for integration into the labour market the individual intercultural competence of migrants and the one of advisers or counsellors is a necessary, but not a sufficient precondition. Access to the labour market is in most European countries subject to a number of regulations which are governing the actions of all institutions (public - private), who have for instance to decide on:

  • the time period before being allowed to enter the labour market,
  • the assistance for learning the language of the host country,
  • the recognition of previous education/training
  • the type of further training being available to ease labour market entry
  • the social assistance connected for the duration of certain training measures.

According to the organisation of government services and the extent of participation of actors of the civic society, we might have a broad range of institutions working in this field. In Germany, for instance, we can distinguish the following

  • employment offices of the Ministry of Labour
  • advice and guidance centres run by the municipality, by churches, by benevolent societies like the German Red Cross.

Their capacity to assist in the labour market integration process of a migrant is dependent on their flexibility in changing the rules and regulations governing their work and the composition of their work force. The administrative regulations normally refer to average Germans and their conditions and way of acting. To interpret these regulations in favour of a minority group requires some knowledge about this group, its characteristics and its way of perceiving the situation at hand. One can argue that the "German" regulations have not only verbally, but also from their meaning and contextual framing be translated for minorities. This "transla-tion process" can be fostered by

  • a policy statement of the organisation's top management declaring the high priority of inter-cultural competence as a must
  • a service mentality of the organisation
  • a readiness of management to adapt administrative rules and regulations as much as possible to the needs of minorities
  • inter-cultural competence of the organisation's employees
  • inclusion of members of the minorities as parttime or permanent staff members
  • lobbying by the organisation for changing administrative regulations which hinder equality of minority members.

Normally non-government institutions show a higher extent of flexibility, especially those institutions which have been specifically established to assist in the integration process of migrants. In the UK it is standard requirement now for NGOs to have an Equal Opportunities Policy describing their commitment to the processes outlined above.

In Germany an "intercultural self-test" for institutions and organisations has been helpful for institutions to find out where they are lacking. If you are interested in this "self-test" for your own purpose, find it here!

For an example of an Equal Opportunities Policy commonly in use in the UK, see link (C3/L12)

Please refer again to the website of the "Commission for Racial Equality" [external link: www.cre.gov.uk]

An analysis of the host society, would indicate that the greatest lack of intercultural competence is found in those that subscribe to the idea that new comers to a country should adapt to the ways of the majority in a country and that there is no need for themselves to change their attitude. This expression of ethnocentrism is hard to overcome in day-to-day-life. For practitioners in this field, it may be necessary to encourage their own organisation to develop institutional intercultural competence. This can be done in a number of ways. The "Charter on positive action for employment of refugees in the Non Governmental Sector" can, with some modifications, be applied to all institutions regardless to their legal status. By activating it, staff members may be able to encourage their superiors to implement different methods of recruitment. The outlined measures can be applied according to the situation of the respective organisation.



Individual migrants or refugees are besides being perceived as Mr. X or Mrs. Y also seen as members of their respective minority group. Different characteristics can lead to the definition of a minority group be it nationality (Turk), ethnic origin (Kurd), geographic origin (African), religious affiliation (Muslim) or other. Being affiliated with one of these groups will change the perception and the evaluation of the migrant by members of the dominant culture to the better or the worse. He might feel embraced or rejected by the host society regardless of the fact, whether he or she wants to be affiliated with this minority group. The interaction between the dominant culture and minority groups and their influence on integration tendencies has attracted the interests of many psychologists. Here the work of a Canadian working group around Berry can be cited. They were interested how in a country, which has for long followed an immigration policy, the integration of different cultural groups in the Canadian society can be achieved. Their results can also serve for the European context as an orientation.

In Berry's theoretical model two dimensions are differentiated:

  • interest in developing positive relation to the dominant culture;
  • to preserve own cultural identity

Based on these two dimensions one out of four modes of adaptation between the minority and the dominant culture might emerge:

Interest in positive intercultural communicationn

Willingness to preserve own cultural identity











For a minority group the mode of ...

- Marginality

is the result of the tendency of the minority group not to preserve their own cultural identity and also not being interested in positive relations to the dominant culture (Examples: Numerical small communities with low self-esteem, like Roma from Bosnia-Herzegowina);


is the result of the tendency of the minority group not to preserve their own cultural identity, but to strive for positive relations to the dominant culture (example: ethnic Germans from Russia);

- Separation

is the result of the tendency of the minority group to preserve their own cultural identity, but not being interested in positive relations to the dominant culture (Example: Religious oriented parts of the Turk community)

- Integration


is the result of the tendency of the minority group to preserve their own cultural identity and to strive for positive relations to the dominant culture (example: Italians, Greeks, Portuguese).


The importance of this model lies in the fact, that it can account for differences in the adaptation process of individuals but also the differences in the interaction process between minorities and the respective dominant culture depending on the one hand on the policy of the respective country and on the other hand on the tendencies of the respective minorities for adaptation.

See our link for examples of separation, integration, assimilation and marginality


  • Within the European Union members of the different countries living as migrants in other countries of the union have good chances for an integration or assimilation mode; they are allowed to stay and continue with their own cultural traditions, but if living conditions have changed over time, they can merge with the dominant culture;
  • Contrary to that some European countries do not encourage asylum seekers to follow integration or assimilation tendencies, but want to keep them separated or marginalised.

These adaptation modes are not static, but are subject to changes according to the political climate and economic conditions within the dominate and the minority culture. Following a wave of hostility against foreigners in Germany large parts of the young generation of Turks felt separated or marginalised and those who had to counsel them had quite some difficulties in bridging the gap.

Because of the dynamic nature of the intercultural relations between dominant culture and the cultures of minorities, it is important to pay attention to changes in the perception which these groups have from each other. The afore mentioned working group around Berry had developed instruments to measure the state of the adaptation modes in given minorities at a given time.

Please refer to this link for some examples of Berry's measurement of acculturation modes

The same group of psychologists gave recommendations on a sustainable intercultural relationship between the dominant culture and minority groups. They made an important differentiation between public and private life. For the requirements of public life all citizens are asked to master the official language of the country, to follow the procedures which have been established for the world of work and the administration of state and community. On the other hand everybody should be free in his private life to talk the language he likes, to cook the dishes he prefers, to meet with friends and neighbours the way he likes.

This notion of intercultural encounter in a multi-cultural society provides for the necessary integration skills of minorities in the official world of work and administration, but gives room for the continuation of cultural characteristics of minorities which might be important for the identity of the group and its members.

Within the EU this notion could serve as an orientation for the further shaping of multi-cultural societies.


Proposed reading for this chapter:

Atkinson, D.R./ Morten, G./ Sue,. D.W. (eds.) (1993): Counselling American Minorities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, Dubuque, IA.
Bennett, Milton J.: Basic concepts of Intercultural Communication, Yarmouthe 1998.
Berry, J.W. (1990): Psychology of acculturation. In: Berman, J.J. (ed.): Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1989, Lincoln, p. 201-234.
Bochner, Stephen: Cultures in Contact. Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction, Oxford et al. 1982.
Brislin, Richard W. (ed.): Applied Cross-Cultural Psychology, Newbury Park et al. 1990.


Some questions to think about

What is the difference between mono-cultural and intercultural communication?

What are the four basic assumption of intercultural communication?
Name some of the aspects important for describing intercultural competence!
Think of the important components an institution or organisation must have for it to confidently call itself "inter-culturally competent" or "inter-culturally open".
What different outcomes are possible in the encounter between a dominant and a minority-group?