How to implement intercultural competence into day to day relations – a short reminder and three quick strategies

By Erika Wollner, AFS Norway


AFS Network Organisations foster understanding, acceptance and engagement between people of all kinds of cultures and backgrounds. Our organisation promotes the value of diversity and holds the competences needed to engage appropriately and effectively across and among differences. Our intercultural competence is the core requirement on our way to form meaningful partnerships, and to reach out to communities and people being different than ourselves. We have an amazing group of empowered change makers throughout the whole network – but do we actually make use of what we learn through AFS about culture in our day to day practice?

Gradually, many books have been written about eating manners in France, how to salute people in Japan and expectations among business people in the USA. These are definitely interesting, and as far as I know quite handy in such particular situations. These are also representative stereotypical behaviours which we use to show differences to AFS program participants, volunteers and external audiences. The different behaviours are however also an important reminder of the fact that pure compassion isn’t always enough to understand people who are different than ourselves – as our cultural background pretty much forms the way we are and act. We communicate cultural codes through our presence; the way we speak, what we wear, how we are – who we are.

These cultural codes we consciously and unconsciously communicate to others, however, do not necessarily make out the same meaning both for the sender and the receiver. Still, they are being sent out – and received, and interpreted. The more common culture two people share, the more important is the knowledge about the cultural context for the third party to understand what they are trying to communicate. This context as a whole, also gives the two people with shared references an opportunity to practise their cultural power on the third party – who doesn’t pick up all the cultural codes necessary to understand. Typically, this could be an immigrant, a younger person, or just your neighbour.

When a girl wearing a hijab is entering your bus, thoughts like Muslim, immigrant, foreigner, tradition, suppression might pop into your head. She might however proudly wear her hijab, even though she was born in Norway and her parents from Iraq came to the country as teenagers. She speaks the language perfectly, actually a dialect, meaning she is from the district. Probably more or less fully integrated, like any other Norwegian in the country. Although she looks a bit different, and wears some different clothes. If we take language as an example, often immigrants could be interpreted as perhaps less clever – because they often are not able to articulate themselves fully in a foreign language – a language you learned at birth.

Culture is very much about power. What we share and what we don’t. What we take for granted and what we invite people to get to know more about. How we automatically interpret underlying cultural codes based on stereotypes and generalisations. We can all use the cultural communities we are a part of to steer the communication, to exclude and include.

Are the change makers within the AFS community aware of the power differences within their own societies? Of how they position themselves in the realm of cultural power? And are they aware that partaking in a cultural community or applying a cultural code is not always and necessarily self-chosen?

To better create a common understanding within a diverse group, a cultural community, between communities, it is an advantage to

1)      identify your common interests

2)      be curious about the other people’s context

3)      better understand why they are and act differently from ourselves[1]. And thereby also strive to become more self-aware.

I am not saying we need to ask every girl wearing a hijab why she is wearing it, or learn Arabic to be able to communicate well with an immigrant. Rather to be aware of the power relations in such situations, what criteria and expectations you have and actually (can) expect from the other person. Perhaps you rather should have the conversation with the immigrant in English – or another language – that he or she masters better than your own mother tongue?

This is a call for and a short reminder to maintain our awareness and reflection of ourselves and curiosity for others. To remember to practise what we learn about culture every day, and to make use of our knowledge and understanding when we decide to include or exclude people in the communities we take part of and the conversations we hold.


[1] Eriksen, T. H. «Identitet» (1997) in Flerkulturell forståelse ed. T. Hylland Eriksen