Intercultural Competence

Intercultural Competence

Please start by watching this quick TED talk video (skip the ad at the end):

Supporting the development of intercultural competence is an important aspect of COIL collaborations.  For many students, a COIL enhanced course is the first opportunity they have to engage with peers from another country.  It is likely that students have engaged with people from other cultural backgrounds in their home communities, but most students have not been asked to reflect on cultural differences at home, so COIL is frequently the first intentional intercultural communication activity they will undertake.  

Our understanding of culture depends on many factors, including our own worldview, academic background, and experiences. For an overview of different perspectives and how this may affect your approach to facilitating intercultural competency development, please read “Culture, Identity and Social Realities”, page 15-18, in the Training Toolkit 4: Intercultural Competence, developed by The Council for Europe and the European Commission, accessed through this link:

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

Milton Bennett has proposed a model of intercultural sensitivity that is “one-way, permanent, and applicable to anything that is considered cultural difference”, including diversity in one’s own culture.  According to this model, one starts at a place of ethnocentrism, where the person’s cultural reality is the way the world works, and is the framework they use to understand the world. Through gaining intercultural competence, one can move to a place of ethnorelativism, where the person can switch between different frameworks for understanding a situation, embracing the idea that ways of behaving, understanding and seeing the world is relative to cultural context.

In this model, each category represents a way of experiencing other cultures. The underlying assumption is that as understanding of culture and the way it impacts people’s beliefs and actions becomes more nuanced, intercultural competence increases.  In this way, understanding where students are on the continuum allows educators to design experiences that will increase intercultural skills and understanding, moving students along to the next stage.


In this stage, one’s own culture is the only one known or considered.  There is generally little curiosity for other worldviews.


This is characterized by “us and them” viewpoints.  “Us”, or my culture, is the best way to do things. There are other ways, but these are not understood or are considered inferior.


This stage recognizes that there are similarities of culture, but tends to gloss over or disregard differences, and does not seek to understand the cultural basis of behavior.  Sometimes a different culture may be seen as “the perfect culture” based on appreciated characteristics such as food or attitudes toward a particular aspect of society.

The above three stages are considered ethnocentric.  The following stages are considered ethnorrelative:


The person’s culture is accepted as one of many possible ways of understanding the world.  No value is attached, that is, one can see positive and negative aspects of different cultures without thinking one is inherently superior.


In this stage, a person can shift their frame of reference to another culture and understand behaviors, attitudes and assumptions from another culture’s perspective. They can alter their behavior and communication, consciously or unconsciously, to be more effective in a different cultural context.


People in this stage can see themselves belonging to multiple cultures, and have more than one worldview and sense of self based on different cultural frameworks. This is most common among people who have had significant living experience in more than one culture, such as long term expatriates, children of immigrants and members of subcultures.  

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For more information on this theory, please visit:


In designing your COIL course, your students may be at different stages, though it is typical for students to be clustered around one or two stages. For example, it is common for students to be in the Denial stage, considering other cultures to be inferior to their own.  Concepts of another culture may be based on social media, traditional media, movies or impressions from their friends and family. Following a COIL course, many students move into the Minimization stage, exclaiming how similar they are to their peers around the world.

Consider that your students fit this scenario, that is, that they have an “us and them” mindset about cross-cultural interactions.  How would you design an activity that could help move them beyond this framework?

Post one of the following under the Module 4 column in our Intro to COIL Padlet:

  1. You may want to revisit the icebreaker activity you designed for the last module.  Are there changes you would make to intentionally help students develop intercultural sensitivity? Make these revisions and upload them as a new post under the Module 4 column.
  2. Post a new activity designed to move students along in their understanding of culture and its impact on a person’s attitudes, actions and assumptions.

Additionally, comment on two or three other posted activities.  In what ways does the activity support intercultural sensitivity?  What suggestions do you have for improvements?  

You may also post reflections, comments and questions on our Intro to COIL Padlet.