1. Intercultural Competence


People in Europe are increasingly in touch with other cultures not only due to new methods of communication (emails, Internet, social media) or easy transport systems but also due to migration. It is usual for most of us to work with or teach people who are new to the UK. Adjusting to a new culture doesn’t happen overnight. A migrant comes to a new home country with established beliefs values and cultural conventions. They are in-built - a person’s normal way of seeing things. A migrant may need support (from teachers, colleagues, neighbours) to adjust to the new culture. 


Anyone who has lived in a foreign country will understand that adjustments concern little things and big things. The further you go, the more adjustments you need to make. Imagine migrating to a very different culture from your own and think how many cultural mistakes you would make every day. Are there things you would not know how to do? How long would you survive without help? 

The Iceberg model


Culture can be pictured as an iceberg: Only the top of the iceberg can be seen above the water line. What is underneath is invisible. It is a much larger part and the powerful foundation. Visible elements of a culture are things like dress, music, food, gestures, greetings and architecture. Invisible elements of a culture are values and beliefs, world views, rules of a relationship, approach to the family, gender differences, attitudes to rules - just to name a few.


The Iceberg model implies that the visible parts of culture are just expressions of its invisible parts. It also points out that it can be hard at times to understand people with different cultural backgrounds. We may spot the visible parts of their “iceberg”, but we cannot immediately see what the foundations that these parts rest upon are.

a) In order to be interculturally competent

  • you have to be aware of your own culture and its specific phenomena

  • you have to be aware that your culture is not known all over the world

  • you have to understand that there is always a possibility of cultural misunderstandings when you are dealing with other cultures

  • you have to be open-minded

  • you have to be willing to adapt and adjust

Take time to think about your qualities. Is it easy for you to interact with people from different cultures or do you need to develop your intercultural skills?

Questions to think about

How differences and similarities between your own and other people’s cultural behavior may change or affect attitudes, expectations, communication and working practices?

  • conception of time
  • decision-making process
  • perceptions of status and role
  • attitudes to men and women
  • communication style
  • conventions
  • attitudes to emotion
  • levels of hierarchy and formality

To discuss in group about intercultural competences

Exercise 1

A migrant employee comes late for work. You are a supervisor. What is your reaction when he is late for:

a) two minutes

b) five minutes

c) fifteen minutes

d) an hour 

And how would the employee respond? What might be his excuse? What kind of excuses would be acceptable?

Exercise 2

You are a supervisor. An employee new to the UK agrees with everything you say and it looks like he has understood your instructions but after a while he is doing everything in his own way. What do you do? What may cause this kind of behavior? How will you proceed?

Exercise 3

You work closely with a new migrant but you are not friends with her. You don’t tell her anything about your private life because you want to separate work and socializing. Your migrant colleague asks frequently about the well-being of your parents and your children. You don’t like her questions because they seem too private to you. What do you do? Why do you think she is asking?

Exercise 4

You are a cleaner and you are working with a migrant as a pair. You have finished your work for today when the supervisor comes to see you. Your migrant colleague starts working again even though everything has been done already. What do you think is the reason for her reaction? What should you do?

Exercise 5

You are a teacher in vocational education. You know that there has been a misunderstanding between a migrant student and some other students. The migrant student has often been absent after the incident. When you talk to the migrant student, he just smiles and says that everything is okay. You don’t think this is true. What do you do? What do you think might cause his behavior?

b) How people's values and beliefs may change as they are exposed to a different culture?

  • by growing up in a country that is not their parents' native country

  • by having a childhood friend whose cultural background is different from theirs

  • by working abroad

  • by working with people from different cultures

  • by travelling abroad

Discuss in group about socialising with other cultures

Exercise 1

Imagine a situation where you have to move to another European country. What should you take in account when you are working and living there? What would be the biggest differences between the countries? What do you think would be most difficult for you?

Exercise 2

You are a teacher and you have a student with a migrant background in your class. Your student doesn’t have any problems with the language but there are problems based on cultural differences from time to time. You think that the problems are caused by his parents. What kind of problems can have their origin in the different cultural background of the parents?

Exercise 3

You work closely with a migrant. What can you learn from your colleague? 


c) Cultural stereotypes. Pros and cons?

  • Do we need cultural stereotypes?
  • Situations where cultural stereotypes may be a source of misunderstandings


Stereotype is a thought that may be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things, but that belief may or may not accurately reflect reality.


Discuss in group about cultural stereotypes

Exercise 1

Talk about stereotypes. What are different nationalities like?

  1. German         7. Russian

  2. French            8. Iraqi

  3. Finnish           9. Chinese

  4. Swedish         10. Thai

  5. Greek           11. Jamaican

  6. English           12. Indian

What are the pros and cons of having stereotypes? What are the situations when stereotypes come in useful? What are the situations when stereotypes cause difficulties and misunderstandings?  

Exercise 2

You start working abroad. Your colleagues have never met a person from your country. What is the stereotype of your nation they may have? How are you different? What would be the most irritating presumptions your colleagues might have? How would you react to presumptions of you?

Exercise 3

Look at the picture and discuss.

  • Where does she come from?

  • Where does she live?

  • How old is she?

  • What is her occupation?

  • Is she married?

  • Does she have children?

  • What is her religion?

  • What is she interested in?


Did your group have one or more answers to the questions? Which question was the most difficult one? Where did you agree? What do your answers tell you about presumptions and stereotypes in general?

d) Interactions

  • use of language

  • speed of speech

  • use of dialect or slang

  • body language

  • gestures

  • tone of voice

  • intonation

  • pauses

  • touching and distance


Discuss in group about interactions

Exercise 1

Describe your way of interaction. Compare it with the others’ in the group. Talk about things you find uncomfortable during interaction.

Exercise 2

You have a migrant as a colleague. You get along with her and like working with her. From time to time you get bothered because you feel that she is coming too close to you and she is interrupting you all the time. You have mentioned this to her a couple of times but she hasn’t changed. What do you do? What might cause this kind of behaviour?

Exercise 3

You are a supervisor. One of the employees comes to you and tells you about problems in communication with a migrant employee. You don’t see there any problems. You understand him perfectly and he understands you. What is your advice to the employee? How can you help him?

e) Politeness

  • greeting rules

  • use of person's name during interaction

  • please and thank you

  • gestures

Discuss in group about politeness

Exercise 1

You are a supervisor. A migrant employee complains about the rudeness of the other employees. You think that they don’t treat him any differently. How do you solve the situation?

Exercise 2

You are a teacher. You have two migrant students with the same ethnic origin in your class. They often use gestures which are not understandable to you. You have noticed that the other students are bothered too. What do you do?

Exercise 3

List five things you consider rude and then compare your answers with other members of your group.

Exercise 4

Have you experienced a situation where someone was over-polite? What was the situation? What was confusing?