In our work with intercultural competence, we focus on helping others understand that our cultural backgrounds impact the way we think and see the world. People from different cultural groups (be those national cultures or sub-cultures within our own country) logically bring a different life experience to most every interaction. There are certain times and situations, however, where someone who has a background very different from our own may actually be quite similar to us in their way of thinking and acting. It is for this reason that when we talk about our own intercultural competence, we underline the importance of understanding that there is the potential for divergent ways of thinking and acting…but that it is a possibility and not necessarily a guarantee.
The assumption of difference, a core tenet of intercultural competence, should sometimes be re-framed as the potential for difference. It is indeed interculturally competent to walk into a conference room and anticipate that the cultural background of your colleagues is likely to contribute to different perspectives, attitudes, and expectations. It is also interculturally competent, however, to anticipate a level of commonality in objectives, interests, and definitions of professionalism. Commonalities are what allow us to get along quickly and easily – to build common ground and to give the benefit of the doubt when we are unsure what is driving someone’s approach. Acknowledging the possibility of difference is what allows us to leverage our intercultural competence to move beyond interpersonal conflict when it arises.
This reliance on commonalities coupled with the expectation for the potential for difference is especially valuable for a group of professionals who have already developed some form of intercultural competence, either through a concerted self-development effort, or through the more passive learning that accompanies having spent significant time adapting to one or more different cultures. In such an environment, the potential for difference exists, but the likelihood that those differences will be disruptive to the process at hand is much lower. Knowing when and where to expend the time and effort to seek out and adapt to below-the-surface cultural differences is the sign of well-developed intercultural competence.
Ignoring both the assumption of difference and the possibility of difference reflects a less-developed understanding of culture and its impact, and will undoubtedly lead to problems with interpersonal communication and relationships in a culturally diverse environment. So the next time you gather with a new team, or an old team, anticipate similarities…and anticipate the potential for difference.