Intercultural competence is classified in the area of social competence. Social competence enables an adequate appearance in the culturally native environment. Intercultural competence also promotes the ability to interact in a non-cultural environment. A person is described as ’socially competent‘ if he or she is able to interact with individuals from foreign cultures. This is achieved when individuals are able to grasp perceptions and ideas of their counterparts. One’s own social behavior should be questioned from the perspective of the foreign culture and corrected if necessary. In doing so, one’s own ideas of values and norms should not be excluded, but adapted flexibly and according to the situation.
Culturally indigenous and culturally alien
The prerequisite for this is an awareness of the existence of culturally specific and non-culturally specific behavioral patterns and a willingness to reflect on and change one’s own values. Social and intercultural competence are basically considered to be learnable, whereby it is assumed that the foundations are laid in early socialization which have a decisive influence on the development of intercultural competence. The acquisition of intercultural competence is therefore not limited to country-specific knowledge, foreign language skills, cultural customs or behavioral patterns. Intercultural competence should sensitize people to perceive, reflect and question their own culture. For this, an individual must have understood his or her culture and the resulting patterns of action (cf. Derboven/ Kumbruck 2005, 6 f.). Kühlmann identifies seven requirement characteristics as a basic prerequisite for achieving intercultural competence. First of all, he mentions tolerance of ambiguity (cf. Kühlmann 1995, 36).
Ambiguity tolerance – what is it?
In order to better define intercultural competence, various models have been developed, most of which are based on enumerations of certain personality traits. In most models of intercultural competence, tolerance of ambiguity is listed as an essential aspect (cf. Straub/ Weidemann/ Weidemann 2007, 42 f.)
The term ambiguity comes from Latin and means ambiguity. Thus, ambiguity tolerance describes the competence to recognize ambiguity and contradiction and to tolerate the uncertainty that may result (cf. Derboven/ Kumbruck 2005, 6).
In intercultural encounters, new situations repeatedly arise that contradict one’s own cultural expectations. These incongruencies can be a strong burden for the communication partners. Role distance and empathy can help to perceive and express these situations (cf. Krappmann 1973, 150).
The interactants must first „adjust to each other in mutual expectations“ (Krappmann 1973, 151) and negotiate new conditions for the interaction. Consequently, the needs of the interactants can no longer be fully satisfied. In this process, „all interaction partners […] try to maintain and present an identity in every situation that holds on to their particularity“ (Krappmann 1973, 151).
A prerequisite for participation in interactions is that the identity of the individuals be maintained while expressing the divergence of expectations. Fundamentally, in interaction with others lies the satisfaction of emotional needs. To satisfy at least some of these needs, people enter into interactions. They must accept the resulting divergences and incompatibilities, since they are part of any interactional relationship (cf. Krappmann 1973, 151). It becomes very clear that „the individual […] cannot escape ambivalence“ (Krappmann 1973, 152).
According to Krappmann, ambiguity tolerance is the ability to tolerate contradictory role involvements and motivational structures equally in oneself and in one’s interaction partners (cf. Krappmann 1973, 155). Thus, tolerance of ambiguity opens up a possibility of interaction for the individual, especially in the intercultural space. At the same time, it reduces anxiety by making it clear to the individual that he or she can maintain a balance between the various norms and motives even in „very contradictory situations“ (Krappmann 1973, 155).
Consequently, tolerance of ambiguity is not only an important competence in intercultural encounters, but also important for an individual’s identity formation. In the development of his personal identity, the individual is repeatedly forced to „synthesize conflicting identifications“ (Krappmann 1973, 167). For without „it [the tolerance of ambiguity] no ego identity is conceivable, since it must articulate itself balancing between aspired expectations and within the framework of a common symbol system“ (Krappmann 1973, 167).
Every person must come to terms with the fact that expectations and needs do not always coincide and that gaps exist between personal experiences and generally valid value systems. If an individual denies or represses these ambiguities, he cannot develop an identity and thus cannot represent his particular point of view in interactions (cf. Krappmann 1973, 167).
Derboven, Wibke/ Kumbruck, Christel (2005): Interkulturelles Training Trainingsmanual zur Förderung unterkultureller Kompetenz in der Arbeit. Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.
Krappmann, Lothar (1973): Soziologische Dimension der Identität. Strukturelle Bedingungen für die Teilnahme an Interaktionsprozessen. 3. Auflage. Stuttgart: Klett.
Kühlmann, Torsten (1995): Mitarbeiterentsendung ins Ausland – Auswahl, Vorbereitung, Betreuung und Wiedereingliederung. Göttingen: Verlag für Angewandte Psychologie.
Straub, Jürgen/ Weidemann, Arne/ Weidemann, Doris (Hrsg.) (2007): Handbuch interkultureller Kommunikation und Kompetenz. Grundbegriffe – Theorien – Anwendungsfelder. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.