What Is Intercultural Competence? Part 2

Posted on by

In my first post on this topic I discussed the basics of intercultural competence. Here we dig a little deeper, using something called the Intercultural Development Continuum, or IDC. Here’s what the IDC looks like:

The idea behind the IDC is that gaining intercultural competence is a developmental process. This means that (a) we pass through stages, and (b) we don’t get to skip any stages.

The IDC has five stages, the first three of which involve a “monocultural” mindset, and the latter two of which involve an “intercultural” mindset. Today we’ll look at the first three stages:

  1. Denial (not to be confused with the psychological concept of denial). Those with a Denial mindset don’t tend to think of difference as cultural. They tend to react negatively to those who are different from them, but they may not be consciously aware that their reactions are rooted in culture.
  2. Polarization. This stage takes two forms: Defense and Reversal. Unlike Denial, in Polarization we recognize the existence of cultural differences, and we experience them as a threat. We either defend ourselves against “their” ways (Defense), or defend “them” against “our” ways (Reversal). As with Denial, Polarization is a monocultural mindset in that it still privileges one viewpoint as “better.”
  3. Minimization. This stage is further along the developmental path, because not only is cultural difference recognized, but it is no longer denigrated. What unites all humanity is put at the forefront; cultural differences are presumed to be less important than what we all share. You may ask: Why is this mindset still considered “monocultural”? Because all too often what we mean by “We’re similar,” is actually “You’re like me.” — a very different viewpoint than “I’m like you.”

How do these three  monocultural orientations — Denial, Polarization and Minimization — play out in the world? In my time abroad I have seen a lot of examples.

For instance, have you spent much time around Western expatriates living in developing countries? I’ve been one for a good part of my life, and I can tell you firsthand that, especially in my early years, I spent a lot of energy complaining about how “they” do things, and I’ve heard plenty of the same from other Westerners around me, most of whom I like and respect a lot as human beings.

We’re not bad people for wishing “they” were more like “us”; we’re just standard-issue human beings passing through a particular stage of intercultural development. What’s most important to remember, I think, is that it takes attention, focus and hard work to keep moving along the IDC. This is one our main tasks in the work we do at CIL with I-House residents, and with our campus and corporate clients.

What about the intercultural orientations of Acceptance and Adaptation? We’ll take a look at those next time.