Latest Research: What Makes One Cross-Culturally Competent?

142769eca34One of the most important topics in the area of global mobility concerns the cross-cultural competencies (CC) that are required when abroad. Be it for the population of global leaders, international expatriates and inpatriates, their spouses and kids, or global nomads, we look for characteristics, abilities and skills that help people to adjust and function efficiently in foreign settings. As discussed in a couple of my previous posts (here and here) bicultural and multicultural individuals may have certain advantages in acquiring these competencies due to their diverse cultural background. Similarly, the population of the so called third culture kids (TCKs) with their high levels of international experience living in foreign countries is seen as more cross-culturally competent. But what is it exactly in these backgrounds and experiences that helps to develop cross-cultural competencies?

Recent research by scholars Tarique and Weisbord (2013) from Pace University sheds some light on the matter. Specifically, based on the sample of 159 adult third culture kids (ATCKs) the research looks into the specific components of international experience and some personal characteristics that impact cross-cultural competencies. The findings revealed several important predictors of cross-cultural competencies, which will be discussed further.


What makes one cross-culturally competent?

  • Variety of early international experience

The study results showed that being exposed to a variety of international experiences during early childhood, as is usually the case with third culture kids, does positively predict cultural flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity. This finding is well explained with Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory, which states that learning of social skills and behaviors can happen through the processes of observation and modeling of behavior of others. Hence, the study authors argue that being exposed to several foreign countries and cultures during childhood provides specific environment and opportunities to acquire culture-general and culture-specific skills.


  • Language diversity

The second main predictor of cultural competence relates to language diversity. Specifically, the researchers found that the ability to communicate in multiple languages is clearly connected to adaptation to multiple cultures, and positively predicts cultural flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity. Naturally, being bilingual or multilingual due to having several cultures of origin, as well as experience of living in different countries, provide a good basis for such language diversity.

The role of language competency is also well pronounced in relation to expatriation, as language difficulties remain salient barriers to global mobility. Even though global companies may successfully use a lingua franca – which is helpful with work adjustment – social adjustment and the management of one’s everyday life still require local language proficiency at least to some extent.


  • Family diversity

The next predictor of cross-cultural competencies is termed family diversity. The researchers argue that being brought up in a household where family members have different nationalities provides exposure to multiple cultural perspectives, which in turn has a positive impact on developing cross-cultural competencies. This also further explains the benefits of bi- or multicultural backgrounds. Related to the previously mentioned factors, a culturally diverse family is also a good basis for social learning of cross-cultural skills and the development of language diversity.


  • Openness to change

Finally, looking into personality traits, the study suggests that openness to change is a particularly good predictor of cross-cultural competencies. Individuals high on the trait are thought to be curious, innovative, willing to take risks and hence readily approach new situations, and open to explore and adapt. Thinking about cross-cultural encounters, it is easy to agree that being curious about a new culture, willing to engage in new relationships, and having a non-judgmental approach may be rather helpful.


Practical implications

Given the main factors found to benefit cross-cultural competence, it is evident that people with several cultural backgrounds and with extensive international experience, such as ATCKs, possess good initial conditions for developing these competencies. As such, multicultural individuals and ATCKs could be viewed as a good pool of potential expatriate candidates. Apart from recruiting individuals with the discussed set of criteria, the study findings also provide global companies with guidance for training and development of their potential international assignees.


Further reading:

Tarique, I. & Weisbord, E. ( 2013). Antecedents of dynamic cross-cultural competence in adult third culture kids (ATCKs). Journal of Global Mobility, 1(2), 139-160.

2 thoughts on “Latest Research: What Makes One Cross-Culturally Competent?

  1. I read all of your posts relating to cross-cultural competencies with great interest. I have traveled all my life and often lived abroad as an expat for years on end. I never realized there was an actual term, “cross-cultural competencies,” to describe the ability to fit in, or not, when living, traveling or working abroad, let alone that it was an area of study. However, looking back at the number of times I found myself cringing at the cultural errors I personally observed my fellow white, American, Christian countrymen traveling abroad as tourists make, I realize it’s sourly needed.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge. Hopefully by doing so your contribution will help educate people so that I and other USA citizens traveling abroad are not immediately be assumed to be another “Ugly American” tourist. Likewise, it’s my hope that my fellow Americans can find posts like this one and develop some level of cross-cultural competency so not to continue embarrassing our entire nation.

  2. thats true people who have been exposed to certain experiences at a younger age are more responsive to these things at later stages in life. its quite an obvious statement

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