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“Why Again?” - Intercultural Competences for the Internationally Savvy

On Friday 26th of April, our trainee group from the Advanced Master International Development programme at Radboud University Nijmegen had the opportunity to follow a training in intercultural competences. None of us would call ourselves die-hard development veterans or has yet the experience of a tried expat. However, most of us have already had good taste of experiences while working in diverse communities across the globe or have enjoyed intercultural communication as a part of educational curricula – often more than once. It was therefore no surprise that we felt quite confident in the topic to be discussed that day.

True enough, many of the elements presented were familiar to us. We defined culture, once again, with the help of depictive aids such as onions, icebergs and sand-dunes. We discussed classic and popular research into cross-cultural communication, such as that of Geert Hofstede’s (1980) four dimensions of culture, Hall’s cultural dilemmas and the seven Cultural Dimensions of Fons Trompenaar and Charles Hampden-Turner (1997). These all present useful ways of listing cultural traits in a way that allows the comparison of cultures and to find common ground in order to cooperate effectively in an international environment. Many of these frameworks map cultural traits along dual scales, helping to explain the differences between the behavior of the self (or one’s own culture) and that of the other.

Incidentally, an article by Ben Tiggelaar that appeared a day later in the NRC was titled: ”The Chinese really are very different”. Tiggelaar refers to Erin Meyer, a leading researcher in cross-cultural complexity, to explain how the Chinese and Dutch differ along eight different cultural dimensions, among others regarding hierarchy, disagreement and planning. Tiggelaar argues that the differences are so stark, that only their common interest in making money enables cooperation. The article and its conclusion do perhaps not do justice to the nuance and care in which Meyer describes cross-cultural differences and similarities. Nevertheless, the article is an excellent showcase of how the categorization of cultural differences is often used to draw quick conclusions about the implications and impasse of cultural differences.

Yet, no matter how interesting and useful cross-cultural analytic tools can be to move forward from an impasse, they never seem to be quick and slick enough to apply in many real-life situations. Indeed, we certainly cannot claim that we as “internationally savvy” young professionals are necessarily more interculturally competent than other members of the public because of our background. The practical exercises and games following the theoretical part of our training proved that we have plenty to learn about how to manage expectations, assumptions and behaviour in a culturally complex setting.

That is how “yet another” intercultural competence training was starting to prove its relevance. Gratefully, it paid much attention to the personal level of experience. No matter what our background is, we continue to experience confrontations and culture shocks while facing assumptions and prejudice. It is as if much of the intercultural competence that we need really has to do with adaptive personal resilience and a culturally aware attitude, and to approach more constructive dialogue from that perspective. Indeed, we do not have to go all the way to China to realize how important it is to develop practical and personal competences for constructive dialogue. In increasingly polarizing and culturally complex societies (which we call home), we have reason to be very grateful for discussing and this training in intercultural competences last Friday and look forward to the next session.

Written by Maud Eskes (MoFA DSH) and Daniel Uosukainen (Rainforest Alliance)



Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). Riding the waves of culture: Understanding diversity in global business. UK: Hachette.

Meyer, E. (2016). The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. US: Ingram Publisher Services.

Tiggelaar, B. (2019). Chinezen zijn ‘echt heel anders. NRC. Retrieved from: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2019/04/27/chinezen-zijn-echt-heel-anders-a3958353